A Freedom of Information Request by the Evening Standard has revealed that the UK parliament has spent more than a quarter of a million pounds of public money on portraits of themselves. It is time to derail the gravy train.
In Defence of the Indefencible
Writing for the Guardian’s Comment is Free Section, Jonathan Jones argues we should all get over ourselves and appreciate the art for its own merits. He writes:
“Only a nation that utterly loathes its own elected representatives, and by implication its entire system of government, could find something to attack in this serious collection, that puts Abbott’s face into history alongside the portraits and statues of her white male Victorian parliamentary predecessors.
Those who dismiss MPs as nothing but corrupt charlatans are in serious danger of rejecting democracy itself, which has never existed in some platonic ideal form but always, everywhere, in the kind of flawed human fabric of which the House of Commons is so richly made up.”
I had to read the article twice to make sure I hadn’t skipped a sentence where he explains he is being ironic. He wasn’t.
To feel viscerally angry at, and vigorously challenge, the corruption of our parliament is not rejecting democracy, it is democracy in action. Parliament is not democracy, we are.
Corruption in Parliament
Just days ago, we discovered that organised criminals had infiltrated most of the major institutions in the UK. Britain’s most notorious criminals had gained footholds in the HMRC, the Crown Prosecution Service, the City of London Police and the Prison Service, resulting in “get out of jail free” cards being supplied for payments of £50,000.
The new ‘Competition Regulations’ force the NHS put all but a minority of services out for competitive tender. The majority of services currently run by the NHS will shortly and swiftly be turned over to profit making private healthcare providers.
And yet, the MPs and Lords who drafted and approved this piece of legislation, had a personal financial interest in the outcome. Social Investigations produced an excellent piece of investigative journalism revealing:
- 206 parliamentarians have recent or present financial private healthcare connections
- 142 Lords have recent or present financial connections to companies involved in healthcare
- 124 Peers benefit from the financial services sector
- 1 in 4 Conservative Peers have recent or present financial connections to companies involved in healthcare
- 1 in 6 Labour Peers have recent or present financial connections to companies involved in healthcare
- 1 in 6 Crossbench Peers have recent or present financial connections to companies involved in healthcare
- 1 in 10 Liberal Democrat Peers have recent or present financial connections to companies involved in healthcare
- 64 MPs have recent or present financial links to companies involved in private healthcare
- 79% of these are Conservative
The Revolving Door
There is a revolving door between our parliament and private corporations. Our most senior MPs curry favour for highly paid post-politics consultancy positions, by passing legislation to the benefit of their future employers while in parliament.
After his wave of privatisations in the 1990’s, former PM John Major went on to become European Chairman private asset management giant the Carlysle Group.
After opening up much of the nation’s law, policing and justice services to private security companies such as G4S while Home Secretary – former Labour MP John Reid became a Group Consultant for…G4S.
And it’s not just past tense. Present day Home Secretary Theresa May’s husband is a director/shareholder in G4S. May has faced several conflict of interest allegations during her tenure. One of the most egregious was the case of G4S winning a £200m contract to run Lincolnshire police operations. G4S had recruited law firm White and Cade to support their bid. In a stunning coincidence, May invited Tom Winsor, a lawyer from the same firm, to conduct ‘an independent review of police reform’ in the run up to the bid – giving the lawyer access to privy information and contacts.
Patronage and Privilege
Our senior politicians are providing patronage to their friends and family, while enjoying a level of wealth and privilege that means they have no comprehension of the daily lives of the people they purport to represent.
Prime Minister David Cameron is a lineal descendant of King William IV, great grandson of a 1st Baronet, grandson of a 2nd baronet, son of a stockbroker and an aristocrat. He was gifted with an Eton and Oxford education, and one might argue his career in politics, through sheer privilege of birth. He enjoys the benefits of a family fortune made in tax havens.
Cameron has never had to budget, never faced the kinds of ‘touch choices’ of which he often speaks, never worried if he would be able to feed his children, never felt the panic of staring at incomings and outgoings that will not balance. Neither is he listening to those who have, are and will, thanks to his policies.
Chancellor George Osborne is heir apparent to the Osborne baronetcy, educated at St Paul’s School and Magdalen College Oxford and recipient of a £4m trust fund. He got an awful lot of something for nothing.
On becoming Chancellor in 2010, he quickly ‘flipped’ his first and second homes to claim over £100k of taxpayer money for interest payments on a mortgage for his £455k Cheshire pad. He later sold the home for over £1m having made improvements partly funded by taxes. He also claimed taxpayer money to cover payments on a horse paddock for the property.
When Osborne undersold the Royal Mail for less than half its value, meaning investors could buy the stock at knock down prices and sell it on almost immediately at a profit, one of the chief beneficiaries was his Best Man Peter Davies – who made £18m in a few short days.
Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan-Smith lives rent free in a £2m country estate owned by his aristocratic father in law. Whilst claiming he could live happily on the £53 a week some unemployed job seekers receive, he has claimed £39 on expenses for his breakfast.
In the Betsy Gate scandal of 2001, it was revealed that the tax payer was paying £15,000 a year for Duncan-Smith’s wife to become his ‘diary secretary’. There is ample evidence that Betsy didn’t perform any such role worthy of the salary, which was hardly likely to register in the bank accounts of the daughter of the moneyed 5th Baron Cottesloe of Swanbourne and Harwick.
Duncan Smith currently costs the tax payer a whopping £134, 565 in salary and expenses.
In fact, two thirds of the current cabinet are millionaires, when only 1.16% of UK households have assets of over a million pounds. More than half of the cabinet ministers went to fee paying schools, despite only 7% of UK children attending fee paying schools. In the face of all this, David Cameron announced triumphantly that that the Tory party was ‘no longer the party of privilege’ at a £400 a seat champagne ball.
The Gravy Train Needs to be Derailed
So, is spending £250,000 on portraits of British politicians over the last 19 years in and of itself the most outrageous waste of taxpayer money known to man? No. But the reaction of bitter resentment boiling away among the UK public is not about some odd oil painting here or there – it is about a political system that rewards men and women willing to give up the public interest in pursuit of self-interest, on behalf of corporate interests. This is not the kind of democracy most of us wish to live in, and to argue for better does not undermine democracy – it gives us half a chance of building a working one.
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