Demonstrating the dizzying pace of the modern news agenda a small political storm has brewed and passed over just in the time I’ve been sitting here trying to decide what to blog about.
The Electoral Commission in the UK releases quarterly figures showing donations made to political parties. The figures released today showed a bequest for half a million which was split between the two Coalition parties. A little bit of light journalistic digging showed that the bequest was made in the will of a Joan Edwards who specified that the money should go to “whichever government is in office… in their absolute discretion to use as they may think fit.” It was speedily pointed out that thinking fit to keep it for yourself was probably not quite in the spirit of the thing, and within a morning both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems had conceded the point and agreed to hand the money over to the Treasury. Cue many editorials about the grasping nature of modern politicians and their lack of engagement with the notion of public funds for the public good. Some of those editorials may even be wise and worth reading, because, yes, if you’re the government and you get a wodge of cash to spend as you “think fit” and your first thought is that you could use it to pay for a better wine selection at your party conference then shame on you.
However, my first thought on reading this story wasn’t about how disappointingly grasping and self-serving the politicians involved seem to be, it was about the bequest itself. Somewhere out there a woman decided to leave half a million pounds to the government of the day, not knowing, presumably, which party that would be or how they would choose to spend the money. I can’t decide whether that demonstrates a refreshing faith in government and democracy or simple naivete. Maybe it’s neither – maybe the woman in question had fallen out with her local cats’ home and left the money to the government just to spite them.
What I am fairly sure about is that I wouldn’t do the same. If I had half a million pounds to spare (and a quick rummage under the sofa cushions confirms that I don’t), I can imagine wanting to use the cash for the greater good. I am a proper hippy bleeding heart liberal after all. I believe in outdated stuff like the welfare state and universal healthcare and higher taxes for the comfortably-off. But to voluntarily bequeath half a million to the government of the day like Joan? I don’t think so. And there are three reasons why not:
1. I’m a bit of a control freak. Sure, I want to improve the world with my money but I want to choose how.
2. I want to see what happens to the money. That kind of rules out the whole bequest thing. I think I’d want a scheme where I just went “Here is some money. Please tweet me if you’ve got something cool you’d like to do with it, and I shall pick stuff that sounds good/interesting/worthwhile…” Back to the control freakery again.
3. I don’t quite trust that any political party would definitely use my money for the greater good, and that’s a really bad thing. Polls repeatedly show that the British public lack faith in their politicians. This Ipsos MORI poll from June 2013 is a good example, showing the extent to which we believe our politicians to be self-serving. It is, therefore, really annoying when they act in ways that reinforce that belief. After expenses scandals, and previous question marks over party funding, politicians should be going out of their way to clean up their act, rather than opportunistically divvying up bequests between themselves. Perhaps that perception is that if the mistrust extends across the party divides then there’s no comparative loss if the public don’t trust you, because they don’t trust the other guy either.
And at this point I feel I should have a pithy conclusion as to how to fix the break down of trust between electorate and elected, but I don’t I’m afraid. Feel free to offer your suggestions in the comments. And feel free to share your spending plans for any unexpected (or, indeed, imaginary) cash you might have lying about.