Greasy Pole – Who are you calling a cheat?
Prince Harry is third in the line of royal succession so it would take only a couple of unforeseen events for this country to have a king better known for a fondness for partying on certain substances than for a monastic devotion to his studies. Perhaps that is why the general response to him being accused of cheating in an ‘A’ Level exam at Eton was some way below outraged disbelief that a member of the royal family could stoop so low. Luckily there was an independent enquiry available at short notice to decide in private that the prince had not cheated, so all that remained was independently to undermine the reputation of the teacher making the accusation and the matter could independently be closed. As usual there were a few stubborn curmudgeons wondering what all the fuss was about. After all, isn’t the monarchy as an institution a cheat, based on the assumption that a few people should unquestioningly have access to such excessive luxury simply because of a lucky accident in the wildly random process of their conception?
There is a wider issue here, wider than a rather dim but heavily privileged royal taking advantage of his position. If Prince Harry did cheat he acted outside the rules. But he was able to do this only because we live in a society of privilege for a minority and of denial for the majority. Appropriately, this is called capitalism, which is not a naughty word or a figment of someone’s imagination but an actual, material and social phase in human history. Capitalism ensures that one class are in possession of the means of wealth production and distribution, which allows them to live off the labour of the other class, who are thereby cheated out of access to the wealth they have produced. It is a system fertile in human problems, to the extent that it is unable to satisfy the needs of most of its people, who suffer its wars, impoverishment, unnecessary diseases . . . And is it also fertile in defenders of the system, who advise us to have faith in illusions about their ability to construct a properly humane society. Are these people cheats?
James Cran, recently described by the Daily Telegraph as “a flinty Aberdonian law and order traditionalist”, is the Tory MP for Beverley and Holderness in Yorkshire (at least he is for the present – he will not be defending his 781 majority at the next election). He thinks highly enough of himself to announce that although he is standing down “. . . that does not stop him serving the people of the constituency with all the characteristic enthusiasm for which he is known”. However Mr Cran is rarely seen in the Commons, he has not spoken there for three years and last asked a (written) question on 4 November 2002. In 2003 he voted in only 36 percent of the divisions. For this unstinting labour on behalf of the voters of Bevereley and Holderness Mr. Cran is paid a wage of £57,485, supplemented by £88,524 in “expenses”. Not surprisingly, he did not claim anything for stationery, postage or computer support but he did get £15,959 for accommodation and £10,558 for travel. A law and order traditionalist would have something to say on the matter of workers who did a below average amount of work for so generous a wage.
This flinty Aberdonian is uncharacteristically coy over any discussion of his income from parliament and what he does to get it. He rebuffed a reporter from the Yorkshire Post with “I’m not interested: I really don’t care what’s in your newspaper”. It was not, of course, a good time to approach MPs about their “expenses”, which had just been detailed in the press, provoking a tectonic shudder up and down the country as the voters learned of how much MPs can claim, and what they can claim for, in the job of legislating for British capitalism. Honourable Members of the world’s most exclusive club can, unlike the workers they so often denounce as greedy and irresponsible, award themselves increases in pay and expenses. For example they recently voted for a rise of £8,000 a year in their “staff allowance” and some of them were reported to be enquiring about whether they could claim for the cost of a wreath for the Remembrance Day ceremonies. These are the people, let us remember, who are keen to hound down Social Security “scroungers”, who rant about “welfare dependency” and who feel an urgent need to legislate against “unnecessary” sick notes.
One who is not a flinty Aberdonian and who takes the job of being an MP rather more seriously is Laura Moffatt, who sits on a Labour majority of almost 7000 at Crawley in Sussex. Before getting into Parliament she was a staff nurse, avoiding promotion because it would have removed her from the hands-on work with patients which she adored. Moffatt has been active in the Commons, attending 81 percent of the votes there, speaking regularly, asking questions. In spite of her natural interest in health care she was given the job of Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Lord Chancellor, where she is not of a high profile. Moffatt is not one of the Labour rebels, preferring to help out the government with convenient interventions in the House. For example on 12 June, when Jack Straw was in difficulties over justifying the war in Iraq, she piped up that one of her constituents, a local doctor, had told her that his family in Iraq were “constantly telling him that life is much better for them, that they now enjoy a sense of freedom and a decent future at last . . . I believe that we need to listen to those quiet voices”. A relieved Straw responded “I absolutely agree with my Hon. Friend”. In July Moffat was asking a minister “What measures he has taken to eradicate pensioner poverty” – which implies that poverty can be eradicated and that Blair’s government have realistic plans which will reach even into the very depths of poverty such as pensioners endure.
So could it be that Moffatt, for all her apparently immaculate intentions, is a bit of a cheat? An authentic motivation to improve human welfare cannot be reconciled with supporting a government which manages the capitalist system as best it can in the interests of the owning class in society – which must mean putting profits before people. Moffatt must be aware that in the Health Service where she was once so proud to be working, patient care too often comes a poor second to economy. This was the background to a dispute in her constituency over the closure (it went by the name of a “configuration”) of the Accident and Emergency Department at Crawley hospital. On 27 October she asked a question in the House which began by praising the “modernisation” of the A & E Services for “real improvements to patient experience and safety”. This sounded like another of those “questions” which ministers often plant with grovellingly ambitious MPs to suffocate criticism. But Moffatt continued her question with a mention of “local difficulties” in the Surrey and Sussex Trust, “. . . where most services have been transferred to another hospital, and ambulances are having to wait up to two hours”. She asked how the government could be sure this would not “undermine the fantastic work that is going on”. She might have put it another way – the service in this local hospital is breaking down but we must still say it is marvellous.
James Cran and Laura Moffatt do their job as MPs in different styles. But on the one issue of real importance – that under all circumstances and in the face of all reality they will insist that the capitalist system is the highest form of the management of human affairs – they agree. On the detail of which party does a more efficient job of running the system in this country they differ; Cran will state his opinions in the more robust manner while Moffatt prefers to wrap up her meaning. But both of them are keen to get away with however much deception the working class will allow. Both of them, and their parties, are cheats.