Tuesday 19 May 2009

Common sense always beats compliance

The current tide of public opinion suggests that it would be good for both Parliament and the British penal system if we gave more MPs some direct experience of prison.

Up to now, in my lifetime, nearly all of them have got away with it. Notable exceptions include John Stonehouse, the former Labour Postmaster-General who blazed a trail for Reggie Perrin and the Hartlepool canoeist by faking his own death, but whose luck ran out when he was mistaken for Lord Lucan by the Australian police.

Then there was Jonathan Aitken, the sometime Conservative cabinet minister who famously promised to wield “the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play” in a libel action against The Guardian and Granada TV, and landed himself an 18-month jail sentence for perjury.

Ironically, it was Mr Aitken who made one of the most intelligent comments I have heard on the apparently never-ending Parliamentary expenses scandal, when he appeared on Radio 4 to assert that our fundamental error as a society has been to replace conscience with compliance.

Hence the sorry queue of about-to-be-ex-MPs appearing in the media to bleat that they have done nothing wrong, as it was “all in accordance with the rules”. Rather than giving a moment’s thought to whether what they were doing was bad and wrong, or would appear so to almost any reasonable person.

The same process of detachment from common sense and basic morality has afflicted the world of business. After some scandals in the 1980s (which appear mild enough, with the benefit of hindsight) a whole new industry was born called “corporate governance”. As a result, company annual reports have swelled towards the thickness and readability of telephone directories as businesses strive to demonstrate their compliance with a web of ever-more complex rules.

And has all that resulted in a moderation of directors’ expectations for pay, benefits and bonuses, or in capitalism being better run? Just inspect the smoking wreckage of what was once our banking sector and the question answers itself.

It is the same in schools, hospitals and every other walk of life. I had dinner last week with a hugely experienced headmaster who was about to waste two days on a course to prove that he knew how to spot any pervert minded to apply for a job in his school. My wife struggles to ask questions about her advanced pregnancy as every meeting with midwives and doctors is devoted to the ticking of myriad boxes to demonstrate that they have issued her with all the currently recommended warnings.

As I tried to imply last week, I do not actually blame our greedy MPs too much. Any organisation daft enough to create a system allowing expenses of up to £24,000 a year is going to receive an awful lot of claims for £23,999. While they have had so much practice in lying to the rest of us, most notably about the aims and consequences of our European Union membership, that it must be very hard indeed for them to kick the habit.

Still, there will be time for therapy and quiet reflection behind bars. In fact, the only real objection I can see to pursuing some criminal prosecutions is my doubt as to whether we have the resources to cope with the rioting that would doubtless break out if our existing prison population thought that the tone of their establishments was about to be lowered by a major influx of less than honourable members.

Meanwhile, on the outside, it is to be hoped that the disgraced of all parties will be replaced by independently-minded individuals who can see that we need much thinner rule books, many fewer box tickers and much greater reliance on those fine old mainstays of common sense, honesty and a clear conscience.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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