BEING a former journalist, Denis MacShane, the disgraced ex-MP jailed yesterday for fraudulent expenses claims, will know that headline writers will re-name him Denis MacShame.
That is not intended as a moment of levity, but a comment that the new soubriquet is entirely deserved, for he has brought shame on what ought to be the most shining example of all Britain’s institutions – parliamentary democracy.
A sentence of six months in prison, of which he will probably only serve three on standard rules of good behaviour, may not seem very much. But, judged against the deplorable record of fraud committed by the six parliamentarians – four MPs and two peers – who have already been dealt with by the courts, his crime was towards the lesser end of the spectrum of deceit.
The judge accepted that the £12,900 which he falsely claimed back had in fact been legitimately spent and that MacShane made no profit from the claim. He has also repaid the money, so the public purse has been fully refunded. His crime was to forge the receipts using an institute which he controlled.
Yet the judge’s comments also made it plain to MacShane that, if he did not already know it, his actions were a serious betrayal of trust.
They were, he said, “a flagrant breach of trust” in “our priceless democratic system” with “the deception used… calculated and designed”.
And that is why MacShane fully deserves his jail term. He was elected an MP, a position of trust. He was a minister in the government, a post of public service. The public expect that people who occupy such positions should not just serve them, but that their behaviour should also set an example for others to follow. MacShane lamentably failed to do that.
His failure is all the more inexcusable in that MPs are expected to sit in judgment of others. The public expect that people thought to be abusing positions of power, such as bankers or energy company bosses, should be called to account by inquiring MPs. It undermines the validity of those investigations if the investigators become perceived to be part of a corrupt system which is loaded against the interests of ordinary people.
And if the public realm fails, MPs are expected to legislate to reform and repair it. Faith that that democratic process, which is the foundation of society’s rights and liberties, can perform that function effectively and well is also eroded by crimes such as those of MacShane.
We hope that this sentence brings to end this dreadful parade of shame. So far as we know, no other parliamentarian is facing charges or investigations arising from this expenses scandal.
And if the memory of the sentences meted out to those who have been exposed reminds all other politicians of the need for scrupulous honesty, some good may come of it.
As we celebrate, think of our troops
FOR the British forces still serving in Afghanistan, this Christmas should be a bit more celebratory than previous ones, for it should be the last Christmas meal that they have in Helmand province. The festivities, as with previous ones, will be tinged with sadness and a certain emptiness as they recall colleagues and friends who are not with them because of death and injury. Only yesterday confirmation came of another British soldier’s death.
And they will have that strange atmosphere which only troops on the front line can know – the oddness of observing a normality taken for granted back home in the abnormal surroundings of a fortified camp outside whose walls deadly danger lurks.
Peace and friendship inside, war and hostility outside, is a cruel contrast which has endured since mankind discovered the ability to wage battle against neighbouring people. This capacity plumbed truly terrible depths in the Great War which began a century ago, killing millions.
That appalling statistic does not in any way diminish the tragedy of those servicemen who have died in Afghanistan. If anything, it should serve to humble all whom the military have sworn to protect that there are men and women prepared to sacrifice themselves to save others.
Christmas Day in Helmand will be marked in the usual way by officers serving meals to the other ranks and all the ribaldry that accompanies the role reversal. There will be Santa outfits, football matches, exchanging of gifts and phone calls home.
But there will be no Boxing Day langour nor, for some, even any Christmas Day relief from war’s tension. As all of us celebrate in safety, we should remember that.