Global Dispatches: United Kingdom—Believing They Work For Us

January 17, 2011 Updated: March 7, 2012

[xtypo_dropcap]T[/xtypo_dropcap]he words spill out before I can help myself. My daughter suppresses her eye rolling disdain enough to satisfy my notions of authority and respect, and does as bidden. The words, “Because I'm in charge” ping around in my head, assuming my father’s tones, and I cringe at my lazy parental shortcut.

My expectations of unwavering trust for authority are once again exposed by a child’s natural curiosity and expectations of rationality and honesty, (and perhaps a little natural mischief-making too).

We Brits are a deferential lot; to the point of silliness at times.

Last week, a former member of Parliament was jailed for one and a half years for fiddling with parliamentary expenses claims, in what may be the final chapter in a two-year news saga.

But the MPs’ expenses scandal not only exposed the inbuilt corruption of the expenses system, as well as the corruptibility of politicians, it also exposed the dangers of our unquestioning deference to authority.

In essence the parliamentary expenses system was used, with a wink and a nod from the overseers, as a de facto salary top-up by some MPs; from the odd unjustifiable minor claim, to fraudulent claims of tens of thousands of pounds.

The story gathered momentum, as claims for bell-tower repairs, floating duck-houses, phantom mortgages, and moat-repairs slowly brought public anger to a simmer.

The British psyche is a strange blend of irreverence and obedience for authority. I can’t put my finger on what is behind this dichotomy. Perhaps it comes from a history that stretches way beyond democracy; perhaps the blending of both monarchy and parliament carries its tension through our psychological makeup. We don’t know whether we work for our authorities or the other way around.

You’d think that given the adversarial nature of the press, the attack bulldogs of the tabloids, and the general ribbing of authority figures, that politicians would be so highly scrutinized that those fiddling with the system would soon be winkled out.

Not so. It took 20 years for the corruption in the system to be exposed. And when it first emerged, in many quarters people just muttered about newspapers getting carried away. Even MPs tried to just laugh off accusations of expenses claims. Just a storm in a teacup.
As newspapers roared breathlessly, the truth gradually dawned on both the MPs and the public—that old-fashioned deference to authority wasn’t going to wash, and wasn’t appropriate.

Then as the public began to understand, the floodwaters gathered pace, bearing down on the authorities.

A year down the line and those same MPs weren’t laughing any more, but stepping down from politics, their reputations chewed to pulp.

But interestingly it was an American journalist who began to uncloak the scandal. When she asked for the details of MPs’ expenses claims, she didn’t walk quietly away, like her British counterparts, when told the information was off-limits. And when she asked why, the reply, “Because we say so. That’s the way it is.” infuriated her and pushed her further. She was driven deep down by something that we authority-bound Brits don't really believe in our hearts: they work for us.

Perhaps that’s why children don’t do as bidden automatically, but expect reason. They instinctively understand the essence of parenting and true responsibility; we work for them, never the other way around.

And for now at least, it looks like “Because I'm in charge,” isn’t going to wash with the British public.

Follow Simon on Twitter: @SPVeazey