Its an embarrassing time to be British right now. This “expense scandal”? Its humiliating. Particularly in Chicago, of all places. The reaction I keep getting from friends is unanimous: You British are so backward you can’t even get political corruption right.

Illinois recently earnt itself the quote: “If it isn’t the most corrupt state in the United States it’s certainly one hell of a competitor” (Robert Grant, head of the FBI’s Chicago office). Yes, from the perspective of a US state that has two governor’s in jail for corruption and one on the way, and a Mayoral oligarchy that has seen the Daley father and son team rule the city for 40+ years with virtually no opposition, quibbling about expense claims that were, after all, legal, seems a bit ridiculous.

As a dear friend so kindly (and gleefully) pointed out to me, the sheer pettiness just reinforces every annoying stereotype of quaint British eccentricity.

Headlines in Italy: Berlusconi holds debauched parties with gaggles of teenage girls and pin up models, flying them in on airforce jets and appointing the most attractive to his cabinet.

Headlines in Britain: Cameron claimed £947.29 more than he ought to, but will pay it back.

I’m not saying that I condone corruption. Chicago’s famously laid back ‘who gives a shit’ attitude to being robbed blind by its public officials stopped being amusing around the time I noticed the open wounds of poverty that are ripped into the face of the city. The dirt. The decrepit public transport. The third world standard roads. The weekly fatal shootings in public schools. The segregation. The accusations of police brutality and torture.

No, I’m not saying Britain needs to step up to “compete on the world stage” when it comes to crooked politics. My point is that that calling this farce over expenses “corruption”, dignifying it with status of a “scandal”, is to seriously misunderstand both what corruption really is, and where the real problems with British politics lie. So knowing what we are doing right (i.e. not being like Illinois), and what we are doing wrong.

The problem with the expenses is that MPs were not able to vote themselves a higher salary, and so civil servants created a way to give them some other form of compensation. There is nothing wrong with the concept of a second home allowance: on the contrary, it means that people other than millionaires can, potentially, be politicians, which I’m entirely in favour of. Anything that proactively enables more diversity in our political representatives should be encouraged.

Were the MPs “greedy”? I think its hard to say, because its difficult to condemn the impulse for personal profit when it is, after all, the underlying principle of capitalism (and in particular neoliberalism). Its also impossible to call them “greedy” when they were actually doing what they were told they should do. Besides which, if it really does seem like they were being greedy, the solution lies in taking a more nuanced look at the kind of politics we have right now, rather than voyeuristic pawing over receipts in the press to the accompaniment of some cliched class-tinged indignation.

This situation came about because it was not politically expedient for MPs to give themselves a pay rise. As long as decisions are made on the basis of whether or not it will lose or gain votes, then our politics will be superficial, shallow and hysterical. Beyond this issue of pay, why are politicians so afraid of making decisions that, while unpopular, need to be made in the name of social justice? For humane immigration laws. For gay marriage and abortion rights. For supporting the NHS and free education. Because it might cost them votes, and losing votes is more important than having a fair and free society.

But above all, what really depresses me is that this whole farce with expenses has caused more debate about the political system, and come closer to bringing down the government, than any other issue in the last decade. An illegal war couldn’t do it. The insidious undermining of the right to free education hasn’t raised the slightest whiff of a protest. Two police murders of innocent men passed without problem. Even the economy crashing down around our ears at the same time as a a global pandemic hasn’t caused as many problems as this cuffufle over legal expense claims!

But a duck house and a few dvd players? If this is what the British public really want to get angry about, then we really do have a problem.

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