Greasy Pole: Hogg’s ditch
What with all the talk about reforming Parliament, antagonising MPs by restricting their ravenous appetite for expenses, it may not be long for the famous green benches to be swept clean of those venerable persons wallowing in titles like the Right Honourable Douglas Hogg, Old Etonian, Third Viscount Hailsham, Privy Councillor, Barrister at Law, Queen’s Counsel, Member of Parliament (for the present) for Sleaford and North Hykeham, brother of a High Court Judge, husband of a baroness and owner of Kettlethorpe Hall, a stately home in Lincolnshire. With a moat – about the only exterior relic of the original 13th Century house. It is some time now since Hogg was at his most active politically; he was Minister of Agriculture Fisheries and Food from July 1995 until Labour’s victory in 1997 since when he has stayed contentedly inconspicuous.
But that was before the Daily Telegraph, digging into the secrets of the MP’s claims as revealed by that whistle blower’s expensive aids to research, turned the spotlight away from the drab fiddlers on the Labour benches and onto the gloating Conservative manipulators opposite. This made sickeningly fascinating reading, for among the claims for money for a chandelier and a swimming pool was one for clearing the moat at Hogg’s home. The new Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy marked the occasion at a Manchester school: “What did he do with the trust of your vote?/Hired a flunky to flush out the moat”. A nation- wide rush to consult architectural reference books revealed that a moat is water surrounding somewhere – a castle, a fortified house – important enough to need such a defence against an invading enemy or perhaps, in some cases, irate deprived Lincolnshire peasantry. A moat is expected to be, in scale with the place it defends, impressively large – wide and deep (Alan Clark, the late alcoholic and disreputable MP who owned the magnificent Saltwood Castle in Kent, was in the habit of taking a swim in the moat there) with a drawbridge to filter out unwanted visitors. The photographs of Hogg’s moat, however, showed it to be not much more than an above average sized ditch – although one which obviously needs regular, expensive cleaning paid for through parliamentary allowances. David Cameron was infuriated at the revival of the stereotypical image of the greedy Tory toff which he has worked so hard to eradicate.
As a lawyer Hogg is accustomed to defending the indefensible and his response to the Daily Telegraph’s exposure was desperately evasive: “That is not correct. It was in a letter which explained what expenses we had incurred, it wasn’t an expenses schedule…All the claims I made were agreed in advance”. Reinforcing this attempt to pass the blame for his behaviour elsewhere he conceded, when asked about his constituents’ anger at his claim for the moat, “It is true that the system is clearly flawed”. Hogg’s ancestors would have been proud of his lawyerly skills here; although he has remained a humble QC both his father and grandfather rose to the heights of Lord Chancellor, head of the country’s judges and in the House of Lords sitting, by ancient custom, on a large cushion called the Woolsack from where the noble lords were kept under control, speaking to the point and avoiding all challenge to the presumptions of property society. However humble, Hogg is a rich man, with shareholdings and property investments which protect him from the kind of penury familiar to some of his infuriated constituents.
BSE And CJD
Unlike his eminent forefathers Hogg did not make a name for himself in government. At his peak, in charge of Agriculture Fisheries and Food he was marked down as The Minister Without A Friend. Rivals on the lower reaches of the Greasy Pole happily fed the media with snide gossip about him, typically that he had been given the job when the first choice had turned it down because it was politically suicidal. When the BSE crisis broke in 1996 and the first cases of the human variant CJD were reported Hogg was cruelly exposed as lacking the sleight of word so essential to survival. Alan Clark, who could always be relied on to kick someone when they are down, recorded meeting “little Douglas Hogg” in 1983,when he was a Junior Whip: “I can’t decide whether he is likeable or not. (But I should say that many do not have this difficulty.) I don’t mind people being rude, provided that they are not uncouth with it. But he is colossally self-satisfied. Or is it a chip?…’Well,’ I said ‘how are you keeping all the new boys in order?’…’By offering them your job’.
Well very soon someone will be offered Hogg’s job. “I have decided” he said on 18 May “that now is the time to tell the Sleaford and North Hykeham Association that I will not be standing at the next election”. It was a polite way of saying that he had been sacked for failing to fit in with Cameron’s efforts to recast the Tory image into a youthful, classless, open party who can, by a process so far unattainable to all others, transform capitalism into a humane society. But euphemisms are essential to a politician’s vocabulary; over the expenses scandal they have been extensively used to muddy the reality that while the amounts of money involved in the Lord’s and the MP’s wretched scams are mind-boggling to so many workers struggling to survive they are trivial compared to the cost, in every sense, of the damage capitalism does to the world and its people.