2000s >> 2003 >> no-1185-may-2003

Greasy Pole: Getting Away With It

The Right Honourable George Samuel Knatchbull Young, Bart. MP (it is important to get his name right) represents North West Hampshire in the House of Commons and, although he looks like an ageing sixth form swot, is actually one of the more industrious and engaging of the animals who stalk the Westminster corridors of power. A tall, lanky Old Etonian whose family he says have been “public servants” for centuries and have lived in the same grand Berkshire house for over 200 years, he takes his aristocrat’s obligations to the lower orders seriously – gives Christmas lunch to his staff, that sort of thing. After Eton and Oxford (Christ Church College, naturally) he had a varied apprenticeship for a career in politics until February 1974 when he was elected for Ealing Acton. Touring that heavily urbanised constituency with its choking traffic and notoriously lawless estates in a gleaming new Land Rover dressed in pristine Barbour wear, he seemed to be under the impression that it was a haven of peaceful rural charm. When the Boundary Commission did for Ealing Acton in 1997 Sir George adroitly swapped it for the more promising seat of North West Hampshire.

But in the days when Acton clasped him to its chaotically hopeful bosom Sir George came good. He turned out to be what is known as a good constituency MP, ready to submerge himself in his voters’ problems (of which in Acton there were not a few), and being a motivating force in the formation of a local housing association, becoming its chairman. This was a rather riskier assignment that it now sounds because in those days housing associations had not attained the respectable status they now have; they were then regarded as little more than breeding grounds for hairy anarchists. It took Sir George a few years to make his way onto the lower slopes of political office; he held a succession of minor jobs in Health and Environment (he got himself sacked by Thatcher for being the kind of aristocratic wet she detested) before rising to Financial Secretary to the Treasury and then Transport Secretary. So he never quite made it to the approaches to the summit; in September 2000 he seemed to acknowledge this when he resigned from the Shadow Cabinet to stand for election as Speaker. Not a few MPs are still wondering why the Commons chose Michael Martin instead. Meanwhile Sir George may have been consoled with the job of chairman of the Standards and Privileges Select Committee.

One of the problems of that job is that it may occasionally require Sir George to be courteously rough with an MP who has stepped beyond the bounds of acceptable behaviour. This must be particularly painful for him when the object of his censure is similarly rich and popular to himself. For example Mr. Michael St. John Trend CBE (it is important we get his name right as well) MP for Windsor South East – at least until the next election when he will have to stand down from this plum Tory seat. It is at Windsor that we find Sir George’s old school and the playing fields where, said the Duke of Wellington, the battle of Waterloo was won. Windsor has Ascot where the racing horses vie with members of the ruling class for the attentions of those papparazi who have been lucky enough to be admitted to the hallowed Royal Enclosure. For the hungry (and wealthy) there are excessively posh restaurants like the Waterside Inn and the Fat Duck. And of course there is the castle, where the Queen is at home whenever the flag flies atop the turret.

Naturally a place like Windsor would not choose anyone as its MP who fell below its highest standards of gentility. So step forward Mr. Trend Tall, handsome, highly rated (or he was until a little while ago but more of that in a moment) and, like many a well-bred respresentative of the masses, not seen in the Commons too often so as not to sully its reputation as the most desirable club in the land. He is the son of Lord Trend, who as Burke Trend was Cabinet Secretary to Harold Wilson’s government. He went to public school (although not, tragically, Eton) and Oxford and then into journalism, where at his peak he was chief leader writer for the Daily Telegraph. He got into Parliament in the surprise Tory victory in 1992; it is diffcult to say whether his maiden speech would have impressed, or infuriated, or anaesthetised, the Chamber for it was of this tone:

“The essential order which lies at the heart of civil life is based on simple courtesies which must be transmitted from generation to generation.”

This is a pretty useless vision of life under capitalism but it is also a cosy one, so many of Trend’s constituents were somewhat dismayed when it turned out that his concept of simple courtesies seemed to embrace misappropriating a rather large sum of Parliament’s money. It was, raged one of them, “highly offensive” for Trend to “live fraudulently beyond his means”. Another MP warned “these allegations are very serious and Mr. Trend may wish to review his position”.

What had this urbane, well-connected, highly rated Member done to deserve all this anger? One of the arrangements through which MPs award themselves a comfortable income allows then to claim an accommodation allowance for the upkeep of a separate home in London which would be necessary for any of them with constituencies a long way from Westminster. It is made easier to cash in on this arrangement by the fact that MPs – who are, of course honourable men and women – are allowed to self-certificate their claims. Why Trend should have been eligible for the allowance when Windsor is just a short run to London along the M4 is a mystery which only MPs can clear up. So when he claimed for a London home it was perfectly within the rules. The situation became rather different when he sold the home but continued to claim for it. And went on claiming until he was exposed by a ferreting Sunday newspaper (something his journalistic experience must have made him familiar with) by which time he had overclaimed something more than ninety thousand pounds.

When this matter came to light a lot of people accustomed to reading, perhaps in the Daily Telegraph, about what happens to anyone who is caught breaking capitalism’s property laws, assumed that Trend would be pretty severely punished, perhaps even humiliated by appearing in court on a charge of theft. But the Commons handles things rather differently. By their rules Trend should have been referred to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, which would have brought Sir George into it. But this did not happen at once; instead there was an informal agreement (many outside Parliament will have another word for it) between the Tory whips and the Commons sergeant-at-arms which allowed Trend to pay the money back in return for an undertaking not to stand at the next election. He would not be reported to the Commissioner. His explanation was that he had been “genuinely mistaken” in claiming for the house – moreover he had been “muddled and naive”. What he did not explain was how someone who had been, among other things, chief leader writer for a famous daily newspaper could be so sadly confused about a perfectly simple rule. And what the other participants in the deal did not explain was why Trend was treated so differently to the thousands of people who daily appear before the courts charged with theft, who effectively cannot plead that they were confused or muddled when they left the supermarket without paying for the food or whatever and who, when they were caught, were not allowed to get away with it by offering to pay for the goods.

It was only when one of Trend’s constituents complained to the Commissioner that the matter was forced into the open, allowing the MPs who had been, to put it mildly, collusive, to adopt the pose of the righteously indignant. In the end the Commons suspended Trend for two weeks – which, since he rarely attends anyway made little difference. Sir George, reporting to the Commons on the sad affair, did his best to soothe the honourable members’ anxieties about what they too might be found out in; he was, he said “concerned” about it all.
Come the next election and Trend’s seat will be recycled to some other Tory (several hungry aspirants, among them Malcolm Rifkind, are already circling, vulture like) and the matter will be forgotten as quickly as the players in it can ensure. If Trend follows the usual pattern he will fade away into a life of lucrative “consultancies”, company directorships and copious lunches in the City where he and his companions can moan to each other about how the working class are bringing down civilised society with their greediness. But the case should live on, as an instructive example of how capitalism works, about how the ruling class cling to their position, about the contempt in which they hold the working class and about the reality that if we are to change society we must do it for ourselves.

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