Denis MacShane: the dark side of public money

Once a country's main media outlets cosy up to their favourite ruling elite, the whole process has nothing to do with democracy any more

MacShane and the morality of public spending
Charles Crawford
On 8 November 2012 10:09

The embassy lost DM 250,000, but the Office of the High Representative got a tip-off that the bank was in trouble and pulled out its sizeable funds just in time. I had reason to think that a British official on secondment to the OHR had known what was happening, but had not warned the British embassy.

An interesting public sector ethical dilemma. The OHR managed to save a slab of international taxpayers' money to which British taxpayers had contributed. Had the OHR British colleague warned the British embassy that the bank was wobbling we of course would have pulled out our money, but that might have prompted a run on the bank that jeopardised the OHR money or funds held by the bank for many other embassies. Yet he was being paid not by HMG but by OHR. At least two different large pots of British taxpayers' public money were at risk, but his loyalties were divided.

Thus the House of Commons report on Denis MacShane. It served up a meticulous and devastating case. Mr MacShane was shown to have gone to great lengths to produce invoices to justify his expenses claims that appeared to come from a respectable independent organisation that in fact did not exist in any serious way:

Mr MacShane was submitting invoices to himself and asking the Parliamentary authorities to pay. I consider Mr MacShane's conduct in presenting the invoices in this way was more than inept. It was clearly wrong.

No doubt the police will have another look at all this. On the face of it there is a case to answer that these manoeuvres fall firmly on the wrong side of the law.

These examples and many more simply go to show that it does not matter how finely the net is woven to stop taxpayers' money being abused. On the margins funny things happen. And, of course, a very fine, large net does a great job giving minnows food for thought. Sharks and whales swim straight through it.

The bigger picture? Most of us were brought up to understand that 'public money' represents money transferred into state coffers on the basis of a principle of consent. Having chosen our government through a rather eccentric but nonetheless accepted voting system on the basis of promises made to us by those seeking re-election, we reasonably can be expected to put up with the government threatening us with force if we do not pay the taxes that the government decides are good for us.

However, we in turn reasonably expect the highest levels of propriety on the part of government officials and the wider state apparatus in spending that money wisely and honestly. In other words, voters ultimately decide how much the government should take of their money, but that money passes to the state on certain clear conditions.

In a mysterious, horrible way all that is shifting. As the role of the state and its insatiable scheming grows and grows -- in part because voters themselves are shortsighted and/or greedy -- instead of voters deciding what the state should have, the state decides what voters should be allowed to keep. Any clear sense of the moral dividing line between public and private money erodes. To echo the concluding enigmatic thought of Dark Side of the Moon: "as a matter of fact, it's all public!”

In these circumstances attitudes to state corruption likewise start to shift. The state and its servants start to convey the impression that abuse of public funds is not a gross abuse of trust, but rather something that just happens now and again, a "normal" cost of the state munificently looking after us all.

EU spending never seems to reach the EU's own accounting standards (although the argument goes that if those strict standards were applied to UK public spending we too would have serious problems). One way or the other, the message from the state to voters is the same. Nothing to worry about here - move along.

Once we see a country's main media outlets cosying up to their favourite ruling elite and giving up on serious investigation of corruption running into many billions of dollars, the whole process has nothing to do with democracy any more. Something deeper and indeed far darker is going on. So what about those US elections, hmm?


Charles Crawford is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, he is now a private consultant and writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter: @charlescrawford


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