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A jolly good British scandal

I don’t know about you, but I find it immensely entertaining when the British are caught in a moral quandary. This is a nation that often preaches moral probity and higher-order values and ethics to the rest of the world; it is great sport when they get their own knickers in a twist, as they like to say.

Such a twist has been caused by the parliamentary expenses scandal, which has been running for several days now and shows no signs of abating. The United Kingdom is in a state of advanced moral outrage. Why? Because its hallowed houses of parliament at the Palace of Westminster have been exposed as outposts populated by petty fraudsters.

The Daily Telegraph newspaper has been publishing daily accounts of leaked expenses claims made in recent times by UK MPs, and they make very interesting reading indeed. The UK has a code of conduct in place that governs such claims: MPs are allowed to ask for reimbursement of living and travel expenses that are necessarily incurred in the course of performing their duties, and a budget is in place for this.

But as the newspaper revealed, what amazing things the noble parliamentarians attempted to claim! Here’s a sample: christmas decorations, swimming-pool cleaning, sweets, top-end hi-fi systems, clearing a moat, pornographic film rentals, a massage chair, a bath robe, an antique rug, nappies! The people’s representatives seemed convinced that these items should be paid for by the people.

More seriously, MPs and ministers have been exposed for “flipping” their primary and secondary homes in order to maximise their claims; and some have even been found out claiming interest payments on mortgages that have already been paid in full.

The inhabitants of the Sceptred Isle are in a state of extreme indignation about their parliamentary representatives. Common people are expressing their disgust and revulsion at these antics. MPs and ministers are facing picketing by their constituents. The police are involved, to explore possible criminality. The media are in a frenzy, feeding increasingly unbelievable details to a shocked public. The reputation of Britain’s leaders is completely in the gutter, and the Labour government looks unlikely to survive the fallout.

All good stuff, what? I am well aware of the danger of highlighting this in Kenya, where our own parliamentarians often seem avaricious beyond measure. Showing that even those in the mother of parliaments are not above petty pocketing of taxpayers money is surely a recipe for disaster? Will our parliamentarians not now justify their own money-grabbing behaviour, and feel absolved from blame?

As I have written before on this page, you can never overstimate the propensity of the human being to covet what is not his. People of all colours, ages and nationalities are potential criminals. This may not be a popular view, but I base it on repeated observation. There is a crook lurking in all of us. All that is needed is the environment that promotes low behaviour, or fails to punish it.

So let us not rush, imbued with fake righteousness, to condemn British parliamentarians. It is more important to realise: “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” The common Britishers feeling such indignation themselves routinely exaggerate their company expense claims, and feel no compunction claiming for false benefits from the state. When it’s someone else’s money, anything goes.

What are needed to contain human behaviour are rules and standards. Britain had rules about its MPs expenses, but they were defective and easily flouted. But it is not the case that the UK as a society has come out badly in all of this. Quite the reverse, in fact. Consider these facts. Some of those who made the most egregious claims have been forced to resign. Many have been shamed into paying their claims back. The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have issued apologies to the people of Britain. The Speaker of the House has resigned after making an intemperate response in parliament over the issue, after unrelenting press and public pressure. Careers are ruined. The whole expenses system will now undergo extensive overhaul.

Now that, fellow Kenyans, really is jolly good stuff. That is what makes societies better: not that their people do not engage in bad things; but that they respond to those bad things in the right way.

Consider Kenya: such a thing would never have been allowed to hit the public eye. The system would have conspired to keep matters quiet and the snouts in the trough. No one would have apologised. No one would have resigned. Absolutely no one would have returned any money. There would have been no prolonged media frenzy. Public outrage would not have been widespread, and would soon have died down. Nothing would have been reformed. The looting would have continued.

So, as we laugh at the British, let us also silently thank them. As people, they are no better or worse than us. But as a society they are in a different place.

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