Government should read British tea leaves

2009-05-30 00:00

BRITISH parliamentarians have been caught with their hands in the cookie jar. Never mind hands, their entire arms jammed in all the way up to the armpit.

It affords us all some Schadenfreude. One of the the world’s oldest democracies, never shy about advising ignorant savages elsewhere on how to do things properly, caught out.

Unfortunately, what happens next is unhappily familiar to South African voters. There have been neither fraud investigations nor wholesale sackings of errant MPs.

So far, only the Speaker of the House of Commons and a minister reluctantly have resigned. About a dozen MPs have announced that they will not again stand for election, while two have been suspended because their transgressions were too egregious to be glossed over at a moment when the public is howling for revenge.

There has been in Britain the same self-justification, evasion, and half-hearted apologies that South African voters have become resigned to. It seems that no matter what their nationality, politicians are very alike.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has even called for an end to the media exposés because such a “systematic humiliation” could threaten faith in democracy. His response is uncannily similar to the refrain heard here, which argued that the prosecution of Jacob Zuma should be abandoned because it would put democracy at peril.

Similarly, when the Telegraph broke the scandal, the response from parliamentarians was to call for an urgent police investigation. No, not into wrongdoing by MPs, but to investigate the leak.

While some MPs resisted the temptation to dip their snouts into the public purse, the extent of the corruption and personal greed is astonishing.

The men and women sworn to serve society had no hesitation in dumping every imaginable kind of personal expense into the lap of the taxpayer.

Of 646 MPs, more than 200 have exploited the allowance for a second home close to Westminster or employed at state cost in their constituency offices their immediate family to do little or nothing.

Others have manipulated the expenses system to claim refunds on items as diverse and bizarre as a porn movie, the cleaning of a castle moat, a new toilet seat, a box of matches, an ice cube tray and lavatory paper.

Given the British fixation on animals, less surprising are claims for wasp removal, cat and dog food, horse manure and a floating duck house.

In the corporate world their actions would be considered criminal, but since in this case the accused are the same people who make the laws, it will be condoned as an unfortunate exploitation by a minority of loopholes in parliamentary regulations.

All can be neatly fixed with modicum of contrition and a symbolic tightening of the rules.

Except it is not going to be that simple. What the Telegraph describes as “ a very British revolution” is taking place.

Voters, who previously appeared inured to being represented by grasping politicians indifferent to the interests of their constituents, have surprised the establishment with the depth of their outrage.

Public anger might yet force the deselection of dozens of MPs before the next general election, which must take place by mid-2010.

The Labour government itself is dead in the water and while the Conservative opposition now seems unstoppable, there is likely to be a boost in votes for smaller parties.

The British imbroglio is an example of spontaneous public anger that South African MPs would be foolish to ignore.

This is the perfect opportunity for Zuma to expand the planned review of the guidelines for MPs receiving gifts, to cover the entire gamut of what is suitable ethical conduct by a public representative or state employee.

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