Wednesday, 27 May 2009

When it comes to scandals, size really doesn't matter

Life may not imitate art but my conversations seem to follow on from my blog posts in a rather peculiar way. Barely a week since my 'dangers of not caring post' and I am sitting in the most unlikely of settings – a wedding reception – talking to a complete stranger about this and that. The stranger, it turns out, lives and works in Zimbabwe and on those grounds dismisses the British MPs expenses scandal.
When put that way it makes no sense does it? But you've seen it happen again and again.
'You call this a scandal? Wait till you've seen one of ours'. The principle here, evidently, being that when it comes to scandals size does matter.
Well, friends, I am not sure it does.

In case you've missed it (because as luck has it you may live in a country that has impressive, block-buster style scandals and this one did not register as being worthy of column inches in your location) the UK is in the midst of a scandal of its own around the expense claims members of Parliament have been submitting and getting away with. Such claims range from the illegal (mortgage payments for a house that is already mortgage-free) to the absurd (cleaning a moat, yes a moat) to the downright hilarious (porn for the MP's husband). Claims cover huge value items such as houses and tiny items such as a chocolate bar. And if I am allowed to digress briefly, I am not entirely sure which one of the two extremes bugs me more – the insanely huge bills on something like new hardwood floors and chandeliers or the tiny tiny bills for tampons and fizzy drinks. Obviously, as a tax payer I resent the massive items more yet, as a citizen, I find the small ticket items more offensive because they seem to be telling me that the MPs have no intention of using their salary to pay for anything. At all. Ever.
But I digress.
The point is, some of these claims are illegal but mostly they are within the rules and that is the problem: that the rules allow for way too much of this to go on so the rules need to be reformed while the rest of us have a conversation about morality and whether the MPs were actually breaching our trust and their sacred duty even if they were not breaking the law.

And all this is very important. In a democracy.
Because it entails discussions of trust in your elected representatives and systemic transparency. Because it concerns the use and potential misuse of public funds and the public, whose funds these actually are, merits an explanation and an apology.
And because this is supposed to be a democracy the fact that regulations exist does not end the matter. We need to ask if the regulations are appropriate to the situation, whether they do what we want them to do, whether our system is serving us as it ought to.

Which is where the person living in Zimbabwe guffawed saying it was sweet that those of us living in England could get flustered over things like the expenses scandal when corruption and inefficiency in their political life is so high and so common that millions of dollars' worth of public funds appear in politicians' bank accounts and nobody even thinks about prosecuting.
In short this translates to 'you guys have nothing, ours is bigger than yours'.

And my first reaction was a need to win, to trump her, to show her I had scandals as big as hers up my sleeve.
It was an interesting inversion as my interlocutor is English albeit living in Zimbabwe and I am, as you all know, Greek living in England. So what England fails to provide by way of scandals, the motherland obligingly offers. 'You call that corruption? We closed down Parliament for 5 months, we have massive scandals implicating the government, opposition, private sector and some priests to boot. We have corrupt policemen, corrupt judges, corrupt civil servants. Millions of euros go missing from public coffers as a matter of course, rights are trampled, nothing moves without bribery and nobody even blinks. Try that one on for size'. My scandal is bigger than yours. I win. Well done me.
Only not so well done as scandals are not good things and big bad things are a whole load of bad more than small bad things. So what's with the pride in being totally shambolic? And exactly why are you so chuffed your scandal is bigger than anybody else's? This is one of those things where size really really doesn't matter.

And that's the problem with comparisons.
You put something next to something else and all of a sudden both are reduced to the sum of their differences. Inevitably one will be bigger. And then what?
The fact that Zimbabwe is more corrupt than the UK and Greece is somewhere in between does not absolve Greece and the UK, it does not render their inadequacies irrelevant, it does not make taking the citizens for a ride ok if others do it too.

We all live in imperfect systems, that much we know.
Power corrupts and no political system has ever escaped sleaze, corruption, misuse. The question is what do you do to prevent it and, when it occurs, what do you do about it?
In Zimbabwe, you do nothing because doing something may put you in real physical danger.
In Greece, you do nothing because, well we've been through this before: you do nothing because corruption is what you expect, scandal is what public life is made of.
And in Britain? In Britain you do nothing until you can no longer get away with doing nothing. And then you do the absolute minimum but at least you do it and therein lies the difference.

British public life is full of blunders, attempts at cover ups, corruption and dishonesty. But there is also this basic instinct somewhere in the gut of the body politic that something needs to be done about the things that are going seriously wrong.
So when the expenses scandal appeared, the newspapers screamed bloody murder until an investigation started and some heads rolled. The rules will be revised. And at the end of it all the system will still be imperfect, corruption will still be a possibility, but it will not be the norm.
So rather than laughing at them, because their scandal is smaller than ours, how about we take a leaf out of their book and stop taking scandals for granted?

This is not an art to be perfected, size does not denote expertise and 'when you do it, do it right' should not be the attitude we take to corruption.
Scandals are bad, boys and girls, and on this one size really doesn't matter: a scandal is a scandal is a scandal – big or small, the only constant fact about them is that they shouldn't be there.
And if ours is bigger than anyone else's then one thing we shouldn't be doing is a victory dance.