It’s not about the system II

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.


2 thoughts on “It’s not about the system II

  1. UK Voter

    Brown wants to put everything off, he is a “tomorrow man”, by contract, Cameron is acting decisively and also, I suspect tactically, given there is a lot of self-interest. However, the real problem here is the moral compass of all MP’s. Because, whilst there are those that have clearly milked or abused the expense system, the others seem only too aware that it was going on and they decided to do nothing. In my book, that makes them as bad as the rest.

  2. sbilling

    I think your series of posts about “the system” is very timely and very well expressed. You are pointing out that it is a common thing to see the “system” as something outside the experience and interaction of human beings. Then we can say that the system is the problem, say that we are going to change the system, and avoid offending anyone. This is quite an important consideration if you are a politician. Cameron’s position risks offending a lot more people and is courageous from that point of view alone.

    From your description, its effectiveness (and also potential for increased conflict and divisiveness) would be enhanced because it includes holding people accountable.


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