23 September 2009

The Sleaze Factor

It is a measure of the class-ridden nature of British society that we have a number of words for the same thing. On one level it's called "perks" and it goes with the job. On another it's called "back-handers" and everyone turns a blind eye. If you're working class it's called "fiddles" and you get the sack if you're caught. And, on my council estate, the same motivation - to take what you can, to line your pockets at someone else's expense- is called "burglary", and you get put into prison for it.

The current word is "sleaze". It's a great word. It even sounds slippery. Everyone is at it. MPs take cash to ask questions in Parliament and claim for moat cleaning and duck islands. Ex-Ministers get Directorships of companies they had a hand in privatizing. Managing Directors of privatized monopolies award themselves huge increases, while cutting back on the pay and conditions of their staff.

The Nolan Committee investigated such practices, and we may now have some idea of the extent to which these self-serving forms of government are undermining confidence in public life. But how relevant is it? Is it merely an exercise in public relations, or does the government really intend to put its own house in order?

I spoke to two people on my estate. Both of them are unemployed, and never likely to work in their lives. They said that corruption is the way of the world. But there is a difference between the corruption of public servants, and the petty fiddles of daily life. "It's a crime against the public, isn't it?" said Bill. "It's an insult." Nevertheless they expected it. "There's nothing you can do about it." And what would they expect from the Nolan Committee recommendations? They hadn't even heard about it, but they assumed it would be a cover-up.

I also spoke to my Father. An Electrician by trade and an ex-Shop Steward, he owns his own house, drives a nice car, and has plenty of savings for his retirement. He told me a story. A friend of his, a newly-elected local councillor, was asked to vote a certain way on a planning committee. He was offered £2,000. He asked my Dad's advice. "Take the money," my Dad told him. "If you don't, somebody else will." But when I protested at the logic of this, it was the normal excuse I was offered. "It's human nature. And you can't change human nature can you?" I laughed at that as I always do. Why not? We changed Wolves into Pekinese, Opium into Heroin, beautiful countryside into motorway intersections. We've changed everything else in nature, why not human nature?

And actually I don't think it's human nature at all. There are societies where wealth is measured in terms of generosity, where the more you give away the wealthier you are. Wealth circulates. In this society, on the other hand, wealth is measured by how much you accumulate. The more anally retentive you are, the more successful. This is a constipated society. What we need is a laxitive.


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