The different responses the UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the leader of the Opposition David Cameron to the current MPs’ expenses scandal is an interesting one. The Prime Minister keeps repeating his commitment to reforming ‘the system’ which he says is a bad one. He recongises it is a bad one, everyone recognises it’s a bad one, so we should just change the system. Cameron, meanwhile, has carpeted all his MPs and told them that if their expense claims don’t stack up then they should repay the money or cease to be a Conservative MP.
In portraying the situation as a systemic failure the Prime Minister seems to be glossing over the fact that even with the system that exists, which by no stretch of the imagination could be interpreted as supporting some of the behaviour that has been reported, some MPs have behaved very modestly and others outrageously. There is no such thing as a system that is distinct from the daily actions and choices of human beings. Simply interacting with others in our lives we are obliged to make ethical choices, system or no system. When interpreting a set of rules which have evolved over time, some MPs have clearly understood them to mean that they claim almost what they wanted to, while others have acted more modestly. One could take the position that MPs who have claimed minimally are only doing what they should and need not be praised. But in an environment where the majority of people are acting to interpret the rules to their maximum benefit it is hard to stand against the crowd and do what you think is right. There will have been a strong group tendency to conform.
So to judge between the two leaders and how they have responded to the situation they have found themselves in, irrespective of their motivation and their own personal integrity, it seems clear that Cameron has acted much more decisively and has put his finger on the ethical issue. Rather than blaming an abstract ‘system’ as if this absolves personal behaviour, Cameron has called for changes in the rules and has tackled each of his colleagues on their personal spending at the same time.