In which I think about words and their toxicity or lack thereof

This morning Maria Miller MP resigned as  Culture Secretary. This was not unexpected. She’d clung on for a week since being forced to apologise to Parliament for over-claiming expenses and for failing to co-operate fully with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards’ investigation into her expenses claim. Many column inches will now be spun out on every conceivable element of this story: precisely how much Miller should have had to repay*; whether the loss of one of his very few female ministers will be an electoral blow for Dave and his massive shiny forehead**; and whether the press launched a vendetta against Miller, the minister tasked with seeing through changes in press standards and complaints procedures***. So I’m not going to expend any more energy on all of that.

What did catch my attention was a single sentence in this morning’s Today programme report on Miller’s troubles. The reporter described the word ‘expenses’ as the ‘most toxic’ word around in discussion of MPs and politicians. And he may have a point. ‘MPs’ expenses’ has become a shorthand for the general perception of sleaze and dishonesty around our elected representatives. But is it really that toxic? Since the expenses scandal broke in all its duckhouse and moat-cleaning how-the-other-half-lives glory in 2009, seven cabinet or junior ministers (including Miller) have lost their posts as a result, twenty-one MPs were either deselected or chose to stand down, and six MPs and two Lords have been found guilty on criminal charges, all relating to expenses. All in all it’s been a pretty poor show, and yet the word we use is ‘expenses’, which, when you think about it is a pretty benign sort of a word compared with some of the alternatives.

Let’s think about a couple of much much more toxic words for a moment. Fraud. Now there’s a nicely toxic word, but it isn’t the word we usually use when talking about MPs’ expenses. We say ‘expenses’ and we roll our eyes, or we say ‘scandal’ which brings to mind heavily stage managed photo opportunities where wronged wives stand by their high-profile man. It doesn’t bring to mind individuals routinely and dishonestly claiming thousands of pounds of public money. Dishonesty. Forgery. There’s two more toxic words, both of which appear in criminal charges brought in relation to MPs’ or Lords’ expenses claims. Cheat. That’s another really toxic word.

In the same week that Miller was clinging by her fingernails to the last tiny threads of both her reputation and her job, her cabinet colleague, Ian Duncan Smith was announcing yet another crackdown on people who overclaim welfare benefits. If we’re applying the same standards to those overclaimers as to Miller, I’m assuming that Duncan Smith’s ‘crackdown’ will involve a system whereby people stand up in the waiting room at their local JobCentre+ apologise briefly for their mistake and then pay back around about 10% of whatever they actually owe. It would only be fair, and we are all in this together, after all. But that isn’t what will happen, because when it comes to the pot of public money we call welfare benefits we’re very happy to use words like fraud and cheat, and those words have force. Those words make us think of deceit and criminal intent and those things lead to condemnation and punishment.

In the heat of the expenses scandal the same logic was applied to MPs. Criminal charges were brought. Jobs were lost, but more recently, the heat has gone out of the conversation. Miller has resigned as cabinet minister. I’d be stunned if she stood down as an MP, and David Cameron has already expressed the hope that she will return to cabinet at some point in the future. The  language about Miller from Downing Street uses words like ‘mistake’ and doing ‘the right thing’ by apologising. So maybe ‘expenses’ is the most toxic word bandied about at present in relation to MPs and politicians, but maybe, it isn’t quite toxic enough.


* £45,000 like the Parliamentary Commissioner said

** Hopefully

*** Possibly, but morally it’s all a bit pot-kettle at this point


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