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May 11, 2009

Not enough self-respect: Theodore Dalrymple on what is wrong with our MPs

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

Theodore Dalrymple reflects on what the parliamentary expenses scandal says about public morality today - and why our MPs lack judgement and self-awareness.

The most senior nurse of a psychiatric hospital, a man universally liked and respected, was once asked at his retirement party how he, a poor Irish immigrant with little formal education on arrival in the country, had advanced so far in the profession. He replied:

I never filled in any travel expenses.
This is not the policy currently adopted by our political masters, it seems. There is no allowable expense that they do not claim, and
probably (though this has yet to be proved) quite a few that are not allowable. The politicians have caused widespread outrage and disgust that, for reasons that I shall soon explain, is in large part hypocritical.

What interests me most about the current defence that the politicians put up, when it is revealed that they have gone to the taxpayer for the goldfish food with which they feed the goldfish in their second homes, is that it is "within the rules". This tells us a lot about our current notions of morality.

I overlook as a cheap gibe the obvious fact that the people keeping to the rules are the same people who make the rules. Rather, I am interested in the implicit idea that if something is legally permissible, it is morally permissible and cannot be reprehensible.

In other words, the law lays down for us the whole of our morality. Indeed, one often hears in defence of some bad conduct or other that "There's no law against it" (I can't positively swear that I've never used the argument myself), or "It's not against the law".

This, of course, is to confer immense significance to and, as a natural corollary of this, power on the state. It is the state, and the state alone, that decides what we may and may not do.

It is perfectly obvious that, in fact, the state is not in a position, either theoretically or in practice, to fine-tune our behaviour, and at one level no one seriously expects it to do so. In Britain, at any rate, state or public organisations prove quite unable to enforce even their own rules and regulations.

For example, almost everywhere the dropping of litter is prohibited. Yet Britain is by far the most littered country in Western Europe. Not long ago I saw a huge notice in the countryside warning people that there was a 2000 fine for dropping litter there - 2000! The ground below the notice was strewn with litter, as if in satirical commentary upon it. Similarly, one often sees young men on trains with their feet up on the seats, under notices telling them not to put their feet up on the seats, and that the carriage is under video surveillance.

The argument that "It's not against the law" is, of course, always used in a permissive way. No one says by way of justification of behaving with courtesy, sensitivity or refinement, "It's not against the law". A society in which the law, and the law alone, has the moral right to forbid anything is likely to end up in the odd position in which we now find ourselves: one of permissive authoritarianism.

We are harried and persecuted by regulations, while at the same time we behave with ever less self-control. We are photographed everywhere we go and in almost everything we do, but we set less and less store by decorum.

Apart from the fact that the politicians make up the rules by which they have to abide, they are precisely the same in their conduct as the rest of the population. In this sense, they are our true representatives.

Consider the following question: what percentage of first class passengers on our trains have paid for themselves, out of their own pockets, out of their own discretionary income? I cannot claim to have the figures to hand, but I should be surprised if it were more than, or even approached, ten per cent? This helps to explain how and why such first class fares are so monstrously expensive: you can fly halfway round the world for what it costs to go between two British cities, not necessarily the farthest apart, for the cost of a first class fare.

And of those who have not paid for themselves, what percentage travel
at taxpayers' expense? Of the residuum, what percentage travel at shareholders' expense? What percentage of business travellers has the express permission to do so by the majority shareholder or majority shareholders? How many of us, given the possibility of travelling first class at public or shareholders' expense, would or do refuse to do so?

A few years ago, a newspaper that at the time appeared to have limitless funds of money, sent me into various corners of the world to report on them, accompanied by a photographer. We were well-paid and were put up at good hotels by the newspaper. These were the conditions laid down in advance that we accepted. We could not claim that the newspaper was exploiting us or treating us badly.

Yet the photographer would ask everywhere, in taxis and restaurants, for blank receipts that he would later fill in at his leisure. This was outright criminal, of course, and I asked him to stop. He said that it was all right, I had no need to be worried, because a) he had never been caught at it, b) everyone else did it, and c) it harmed no one, since the newspaper was positively rolling in cash.

I knew that if I said that it was dishonest I would sound nave or priggish or both, and that it would call forth a lecture about the exploitative nature of economic relations, the injustice of the vast incomes of the hereditary owners of the newspaper and so forth. I was well able to supply the lecture myself, for who in his entire life has never descended to such special pleading?

I muttered something about self-respect, but it was very unconvincing. Where is the regulation, the rule or the law that requires self-respect?

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and worked for many years as an inner city and prison doctor. He is the author of the author of Junk Medicine: Doctors, Lies and the Addiction Bureaucracy.

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