The MPs’ expenses scandal reinforces a well-known moral truth: darkness provides ideal growing conditions for corruption. That is why the light of publicity is almost invariably a good thing. But there is one group on which the light seldom shines, a group of which membership provides a remarkable degree of cover from criticism. Let’s call this group “the people” or “the public”.
To claim membership of this deliberately non-select group is often to distinguish oneself from those singled out for blame. To set up the issue as politicians on one side and outraged ordinary members of the public on the other (with the individual me always hidden in this larger group) is to claim the protection of anonymity and safety in numbers.
No wonder we have all become so nauseatingly self-righteous over these dubious expenses. Self-righteousness is what comes from having been granted immunity from any sort of moral prosecution.
Yes, our MPs have been on the make. But they are the MPs that we the people elected, and they reflect the moral failings of us, the people who elected them. MPs are not moral aliens, inhabiting some separate Planet Westminster, where they breathe a different air. We cannot disown them by pretending they dropped from the sky.
No, the whole point of democracy is that looking at the House of Commons is rather like “the people” looking in the mirror. If we do not like what we see, then we ought to be asking deeper questions about ourselves, the people who put them there.
But this sort of self-examination is not being allowed to get off the ground because we make scapegoats of our MPs, riding the ever-popular wave of hostility to politicians, thus to distract attention from our own need to look long and hard into the mirror. I feel sorry for our Members of Parliament. We elect them to be like us, then make them swallow all the blame when we do not like what we see.
Let me be clear: many have been caught with their hand in the cookie jar, and they should be called to account. I do not want to let them off. But they are more like us than we are prepared to admit. If there is a culture of greed, of working the system, of “me first”, of institutional selfishness, then it is one that the vast majority of us have shared in.
Jesus invited those without sin to cast the first stone. It is often those who throw the biggest stones who are the ones with most to hide.
The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney, in south London.
He has now been appointed Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, where he will oversee the work of the St Paul’s Institute.