Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Monday 30 May 2011

Expenses - it's déjà-vu all over again

Once upon a time we had the feudal system. The king and court spent vast sums on elaborate clothing, castles and patronage, secure in the knowledge that the taxes and rents paid by their underlings would fund it all.

And the petty lords and officials aped their superiors, knowing that the labour of the peasantry would keep them in tapestries and wine.

A thousand years later, the same situation exists, though political upheaval has in part replaced hereditary overlords with MPs, and, as the expenses scandal shows, their taste for luxury at our expense is no different.

We still have the petty officials too. Encouraged by its success at breaking the Westminster expenses scandal, the Telegraph now has in its sights the councils of Britain and their taxpayer-funded credit cards, like that wielded by Lord Hanningfield.

Councils up and down the land have been hitching a ride on the gravy train – and the gravy in question is rich, meaty and laced with truffle-oil. Luxury hotels, lavish meals and gifts from high-end retailers abound, along with tables at award ceremonies and champagne receptions.

Meanwhile details are coming out of similar expenditure on the part of civil servants on taxpayer-funded credit cards, most recently, with a certain irony, at the Department for Communities and Local Government. After all, if their masters were enjoying their perks to the full, why should civil servants not emulate them?

There’s a crucial difference here, though; this time, the culprits are effectively faceless – not high-profile Westminster MPs but local politicians and officials barely recognized in their own home territory. It's a fair bet that no colour supplements will be issued, no redacted documents circulated around the internet.

The Westminster expenses scandal provided a rich vein for satirists to mine – your humble host among them – but this fresh scandal, far more wide-reaching and worrying in its implications of a culture of entitlement – may be far harder to pin down because of its sheer extent.


  1. In the ballet "Manon", public on BP Big Screens on Wednesday evening, the "baddie" is the noble Tax Collector who flings money about on wine, women, no song because its ballet, and gambling along with high living. Everyone else loses. It is not a happy ending, as we will find out soon.

  2. Tax collectors had a pretty bad press before that, if I remember my New Testament RE lessons correctly.

    The performance of Manon is a timely manifestation of all that is wrong here - and how ironic, that, while the proles watch it on the big screens outside, there will surely be bigwigs in prime Opera House seats on publicly-funded expenses.

  3. More on the big-screen performances - Manon, Cinderella and Madame Butterfly - here - thanks, Demetrius.


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