Why MPs’ expenses are driving me to religion

May 13, 2009 by
Filed under: Credit crunch, Politics 

Major real world events have a cultural echo. As we were gripped by fear about AIDS there was a spate of movies warning of the wages of sin. When Glenn Close boiled the Michael Douglas’ family bunny we all wondered about our comeuppance.

In the wake of the credit crunch we are looking for people who can channel our sense of outrage and, in a more subtle process, act as the transference object for our complicity in the culture of excess and irresponsibility. Thus the last nine months are framed by the arc that begins with Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross abusing Andrew Sachs, passing through the pay and pension of Sir Fred Goodwin, before reaching the saga of MPs’ expenses.

Each of these episodes follows a largely predictable pattern. First the exposure, second the vain attempt to close down or justify, third the mounting hysteria, fourth the show of contrition (Sir Fred can only be admired for his refusal to play the game on this one), fifth the emerging consensus that it isn’t just the bad apples but the whole barrel, sixth the demand that something must be done, seventh – but much later – questions being raised over whether the remedy might have been worse than the original disease.

Maybe it just has to be this way. It is difficult to know what to make of these tides of outrage. There is something of the mob in the air – the targets of our wrath cannot be bad in just one way, we crave evidence that they are bad in every way. This is necessary so that we can be reassured that the bad people are nothing like us; there can be no question that in their circumstances we might have behaved as they did.

As I veer between joining in the public outrage and adopting a position of sophisticated distance, I have to admit that religion has – as I understand it – a powerful narrative for these times. Believers are not surprised by sin, they knew it was everywhere and in all of us. They urge us not to cast the first stone but to reflect on our own frailties and responsibilities. In the end we will all be judged, so we can put aside our rage and lust for revenge safe in the knowledge that ultimately no one gets away with anything but all must answer for their deeds.

True religion makes it easier for us to forgive and to accept our own complicities; even if the political practice of religion has often meant the very opposite. So while the impact of the credit crunch may be the right climate for public outrage, secularisation provides the fertile soil in which it grows.

PS: While I am tempting readers into a slightly more pious mode, this is just a reminder about my run on Sunday for the Alzheimer’s Society – if anyone would like to make a donation, they can do so here.  Thank you.



  • Cheryl Cooper

    Yes, there is clearly a lot of scapegoating and transference happening. We are clerly in the midst of the sequence of moral outrage you describe.
    Don’t believe the options are only religion or secularisation though – they both have their hypocrises and problems.

    I thoroughly agree with Stephen Fry about priorities : http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/newsnight/8045869.stm

    • matthewtaylor

      Thanks Cheryl. I love Stephen Fry

  • Susmita

    “Believers are not surprised by sin, they knew it was everywhere and in all of us”

    And the same is true of non-believers, surely?

    • matthewtaylor

      Yes but religion does have a good script on forgiveness, not sure rationalism has

  • http://thesocialbusiness.typepad.com/the_social_business/ Rob Greenland

    Good post Matthew, you’ve expressed a lot of the thoughts I was trying to think but hadn’t really worked out in my head, thanks.

    • matthewtaylor

      Thanks Rob

  • http://joenutt.squarespace.com/educational-research-and-news/ Joe Nutt

    A crash course in the history of the seven deadly sins for newly elected MPs would go a whole lot further than any new rulebook or vacuous “code of conduct.”

    And your point about forgiveness Matthew reminded me of one of the most powerful lines of contemporary drama I have ever heard. In Timberlake Wertenbaker’s “Three Birds Alighting on a Field,” a wife who has discovered her husband has been unfaithful for years, asks a priest what she should do. When he tells her to forgive him she retorts that she doesn’t know what forgiveness is. His response: “Forgiveness is accepting that the weight of another’s pain is greater than one’s own…even when you have to cheat at the scales.”

    • matthewtaylor

      Thanks Joe. I agree, it’s a great line

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  • John Attfield

    Hang on a moment. What we are talking about here is a clique of rich and powerful people who have been making vast personal gains from a system that has been making the rich immeasurably richer and the poor poorer. Apparently it’s a game that a few people can play while the rest of us can only watch. I am neither rich nor powerful, and neither have I had my snout in the trough. In what sense can I be said to share “complicity in the culture of excess and irresponsibility”? What could I possibly have in common with Sir Fred Goodwin, Hazel Blears and the others? This culture of excess is not with me, it’s with them. What emotions are people like me expected to feel, please? (And no, I’m not religious, sorry!).

    • matthewtaylor

      Thanks John. I am sure you are free of responsibility but many people do feel they were accepted a culture of celebrity and ostentatious wealth, of debt, of treating houses as investments not homes etc. I am not saying everyone is the same nor all equally responsible but that many of us were willing to acquiesce to the culture as long as we thought we were dong OK out of it

  • lou

    It’s a interesting argument, though I suspect societies composed of large numbers of such adherents to ‘true religion’ have been about as common as hen’s teeth, down the ages. Sadly for this particular (newly ex-naif) labour party member, forgiveness, I can manage; trust is another matter. Another Matthew’s words are haunting me this week.

    The Sea of Faith
    Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
    Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
    But now I only hear
    Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

    • matthewtaylor

      Thanks Lou. I suspect many Labour activists would find your quote poignant.

  • Clive Bates

    Hi Matthew

    Well said on Channel 4 News last night – it was like Kilroy (verging on Jerry Springer)…

    The blood sport with MPs is all very cathartic, and in some cases deserved, but the danger is we’ll just be left with a chewed up terminally wounded carcass of a parliament and a culture of anti-politics… we see that UKIP is ascendant this morning.

    Best regards