More expenses bollocks.

This post was written by Jon on January 27, 2013
Posted Under: Democracy,Labour

“Malcolm Tucker: Is that your chair?
Nicola Murray: Oh god, yeah. It’s cool, isn’t it? It’s got lumbar support.
Malcolm Tucker: Bin it. People don’t like their politicians to be comfortable. They don’t like you having expenses, they don’t like you being paid, they’d rather you lived in a fucking cave.”

 - From The Thick of It

It was recently reported that a shadow minister claimed around £650 expenses for Spanish tuition, despite claiming to be fluent in that language (in addition to French) on her website. The reception to this news was, of course, reasonable and level-headed.

Only kidding.

In the thoroughly stupid non-story, the Mail reports: “Robert Oxley, campaign manager of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: ‘Taxpayers should not be forking out for politicians to have  vanity language lessons. If Ms Reynolds is a fluent Spanish speaker, it begs the question why she needed the lessons.’

There are two things to sort out here. The first pertains to basic points regarding language learning, the second to the more important issue of what this sort of rhetoric has been doing to our politics for several years now.

Firstly, the minister in question was, at the time that this enormous quantity of money was being expended, Shadow Minister for Latin America, and claimed that the lessons were primarily intended to improve her acquaintance with the culture of that continent. But these were language lessons. Didn’t she claim on her website that she was ‘fluent’?

Those who’ve tried to learn a language (or have thought about it for more than a minute before writing a press release) know that the gap between the language ability of someone who’s ‘fluent’ and that of a native speaker is still considerable. There’s always room to improve. And it’s not entirely clear what attaining ‘fluency’ is. People who learn a foreign language to the extent that others would call them highly fluent would, presumably, still struggle somewhat in a discussion with politicians on the ins-and-outs of trade policy or suchlike (as indeed would most people). They might need extra help to be able to do their job properly if they were some sort of minister. I find it difficult to arrive at any conclusion other than that this use of taxpayer money was totally appropriate.

What should concern us most, however, is what this attitude does to our politics. The Conservative blogger Iain Dale recently commented on this aspect of political discourse, responding to a thoroughly stupid comment by a Mirror journalist on David Cameron and George Osbourne going to a restaurant, and the extreme unpleasantness of watching Question Time:

Our public life is being corrupted by a permanent sneer and cynical outlook by those who report on it. Yes, to some extent it’s the fault of those who serve in public life. The trouble is that the way politics is now reported in the print and broadcast media, it’s a wonder anyone wants to go into it. And this is why increasingly we will get a political class made up of geeks and obsessives. Normal people, people who actually want to do good, will turn their efforts elsewhere, and who can blame them?

The tenor of the complaints about MPs expenses has always been anti-political. It gives us no sense of what politics is for, only what we hate about it. It teaches us to hate politicians not for the shitty things they might do, but because they are politicians in the first place. It resigns us to our fate. Furthermore, it is something that has been pushed aggressively by the media elite and members of the business lobby with less than noble motives, something not considered by those who gleefully joined the anti-duck house brigade when all this shit started. We can have a sensible politics conducive to the building of a better society, or we can have a politics based on this childish posturing. We can’t have both.

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Reader Comments

Well most people would struggle to have a detailed conversation about the financial sector or the ins and outs of international diplomacy in our own language, so it’s not surprising an MP might feel fluent in a language but need a bit of training on the specialist language.

I’d add that Spanish Spanish is not identical to Latin American Spanish with interesting differences of nuance, pronunciation and vocab. So if they spoke Spanish Spanish it might be handy to have a Latin American taster session or two.

bearing in mind some of the discussions they might be involved in would revolve around war, drugs, high finance, mining and resources, etc you’d hope that people are on top form rather than making silly mistakes because they were too proud to take a little tuition.

So I agree. x

#1 
Written By Jim Jepps on January 27th, 2013 @ 10:45 pm

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