The Spectator's Notes

The Spectator’s Notes: In defence of Maria Miller

Plus: The need for real contrarians, and the sad fate of Lord Irvine’s wallpaper

12 April 2014

9:00 AM

12 April 2014

9:00 AM

Maria Miller’s forced resignation is a disgrace. No iniquity was proved against her. Over her expenses, I suspect her motive was innocent: she was trying to work out childcare with her parents in a way compatible with the weird rules, rather than plotting larceny. The parliamentary committee probably understood the circumstances fairly. The press anger was confected because of our (justified) dislike of the post-Leveson Royal Charter. We keep complaining that MPs are ‘marking their own homework’, forgetting that this is exactly what we have done ourselves — incredibly indulgently — for all these years, whenever people have complained about our behaviour. Besides, it is constitutionally wrong for MPs not to mark their own homework. We elect them. If we insist on an unelected body ruling their affairs, we are undermining the authority we have conferred on them. The best system is that MPs should mark their own homework but 100 per cent in public. Then they preserve the power of representative democracy and we can work out what we think of them.

Some experts on the Scottish referendum assure me that negative campaigning works. Polling suggests, they say, that fear of the consequences of independence rather than deep feeling for the Union, will persuade people to vote No. Perhaps, but it is surely important that if people do have strong feelings they should be encouraged to show them. Otherwise their opponents will be emboldened. Good political arguments reach heart as well as head. My impression is that feeling for the Union runs high among all those young people in Scotland who want to remain part of the wider world. Shouldn’t they have a great youth concert or march or something that can get the pipes skirling?

One person who feels very strongly in favour of the Union is Bob Geldof. Last week, I heard that he was preparing to storm Scotland to tell it that Britain loves it and wants it to stay. Such sentiments come well from Irishmen. How sad that his daughter’s tragic death will presumably prevent him.

An email informs me that the Contrarian Prize for 2015 has been awarded to Clive Stafford Smith. The prize goes to ‘individuals in British public life who put their heads above the parapet on grounds of principle’. Mr Stafford Smith has campaigned for 30 years against the death penalty, chiefly in the United States. He has been admirably determined about this, but in what sense has he ‘put his head above the parapet’? Among the classes who award the Contrarian Prize, he will have almost literally 100 per cent support for his views. His position, whether correct or not (I am the only person I know who cannot decide which side to be on about the death penalty), is completely orthodox. A true contrarian must go against those he meets at dinner parties, not distant adversaries like Dixieland rednecks. True contrarians of our time, therefore, are people like Nigel Lawson or Matt Ridley, who powerfully challenge the theories of global climate catastrophe which prevail among the award-conferring elites. So of course they do not get the prizes.

Approaching The Spectator’s offices last week, I noticed a few pennies lying in the street. My eye scanned the tarmac. There were more and more of them — all one penny coins, perhaps a hundred. Presumably they had fallen out of some office cash bag. What to do? Obviously there was no one to return them to. Should I grab them? My mind hesitated between a sense of the dignity supposed to attach to a 57-year-old suited man of the professional classes and a lifelong enthusiasm for unearned income. As I havered, two workmen with no such scruples squatted down in front of me and scooped the coins up.

When I interviewed someone in the House of Lords recently, I was led away to a remote, almost attic corner, up a winding stair. Suddenly, I had that feeling described at the beginning of Brideshead Revisited: ‘I have been here before.’ We were in the former apartments of the Lord Chancellor, I realised, made notorious by the £59,000 wallpaper installed by Lord Irvine of Lairg when he held that office. Typically, Tony Blair first installed his old pal (Lord Irvine) in the job and later, over a weekend, casually abolished the post, the oldest in British government. It turned out that total abolition was not, in fact, possible — the Lord Chancellorship plays a role in church, crown and law which is not easily unscrambled — but the job was permanently downgraded, and is currently occupied by someone who is neither a peer nor a lawyer. How sad the apartments look now, used as little-frequented meeting rooms. The Pugin wallpaper remains, as do the wooden lavatory seats, but half-baked reform has ‘stolen hence the life of the building’. Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.

Please may I use this column to apologise to all those who invite me to join them on LinkedIn and receive no answer. I have never seen LinkedIn, but I am told it is the office equivalent of Facebook. This leads me to guess that it is full of implausibly positive entries about whatever job the author is doing and then, when — as so often happens nowadays — the author is sacked, of stuff about how he or she is ‘relishing new challenges’. I would find this very depressing to read.

‘Are you part of a tribe or clan?’ asks the form for a US visa which I recently completed. What is the right answer? If you say yes, are you regarded with suspicion because you might try to bring in all your kinsmen, or with special, politically correct tenderness because you can claim group rights? I said no, because that seemed to correspond with reality, but I wish I had known what was expected of me. I would happily dredge up my ancient Irish clan links if that would ease the bureaucratic process.

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  • dado_trunking

    “it is constitutionally wrong for MPs not to mark their own homework”
    well, then frankly, the ‘make it up as we go along constitution’ is WRONG.

    • ButcombeMan

      Indeed you are right and to use his own words, this article from Moore is “an absolute disgrace”, trying desperately to justify the unjustifiable. Voters are angry about “flipping” and “gaming the system” by our elected representatives.

      If Moore is so out of touch with what voters think about troughing at the tax payers expense, he should retire.

      .”No man is above the law and no man is below it: nor do we ask any man’s permission when we ask him to obey it”.

      Theodore Roosevelt

      • balance_and_reason

        About 10 labour MPs found guilty for every Tory found guilty by the courts over the last 15 years….at least Labours winning on something

  • maurice12brady

    For a poor unfortunate woman struggling to accommodate various factions of her household (as you would paint the picture!) there’s a remarkable amount of secrecy! Four home-helps in 7 yrs. and not one (not ONE) can be traced to validate her meandering story — That, to the standards commissioner sounded like ‘lies & deception’

  • David Lindsay

    Who are these “lay” members of the Parliamentary Committee on Standards? I bet that they are a lot less “lay” than many MPs are, and an awful lot less “lay” than most voters are. It is parliamentarians who are there because they are lay, just as magistrates and jurors are.

    Yet there is now a proposal that these great and good be given voting rights. As much as anything else, that would mean that the Committee’s proceedings could no longer be covered by parliamentary privilege. Don’t the people making this proposal know that? Evidently not.

    None of the above would need to be explained at all if Tony Benn were not dead, Michael Foot were not dead, Leo Abse were not dead, Enoch Powell were not long dead, Tam Dalyell were not retired, or Sir Peter Tapsell were not about to retire. All eyes are now on Sir Richard Shepherd. Whether any ears will be upon him is, alas, a different question.

    Like recall elections, the expense of which ought in each case to be borne by whoever organised the petition to bring it about, the equally illiterate call for voting “lay” members of the Standards Committee, or even for these matters to be taken out of the hands of MPs altogether, is of a piece with the cession of properly parliamentary power to the Executive and to the Judiciary, to media moguls and to money markets, and to the Government’s staff rather than to elected politicians. A very similar, and not unconnected, trend is also evident in local government.

    Where else is going to be given these voting “lay” members from among self-selecting specialists with heavy vested interests? Select Committees? Standing Committees? The House itself? That is the very last thing that we need.

    Moreover, it would constitute an abrogation of our own responsibilities. If we want better MPs, then we ought to require ourselves to vote for them.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Good Heavens, Lindsay, where have you been? Do peole like you go on holiday? Nice o see you back. I nearly read what you had written but it was so long I kind of lost hope.

  • Baron

    Charles Moore: ‘The best system is that MPs should mark their own homework but 100 per cent in public’.

    The tiny difficulty with this suggestion of yours, Mr. Moore, is that the honourable members would gladly endorse the former, but never the latter.

  • Rossspeak

    Correct me if I am wrong – but didn’t Maria Miller already own the house in question – then take out a second mortgage based on its ( then inflated value) – for far more than she paid for it originally – and claim the mortgage interest payments on expenses?
    Regardless of who lived in the house – this is far more than “playing the system” – and far nearer to embezzlement .
    Or have the facts of the case been missrepresented?

    • agneau

      Yes, it was more lucrative to have the taxpayer fund her extended family’s accommodation and provision of childcare than it was for Ms Miller herself to do it. What would any MP do? Of course one HAS to live in Wimbledon if one can’t afford Chelsea.

  • Alex_Cheshire

    Having been caught claiming money she was not entitled to she hangs on to as much as she can. How can anyone support this? She is just a benefit cheat.

  • 0rangeman

    elephant in the room that no one seems to have noticed about the Maria Millar
    debacle, is the role of the supposedly ‘independent’, watchdog Kathryn Hudson on
    parliamentary expenses, who raised initial concerns about the almost £46,000
    apparently embezzled by the lady from us the poor bloody taxpayer as usual, in the first place.

    It seems totally bizarre to say the least that after bringing these extremely
    serious charges against Mrs Millar that the allegedly “independent” watchdog
    was rendered powerless to pursue this to what in the case of an ordinary
    citizen would be an inevitable conclusion.

    Instead a committee of Mrs Millars peers was hastily convened who were able
    with impunity to cast aside all the main findings by this ‘independent’ office
    and instead impose their own pointless slap on the wrist.

    This raises several scenarios. Either the watchdog was totally incompetent and
    had not run her investigations in a professional manner or if not the case, her
    powers to follow through on her findings in the case were nonexistent in which
    case why are taxpayers being fleeced to pay for this clearly toothless

    At the very least the actions of MPs in so nonchalantly overturning explosive
    findings of this allegedly independent watchdog cast serious aspersions on her
    professionalism and quality of the investigations that her department

    Why she has not vigoursly challenged this is inexplicable. If there is
    substance in her original findings and clearly, noone would make allegations
    like this if there wasn’t then even the fact that Mrs Millar has resigned
    should not be an excuse to sweep the entire matter under the carpet. Rather the
    files should as a matter of course be handed over to the police so that Mrs
    Millar may be subject to the same laws in this regard as the rest of us mere


    “I hope that you will be able to return to serving the Government on the Front bench in due course”

    What breathtaking contempt for ordinary peoples verdict on this matter!


  • hannathegreat

    “We elect them. If we insist on an unelected body ruling their affairs, we are undermining the authority we have conferred on them.”

    This assumes two things. First of all, that when we elect them we are fully aware as to their integrity and moral character, thus rendering us justifiably responsible for our choice and having to bear the consequences thereafter. This is questionable considering the fact that most MPs are loyal to Party and at the mercy of the Whips. It’s also not always possible to know exactly the history of each individual in such a system of ours. I believe we should view the first year in office as a ‘test’ and not presume anything. Power tends to attract a lot of people who have nefarious intentions – history teaches us that – we should always be sceptical.

    Secondly, we don’t live in a true democracy anyway. We don’t even have a constitution. So how can we “confer authority on them” when the system is vastly mistrusted in the first place?

  • Doggie Roussel

    There is simply no defence for Maria Miller

  • Terry Field

    Britain is a bitter, nasty little place, full of people who like to destroy each other since they can have no other success in their ear-like little lives.
    Poor Maria; but such things will continue and entertain the bear-pit that is British public life.