Tuesday, 12 May 2009

David Davis

There are some MPs caught up in the expenses scandal - on the Labour side the likes of Tony McNulty and Jacqui Smith, for the Tories, perhaps, Alan Duncan - whose discomfiture arouses inevitable feelings of schadenfreude, even glee. But not all. There are also talented, hardworking and apparently principled people on the list. People like David Davis.

A year ago, David Davis was something of a popular hero for his rather Quixotic stand in defence of civil liberties, resigning his seat in Parliament and his position in the shadow cabinet to fight a by-election. He won the by-election, against a remarkably odd collection of fringe candidates; but he was never restored to the shadow cabinet and there are many who think Cameron was glad to see the back of him. Before he became shadow home secretary he was a leading contender for the Tory leadership; and before that he had chaired the Public Accounts Committee with considerable effectiveness, scrutinising waste in public expenditure with a thoroughness we must wish he had applied to his own accounts.

Davis's claim was not the largest, nor the most objectionable. But charging the taxpayer more than £5,000 to pay for a new portico which he could well have afforded scarcely amounts to the type of essential renovation envisaged in the rules. And the £2000 he was paid by the public purse for mowing his lawn may be politically suicidal. It smacks of the privilege and Tory toffery of which David Cameron has been struggling to cleanse the party's image. Davis's claims was endorsed by the Fees Office, but that does not mean either that they should have been or that Davis was right to submit them.

At the time of the by-election, I wrote that Davis had "shown himself a man of principle and courage, and in his magnificent speech he found the voice that eluded him three years ago when he stood for the Tory leadership". I still think that. In the speech, a memorable rallying cry, he stressed that he himself was "just a piece in this great chess game" and that "the British people have grown tired of the inflated, arbitrary and arrogant power accumulated by this Government". He hinted, as did I, that the growing distrust of politicians and the overweening claims of the modern state were to some extent linked. But that distrust is also, and more particularly, bound up with the suspicion that they have personally had their snouts in the taxpayer-funded trough.

The most resonant charge against politicians is hypocrisy: that they impose regulations and strictures on the public or on other industries that they evade themselves; that they write "the rules" largely for their own benefit. But there is slightly more going on. Today's politicians are probably no more venal or self-serving than politicians have always been; and the greater level of scrutiny to which they are now subjected means that most will not even try to get away with things that they might previously have found tempting. There was no "golden age" in which politicians were motivated purely by noble motives of public service. But in earlier times - and even fairly recently - the state was less omnipresent and demanding; it occupied a smaller psychological space. MPs are not the state, of course, but they are the only people on the public payroll who are directly accountable to the taxpayers. As such, they are natural (and often justified) targets for public rage.

There is a danger that Davis - one of the most genuinely honourable members - will be discredited by this affair, and that his cause will be diminished by association. He has been one of relatively few big beasts in Parliament prepared to make a big issue of civil liberties, and considerable personal cost in terms of his career. His record, his public profile and his toughness on law-and-order issues brought credibility to an area that has traditionally been written off as the province of dreamy, hand-wringing liberals out of touch with ordinary people. He was listened to with respect; he had little power, but not negligible influence. It would be tragic if his voice was lost or permanently marginalised.

His self-brought predicament raises broader questions, too. For if such a person can be tainted by allegations of sleaze or the appearance of profiteering then what Gordon Brown yesterday called the "profession of politics" is tarnished indeed.

13 comments:

Bishop Hill said...

Somebody has to decide whether Davis's good work on civil liberties is outweighed by his troughing on the expenses front. He and all the other troughers need to ask their local parties if they can stand again at the next election.

FrankFisher said...

He has got a very big lawn... I didn't notice the portico when I was there - maybe it's new.

I dunno H. You have a system and a culture and a peer group, all saying, you can claim this. It's legit, it's acceptable, everyone is doing it. Very hard to draw back and decide for yourself that it's not acceptable. Particularly - and I dont' want to make excuses for them - but particularly when it *is* a legal, orthodox, accepted system. What they couldnt' see was that to us, outside the trough, it was a disgrace. It's a frame of reference thing.

You know what it reminds me of? When we're reading something from Chandler, Buchan or Kipling, or older, and you come across - from a writer you *know* to be an intelligent, compassionate, worldly man - some startling casual racism. It jars, rankles, throws you a little - and we deal with it by saying, well, it's just of its time. The frame they were in.

This is a little like that - and I hate to appear to be excusing the worst of these fucks - but I fear it's true. They didnt' know they were doign wrong...

Olive said...

Very hard to draw back and decide for yourself that it's not acceptable.
If you can't decide for yourself that it's not acceptable, but do it anyway, then you probably lack the critical faculties necessary to be an MP.

valdemar squelch said...

It's fair to say that, when they're all at it, it takes a truly heroic degree of restraint (or is it called honour?) to not fill yet boots. But you're right - it's the all-pervasive preaching, lecturing and denouncing by the likes of Brown, Blears etc that makes them obnoxious. The mediocrity of talent and lack of any real idealism, coupled with an immense sense of superiority and entitlement, would stick in anyone's craw. No sign of it ending, though. I daresay a nice well-padded quango is being lined up for Ms Blears even as I type.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Ah yes, the politicians of today are mere pygmies, unworthy untalented mud-flinging fools who are a disgrace to the memory of the towering statesmen who went before. And that is exactly what people in the C19th thought of Gladstone and Disraeli. In the C20th they thought the same of Churchill, Atlee, MacMillan & Thatcher when they were in office.

Today's mediocre, talentless, craw-sticking politician is tomorrow's revered elder statesman. Always has been and always will.

David Davis's Damascene conversion from enthusiastic supporter of locking people up without charge is to be welcomed even if it coincided with Cameron's being in a position to wield the knife and remove his only rival and the last non-Bullingdon type from his team.

It is a shame that you all ignore the fact that the Liberal Democrats were the only party fighting for civil liberties. And you continue to deny them any credit which is why I believe that like Henry Porter many who claim to be 'liberals' or anti-authoritarian are just Tories using this as a political football to beat Brown with. Once safely in power you'll go back to your old ways : exactly as the Tories have every time.

FrankFisher said...

It is a shame that you all ignore the fact that the Liberal Democrats were the only party fighting for civil liberties. Like when Chris Huhne bravely defended free speech during the Geert Wilders affair? Oh hang on, no he didn't, did he....

I'm afraid I don't see this major lust for civil libs among libdems Woolly, just the usual lust for power.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Come on Frank, the Lib Dems are the only party who have been saying that it is just wrong to lock people up without charge. Admittedly Huhne didn't go the extra mile on free speech and assigned more importance and potential ability to do harm to Wilders than he deserves.

But to ignore all the work they've done down the years on Civil Liberties because of one aberration is nothing but pure party political posturing. As Tory that is your right of course but let's not hide what you are doing. You are turning a Nelsonian blind eye here and deliberately not seeing the flags that have been hung out. This is not your finest moment.

Nobody is perfect, everyone makes mistakes from time to time. Davis was very wrong for a long time over the importance of not locking people up without charge and seems to have repented of this when it was too late to do anything sadly. Its a shame he didn't see the light a couple of years earlier.

FrankFisher said...

As Tory that is your right of course but let's not hide what you are doingI'm no Tory Woolly, and I won't be voting for Dave, he's far too leftwing for me. The problem I have with libdems is that, so far as I can tell, it's all front. I had a correspondence for some time with Paddy Ashdown, back when he was leader, regarding legalising cannabis - you might recall there was some fuss about the young lib dems passing a motion in favour? So I wrote to ask if it was to become libdem policy - if conference too backed it - no, said Paddy. Why not? Just no. Cannabis was a dangerous drug yadda yadda... Another small example, but I just dont' see the liberal democrats as being liberal - and for every stand on detention etc, they blow it by supporting some new damn hate crime cobblers. Or extreme porn. In the commons the libdems were *awful* on EP, leaving it to Baroness Miller to save some credibility on that.

Look, I'd *never* vote labour, ever. Ever. I *might* vote tory, for the right policies. I *might* vote libdem, for the right policies. But I need to be convinced. So far, you guys do not convince me.

BNP were around canvassing again tonight... still no sign of any other party, at all.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

No party is perfect Frank, I don't agree 100% with the Lib Dems either - there is room for improvement even at Cowley Street. But don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The party which most often follows reason and evidence, letting established science guide policy rather than historical prejudice, remains the Lib Dems. But they live in the real world and have to get elected under the current system. Legalising cannabis remains as politically poisonous as supporting the closure of a local hospital no matter how good an idea it might be. Not everyone in the Lib Dems is really a liberal, we picked up a lot of Polly Toynbee-like Social Democrats as a result of the merger. Some of them have converted to liberalism like Vince Cable but it will take a generation or so before they are fully absorbed. But the liberals are reasserting themselves, the Orange Book are now the leadership - Clegg, Davey and Cable for example.

You often give the impression that you think freedom of speech is the only civil liberty. Its certainly a very important one but I think others are important also.

And if you're really not a Tory then you should think of becoming one.

FrankFisher said...

And if you're really not a Tory then you should think of becoming one.Well it seems to pay well...

Freedom of speech underpins the other human rights; without it none of the others mean anything

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

FrankFisher said...

Freedom of speech underpins the other human rights; without it none of the others mean anything
I will have to think about that but my initial reaction is that freedom to speech from a prison cell to which I have been confined without charge or legal process isn't all that brilliant : the right to drink water is of no use in a waterless desert after all. That is why I would put the right to due process first. Without it then the influential could steal my house, flout my rights to privacy and stifle my freedom of speech with impunity.

Off the top of my head I'd say the main civil liberties were;


1. The right to due process, to a fair trial and equality before the law.

2. The right to own property, which includes businesses, goods as well as housing.

3. Freedom of expression - the right to say and do as one pleases provided no harm is caused to others. This would include freedom of religious expression and personal sovereignty.

4. The right to privacy.

The Heresiarch said...

A good list, Woolly. Unfortunately, the present government has systematically violated all of them.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

What is even more unfortunate is that the Opposition has colluded with them in this, especially item 1.