During the Crimean war, the first—and greatest—war correspondent, W.H. Russell, revealed the scandal of under-equipped troops serving at the front to readers of The Times. Such was the outcry following his article that a special debate was held in parliament, and new equipment dispatched to the troops in theatre within weeks.
Wheels Within Wheels – the perpetual motion of political spin
–James W. Wood
Press the fast forward button for more than one hundred and fifty years. Stop right now. In mid-January 2010, the British government committed an “extraordinary spend” of £1.5 million to replace our ageing SA-80 assault rifles with American-made, gas-powered rifles that have more range, better accuracy and, best of all for the soldiers, the ability to work in extremes of heat and dust.
No, this isn’t some onanistic piece about the circularity of history, or how things never change, or whatever. Instead, it’s about slow moral decay. That gentle deterioration which has led us to the point where we’re like ancient Rome – the barbarians are at the gates, and all we can do is keep partying. Another loan. Another car. More deficit – hey, why not? Everyone’s up the spout, so why not us too?
In W.H. Russell’s day, parliamentarians were rebuked for neglecting serving soldiers – just as the public now criticises MPs for neglecting our armed forces. But back then politicians had probably served in the armed forces in some capacity, whereas the vast majority of today’s politicians have never been near a gun. So much so, in fact, that one has to go back twenty years to find a Defence Minister who has also been a serving soldier (George Younger, in case you were wondering: Defence Minister from 1986-1989, and a Commissioned Officer in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders).
Then consider that when W.H. Russell wrote his piece in the middle of the nineteenth century, absolute financial propriety was considered a prerequisite for service in Parliament. Even as late as 1936, an MP caught attempting to purchase his wife a train ticket via his expenses was forced to resign in shame. Compare that with the cheap farce of today’s MPs and their expenses scandal, and our decrepitude becomes obvious. Even our Prime Minister has agreed to pay back £13,600 of expenses— an act of generosity to the public that makes him look positively saintly when set against the excesses of some of his colleagues.
So not only are our elected representatives slowly embezzling us, they’re also scrimping on equipment for the young men and women brave enough to risk their lives in the defence, what’s left of our society and values. And then the media pundits wonder why no-one votes anymore.
The answer to the media’s rhetorical question is found once more in history. Go back more than three hundred years to the middle of the seventeenth century, and you might just find a parliament as corrupt as ours is today. But even in writing those words, I realise that I’m wrong: at least Cromwell dismissed the rump parliament in 1653 with the famous line, “you have sat too long there for any good you have been doing… in the name of God, go!”
Compare that with John Bercow’s craven defence of our current crop of MP’s, vainly admitting that “some wrong has been done” and that “we will have to take a hard look” at the expenses process. Looking at British politics today makes me think about what George Carlin said about the American dream: “It’s called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”
When W.H. Russell attacked public policy and the failure to arm our troops in the eighteen-fifties, would anyone have imagined that the parliamentarians who denied troops equipment could, at the same time, be filling their pockets from the public purse? These days, it seems that the reaction of too many of us to this kind of venality is to shrug our shoulders, much in the manner of Beckett’s Vladimir, and say, “nothing to be done.”
How many of us think it’s right that Deputy Prime Minister and life-long socialist John Prescott is able to become a multi-millionaire with a six-figure pension through public service?
Although there is debate in the media, nothing changes. Even though Conservative Chairman Eric Pickles said he felt as though he were “living on the last page of Animal Farm” when he heard John Prescott defend his financial rewards — nothing changes.
Nothing changes because we don’t change it. Because, as a society, we are as corrupt as those who represent us. It’s long been a truism of political discourse that any country gets the government it deserves — and looking around the piles of vomit in the streets of Britain on any given Sunday morning, who could disagree?
Looking at polls of teenage girls who consider lap dancing a valid career choice, who can argue? And the recruiting adverts that turn warfare into a video-game, the constant parade of “relationship experts”, “sex experts”, “dog psychology experts” and all the rest in the media…there’s no question— W.H. Russell wouldn’t be turning in his grave if he looked at our society. He’d be laughing up his sleeve at our naivety, our credulousness and—to put it brutally—at our wilful stupidity and blindness to what’s being done with our money in the name of the process of democracy.