Sunday, May 17, 2009

The British Are Revolting

Yes, the British truly are revolting.

Oh, I don't mean 'revolting' in the sense of the phenomenon known as 'British teeth', or the fact that this condition is a result of their appalling dental hygiene. I don't mean 'revolting' in the sense that, verbally, they have the filthiest mouths in the Western world with their propensity to describe everything with the adjectival derivative of that four-letter word beginning with 'f' which is the crude definition of 'to copulate.' Not 'revolting' in the sense that, of all the people in the world, the British seem to get drunk the quickest, puke the most as a result thereof and learn the least from the experience. And I certainly don't mean 'revolting' in the sense that they all, to a man and woman, at some point exhibit that superciliously condescending air of a people who suddenly remember that at one point in time, they had an empire and at another point in time, seem to have mislaid it.

I mean they are actually revolting. Indignant. Up in arms. Protesting. As a nation. As a people. As an electorate.

Now, this should come as no surprise to Americans. After all, many of us who've only ever travelled there by means of a package tour or who drank the KoolAid given to us by the likes of Bill or Tone or George about the 'special relationship' probably think that the British were just as indignant about the latest banking scandal involving expenses paid by AIG's satellite branches in the UK. You probably thought that our British cousins were incensed about the City fat cats getting fatter while the common-and-garden (emphasis on the first part of that phrase) Brit was struggling to make ends meet.

Nah ... you were wrong. They couldn't have given a monkey's about that. Could have cared less. After all, the City, at the moment (and since the time of Thatcher) has mostly been populated with badly-spoken Cockney oikers who, in another place and time, would have been making up the rear of the real ranks surrounding Fagin as he sang 'Yer Gotta Pick a Pocket or Two.' Which is what they did before they went to the City.

This current batch of British best, Thatcher's children, were weaned on her idea that 'there is no society' and that as long as they looked after themselves and their immediate family, the rest of the society that didn't exist could just look after itself.

So all the time their American cousins have been up in arms and near-revolution regarding Wall Street, the Brits have carried on buying expensive items on maxed-out credit cards, spending money that they don't have and just ... carrying on, like the title of the series of films of the same name.

But this time, something rotten's happened in the United Kingdom. Something that's made the average Brit sit up and take notice.

They've suddenly realised that the people they elected to represent them and their interests in that cradle of democracy, the Houses of Parliament, have been robbing them blind in order to feather their own cush nests.

The saga begins with a national British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, commonly known here as The Torygraph, because it reflects the mostly right-wing view of the British Conservative Party (for us, read Republicans). The Telegraph, a couple of weeks ago, published information it had received from a reliable source, claiming that several Labour MPs were actually bending the financial rules to fiddle expenses in order to fund their upper-class lifestyles at the public's expense.

MPs receive a basic salary of around £65,000 per annum (roughly about $80k in real money). It's a pretty low wage, considering the hours they allegedly work and in comparison with someone in a similar position of responsibility in the private sector. So, they are allowed expenses for various services/items which (according to the rules) are necessary for them to enact the job of a sitting Member of Parliament. And because many of them have to come to London and be in the city for the better part of the week, many have been encouraged to seek accommodation in the form of a second home in the City or thereabouts, whilst retaining a home in their constituency, to which they retire most weekends.

Obviously travel to and from the constituency is necessary to their job, so, presumably, MPs would be able to claim for gasoline used for the journeys. They could also reasonably be expected to claim for such services as gas and electric in consituency and London houses (you need light and heat in order to work) as well as telephone and internet services (who doesn't phone or e-mail these days?)

Fair enough.

Now, MPs who serve in the Prime Minister's Cabinet earn well over £100k per annum (roughly about $150k), but they are still allowed the same level of expenses. The expenses system, so I'm told, is something that came into effect under Mrs Thatcher (that woman, again), when a time when an MPs salary was pitifully low. But the problem is that the system has been handled in a pretty lax manner, which has led to a load of MPs taking advantage of this.

Before I proceed further, it's interesting to note that, whilst we in the US, might look at a particular politico - an Obama, if you will - with hope and good will; the British are born cynics, when it comes to their politicians - and, as such, they get the politicians and the government they deserve. That's because of the class system, which is still in place here and grew even stronger under the aegis of Tony Blair. Politicians are, traditionally, privately-educated toffs from the Bertie Wooster mold, jaded businessmen or working-class heroes who've bought into the system. The British believe, wearily, that their politicos are 'only in it for themselves and to feather their own nests' and, as such, they treat their representatives with innate disdain. In fact, that's the common perception of all European politicians, but the Continental variety comes to that conclusion by virtue of the fact that most of their political representatives are openly corrupt anyway (cf: Berlusconi and Italy).

I got a good dose of this world-weary cynicism from my British husband, who took early retirement gratefully last year after serving thirty years as a mandarin in the actual Cabinet Office. It was he, who siphoned through various ministers' letters from constituents or letters passed to certain departments by another MP asking for assistance.

'They don't give a shit about the people,' he'd tell me repeatedly. 'I've seen the letters. I've seen one MP pass a constituency letter onto another MP and describe the correspondent as 'an annoying turd of a man.' They're in it to build their own empire and then, when they retire, they get a chair on some governing board of a big industry name for a load of dosh.'

That's pretty much true in the UK. Polticians have actually gone to prison and come out wealthier than they were when they went inside.

And that's the way he saw the US elections - that Obama was a fraud, that everyone was in it for their own self-glorification and that politics was alike the world over.

And still the British go to the polls. They vote in either the Tories (Conservatives) or Labour.

But not this time.

The warning bell was sounded when it was revealed that Jacqui Smith, the woman serving as Home Secretary (our equivalent of Attorney General) had claimed for an internet/telephone package for her second residence. No problem there. As I said, they need access to a telephone and e-mails; but this package entailed a television package as well, as many ISPs give in the US. But it seemed that, on a couple of occasions, late at night, when Ms Smith was sitting in the Houses of Parliament, her husband wanted his fancy tickled a little bit and so he turned to the services of an adult pay-per-view channel and ordered up a healthy helping of porn in the shape of a couple of blue movies. Which Ms Smith sought to sneak past the Fees' Office on the public's expense. In short, the British taxpayer was paying for an MP's husband to watch porn - and not just an MP, but a senior member of the Cabinet. I mean, imagine if Mrs Eric Holder booked a private command performance by Chippendales and then AG Holder tried to get the DOJ to chalk it up to expenses! It simply wouldn't happen.

Smith was called to task and, humiliatingly, had to make a grovelling apology and rethink her ISP provider. We still don't know what transpired with her husband.

But it didn't end there. The Telegraph started singing like the proverbial canary.

Their schtick of the past two weeks has been to highlight how various Labour politicians, more than just a few senior ones as well, have managed to use their expenses privilege in ways which vary exhibit a whole range of behaviour from stingy pettiness (charging a chocolate bar to the public purse) to sheer arrogance (paying for the construction of a helipad).

Even Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, himself, was forced to apologise for securing the services of a cleaner, not only to clean the flat he owns ten minutes from Downing Street, but also to clean the home owned by his brother, a private citizen, as well. An oversight on the part of the Prime Minister.

But the main area of abuse lies in the practice of 'flipping.'

MPs are expected to be in London for at least three days per week in order to attend to the business of, well, governing and legislating. They are required to maintain a residence in or around the capital, usuall within about 30 minutes' drive or ride of Westminster. They are also required to live in the constituency which they represent, so they have to maintain a home there also. Ergo, most MPs either own or rent at least two properties. The expenses policy, with regards to MPs' homes, states that, they must declare one of the two residences as a secondary residence. In accordance with this policy, and service or item they require regarding that second residence, which aids and abets in their being able to perform as a member of Parliament, can be claimed from the public purse. For example, any service requiring the maintenance of heating or electricity can be claimed from public funds (furnished by the taxpayers) as most people need heat and light in order to work.

The system, as it is, is open to heavy abuse. No less than Jacqui Smith - she of the porn-addicted husband - was actually renting a room in her sister's London home and claiming expenses through the public purse for renovations etc done at that address. So the sister got a house makeover courtesy of the Great British Taxpayer. Not really kosher.

But, as I mentioned, it's here where the practice of 'flipping' comes in. An MP declares that his home in his constituency is actually his 'second residence.' After all, he's in London most of the week and only returns home during the weekend to do his political surgeries amongst his constituents. Now if the constituency home needs a new roof or a lick of paint, the MP can arrange for a firm of builders/decorators to do the job and farm the invoice back to the Fees Office and - Bob's your uncle, as they say here - bill paid. And not by the MP. An MP can even secure a mortgage on the second property and arrange for the mortgage payments to be made from the public purse.

Flipping occurs when an MP suddenly decides that the 'second residence' is actually his main residence. This means the main residence, maintenance etc having been paid for from his wages, now, effectively, becomes the second, which means any expense incurred to enable his more effective performance as MP can be paid for through the Fees Office.

You see the pattern? An MP refurbishes/redecorates/renovates his second home at the public's expense, then declares this to be his main residence and proceeds to refurbish/redecorate/renovate the former main residence, again at the public's expense. He, ultimately, has paid for nothing.

The list of abusers of this practice read like an honour roll of the Labour party:-

1. Hazel Blears, Communities Secretary, was found to have pocketed the capital gains tax due on her second residence. Blears, obligingly, went on national morning television, waving aloft a personal cheque to the tune of some £13,000 (about $15,000), and bleating about paying this back to the Inland Revenue. (Most of her constituents in Salford, near Manchester, don't make £13,000 in a good year).

2. Elliot Morley, an ex-Agriculture Minister, who was deemed a pretty concientious MP, was outed as claiming £16,000 (about $18,000) over the past two years regarding mortgage payments on his second residence ... except the mortgage on the second residence was repaid some years ago. Morley 'forgot.'

3. Shahid Malik, a junior Justice Minister, owned a property in London and privately rented, below the market rate, a property in his Birmingham constituency, which he deemed his second residence. He claimed for some £60k worth of renovations etc to this property in a mere couple of years. This meant that his private landlord had the property made over at the public's expense. It also meant that Malik had the public pay for a new digital flat-screen plasma television and a 'massage chair.' Malik resigned yesterday. Justice?

Throughout this turbulent fortnight, one thing was noticed by the Great British Public: Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, instead of shouting the Labout calumnies from the spires of Westminster Abbey, kept their mouths firmly clamped shut.

And then we found out why.

The Torygraph unceremoniously bit the hand that religiously bought its papers. They then listed some of the Conservative miscreants. Chief amongst the guilty named and shamed was none other than David Cameron's, the fat frat boy who fronts the Tory Party, main Parliamentary aide Andrew McKay and his wife Julie Kirkbride. Together, they popped a corker. McKay and Kirkbride jointly owned a marital property in London. Kirkbride owned a second residence in her constituency. McKay owned nothing else, yet he listed Kirkbride's property in her constituency as his second residence, whilst his wife listed the marital home as her second residence. Result? A double whammy of over £140k's worth of services/refurbishment accomplished at the public's expense. But, hey, he's already written out a cheque for £42k of it and promises to pay back the rest.

Then there's Douglas Hogg, AKA Viscount Hailsham, a peer of the realm and an MP, who charged the public thousands of pounds for cleaning the moat around his 13th Century manorhouse. And then there's the small matter of one George Osborne, the plummy-vowelled Old Etonian who'll have the responsibility of managing the country's finances when the Conservatives return to power. He's down for charging the public £500 for a taxi to take him from London to Cheshire ... because he missed his train. Osborne's one to watch. Remember the name, because he just might be one who'll be working closely with Tim Geithner in the future, and - if nothing else - this posh snake oil salesman will show our Timmy how to have a good time on the public purse: he's rumoured to be a fan of 'hos and blow, and a book's about to be published to prove that.

This entire saga came to a head last Thursday night on the BBC's live broadcast of their weekly political discussion show Question Time. Question Time is like a de-balled version of Bill Maher's Real Time; only last Thursday, like the Republican base, the Great British Public were mad as hell and they weren't gonna take it anymore. And they knew exactly what it was, unlike the Republicans.

Someone was stealing the money right out of their pockets. Someone was taking money that could better be spent scoffing fish'n chips, downing pints at the local pub, spending mindlessly on DIY equipment every bank holiday, or swanning off to the Costa del Sol on a last-minute bargain break. Someone was stealing money that meant an upgrade in the Sky satellite package, or money that would be better spent buying a season ticket to watch Arsenal lose out to Manchester United next soccer season.

And that somebody was the dirty, sneaking, slimey little bitch/bastard the Great British Public had elected to represent them in Parliament. The public rose in unison on this program. They ranted, they railed, they demanded the truth from the politicos on the panel. In fact, as one member of the audience rightly pointed out, if a mere citizen had perpetrated what had amounted to a fraudulent act in claiming benefits, that individual would be tried and sentenced to prison.

And the anger hasn't subsided. The Observer, which is what The Guardian becomes every Sunday, today quoted a political aid as saying that the public now are clamouring for an MP swinging from a lampost on every corner. I smiled as I read that, because it made me think of something Bill Maher, a particular hero of mine, opined early in this season's Real Time, when he called for the investment bankers who caused the economic meltdown to be hung from the clock on Wall Street with their balls stuffed in their mouths. The British are getting there, they're learning the art of righteous anger.

Senior ministers in Brown's government are calling this a 'constitutional crisis', which - again - made me laugh; because that's one thing the British haven't got - a written constitution. They've just sort of poodled along since God was a boy, making up the rules and traditions as they occurred and then changing them as they saw fit, to the point that no one's actually sure what's what anymore - and that's how this whole rigamarole with the expenses came about.

But there's a dark side to all this kerfuffle. In the first week in June, there'll be European Parliamentary Elections, when every country in the EU elects its regional representatives to the European Parliament. This sort of election is similar to our mid-terms in the US. It's a good gauge of how the party in power is performing. This fiasco hasn't left any of the three British political parties smelling like roses.

Labour tanked, because people perceived Gordon Brown to have done nothing. The Conservatives, leading in the polls, saw their lead shrink. Cameron slapped wrists, but he's an appalling actor; and anyone who thinks for a moment he didn't know this shit was hitting the fan before it hit has one egg short of a dozen in the brains department. The Liberal Democrats don't figure because they simply ... don't figure.

So one of two scenarios will occur in two weeks' time at the Euro Elections:-

Either the people will shrug their shoulders with resignation, reckon that all politicians are dishonest and are feathering their nests and just not bother to vote, which would be a typically British thing to do, as the modern-day Brit has cornered the market in politcal apathy. Or ...

The voter turnout will be larger than usual and the voters will eschew voting for one of the three major parties, instead opting for a fringe party. A recent poll taken by PoliticsHome found that 27% of voters were now prepared to defect from their current party, due to disillusionment about this expenses affair. Of the 27% responding, 28% of that number say they will back UKIP (UK Independence Party), who are slightly to the right of the Conservative Party, and who advocate removal from the European Union, amongst other things. 16%, however, say they intend to defect to the British National Party, and that's scary.

For BNP, think Brownshirts, think Nazis. Their leader, the Oxbridge-educated Nick Griffin is the British equivalent of David Duke. He took what was essentially a racist group of violent, skin-head thugs, dressed them in suits and taught them how to speak properly. In the past five years, they've accumulated various and sundry seats in certain local councils throughout the land, and this was achieved even with the government of the day denying them the right to be heard in the media.

In the words of the current British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, himself, the child of the sort of immigrants the BNP hope to expel from this sceptr'd isle: 'The politics of hate thrive where voters become utterly alienated from the mainstream parties.'

Judging from the ire exhibited by the Great British Public on Thursday evening, they're doing a fair job of hating.

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