Who’s In Charge Round Here?

Last night we witnessed the lightning rod of the current MP expenses ‘
scandal‘ in high-def. On the BBC’s Question Time long-standing politicians – in some cases well-respected – were fairly openly vilified on television. It was the technological equivalent of politicians being placed in the stocks and watching it provoked a strange mix of responses: on the one hand, they’ve had it coming for long enough, and you suspect this kind of public humiliation is more likely to have impact, than simply paying back the amounts wrongly claimed; on the other, at least Campbell, Beckett and May put themselves up for what they surely knew wasn’t going to be the happiest night of their lives, and it was an uncomfortable and unedifying experience to watch it.

It isn’t just the scale of the tarnishment, it’s the tawdry attempts to prevent the information coming out. If it hadn’t been for campaigning journalist Heather Brooke’s tenacity, (bullied by the collective weight of the Speaker and House of Commons Fees Office but determined to see the full expenses picture) the whole thing may have been supressed. And, of course, now we know why the Commons tried to exempt itself from the Freedon of Information act. Andrew Walker, the Head of the Fees Office, defended the witholding of information on the grounds that ‘transparency will damage democracy’. So, this is the depth that parliamentary democracy has sunk to?

But alongside the public anger, is a sense of bewilderment, (what can we do about it? They’re all at it) and despair (how on earth are we ever going to get young people to engage in the political process now?). It’s only a year ago young people were shouting ‘yes, we can!’ Now, they’re probably wondering ‘why should we bother?’.

This has possibly been the most tumultuous 6 months that British society’s pillars of finance and politics has ever seen. It’s too soon to say how corrosive the destruction of trust in banks and parliament will prove to be, but the biggest victim in the short-term is likely to be our reliance upon trust itself – in those who we asked to look after our money, and our legislation and indeed way of life. It’s a pretty depressing prospect.

But beyond the question ‘who can we trust?’, we have to ask ‘ yes, but what can we do?’, and here there may be some cause for optimism. Perhaps we’re coming close to realising that true democracy is too important to entrust to others, and that we have to be far more engaged that putting a cross in a box every five years. We can now insist that bonus payments of senior banking executives are revealed (and approved), at least in the ones we half-own.

Charles Arthur, writing in yesterday’s Guardian argues that a really important interpretation of ‘open source’ should be the absolute transparency of all future expense claims from MPs. Have them openly available at the time of submission, via XML feeds, and we can do the policing, he argues, and he’s dead right. The one upside of this whole debilitating mess should be a complete opening up of information that should have been in the public domain all along. Far from ‘damaging’ democracy such open source might just help restore it.

The OU’s Tony Hirst has already put together a google map showing MPs consituency distances from Westminster compared to travel expenses claimed. Others have suggested an ‘effectiveness’ quotient, mapping speeches made, or votes cast, with expenses claimed. And we’ve got millions of young people who could do some interesting mash-ups of data, bringing all kinds of inconsistencies to light – it could make for a renewal of interest in maths at school!

Information wants to be free. And we know now who we can trust : ourselves.

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