Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Cigar: (mis)connecting Brexit and the Expenses Scandal

The link between the Expenses Scandal and Brexit suggested by a new BBC documentary is not so convincing, writes Nick Dickinson, but the desire to connect the two reveals a lot about the tendency of sophisticated political observers to refuse to take certain events at face value.

Last week, BBC Newsnight aired a new documentary special on an old topic; the 2009 Westminster expenses scandal. Amid the fractured chaos of the UK’s current politics, the expenses scandal can seem far removed from present problems by more than just time. Did we really spend a whole summer talking about a duck house?

The premise of Expenses: The Scandal That Changed Britain, however, is that the fissiparous state of Britain’s post-Brexit politics “has its roots” precisely in that earlier episode. Using interviews with an impressive number of key figures from Tony Blair to the former Archbishop of Canterbury, and capably presented by the ever incisive Emily Maitlis, the description also promises “new revelations from the key players” about the scandal.

Nonetheless, what fresh information emerges does not dramatically change the basic narrative of the scandal itself. Thus, in the first half hour, we start with the Freedom of Information Act and fearless campaigning journalist Heather Brooke, moving to the leak via the former SAS officer, to the Telegraph’s drip-fed revelations, and finally to the political fallout and the machinations which followed. At the same time, the filmmakers skilfully avoid some of the obvious traps in any fair assessment of the scandal; mostly related to being too damming, or too kind, to the politicians caught up in its maw.

But what of the main thesis that current politics somehow find their root in these events? In short, the argument in Expenses runs that the scandal created a new type of relationship between the public and the political class based on mutual distrust and suspicion. In the time since and via certain intervening events – in particular the 2011 AV referendum – this crack widened into the chasm which helped drive Brexit and now threatens to swallow Westminster whole.

At the same time, it is carefully stressed that no strong causative claim is being made here. That is probably just as well. In the first place, the available evidence from political science points to the counterintuitive conclusion that the scandal had no strong effect on trust in politicians. Although a hard concept to usefully systematise, surveys from the time tend to show trust holding steady at its previous (albeit low) level – reflecting a ‘structural gap’ between expectations and reality rather than a reaction to any particular event.

Likewise, even in the immediate aftermath, the electoral consequences of the scandal were also probably minor. In Expenses, this is expressed through always handy journalistic euphemism that it is “hard to know” what the effects were on the 2010 election. Again, however, the available work from political science suggests that there was a weak link between voters perceptions of an MPs’ involvement in the scandal and vote choice – with half of all voters simply not knowing whether their MP was implicated or not.

The most interesting parts of programme come when the discussion moves to a more long-term consideration of what the scandal tells us about representative democracy in the UK. As well as more closely reflecting the ‘structural gap’ thesis, the premise that the scandal was itself a reflection of broader anxieties about who our representatives are mirrors scholarly assessments of the scandal as a form of moral panic.

Relatedly, some of the other most interesting moments in the documentary come from interviewees who explicitly tried to use the scandal for some unrelated goal; in particular Nick Clegg and Matthew Elliott, a political operative instrumental in both the No to AV and Vote Leave campaigns. While Clegg’s attempt to use the scandal to bolster electoral reform failed, however, Elliot’s attempt to put it to the opposite purpose apparently succeeded.

Yet as Elliott notes, the most effective message in both referendum campaigns was not anti-elitist but fiscal; specifically the suggestion that some spurious but significant sounding amount of money should be spent on the NHS. Here, the only real connection to the expenses scandal is the broad human inability to easily put large sounding numbers – like an expense claim for several thousand pounds – into proper context, a phenomenon known as ratio bias.

This observation also brings us to a further issue with the premise of Expenses; the suggested link between Brexit and elite (dis)trust is also often overstated. Although low trust in politicians does correlate with a propensity to have voted Leave, the independent effect of this variable versus demographic factors, in particular education, and policy factors, in particular attitudes to immigration, is relatively modest.

Moreover, while some studies have found that low trust exacerbated some voters’ concerns about immigration, the main effect seems to derive from actual immigration flow on a local level. Thus low trust in politicians cannot really be said to be at the fundamental root of Brexit either.

If this is the case, why is connecting the two events using the narrative thread of trust so appealing? At one point in Expenses, during a montage of reaction quotes from the time, Stephen Fry appears and, in his inimitable style, declares the whole affair a “bourgeois obsession” with petty bean-counting. Instead, Fry argues, people should hold politicians to account for what really matters in the “grand scheme of things”; the issues of war, peace and prosperity.

Yet what the expenses scandal revealed above all is that normal politics has little to do with the grand scheme of things. Rather it reflects what people actually care about in the moment, no matter how petty or ridiculous it seems to Stephen Fry.

The trust narrative saves us from this unedifying conclusion. Rather than accept the unpalatable truth that some people really did just care a lot about waste and abuse in a small category of public expenditure, we can conclude instead that the whole affair was ‘really’ about the grander theme of trust in politics. In this sense, thematic connections to trust are not really analyses but rather stories we tell ourselves to transform concerns we don’t understand into ones that we do.

Likewise, reaction to Brexit by sophisticated observers has been characterised by a tremendous amount of wishful thinking about what was ‘really’ behind the vote. This is most evident on the left, where the Brexit vote is commonly held to have been produced by a discredited elite consensus on austerity and neo-liberal globalisation. In the liberal centre, the argument runs more directly through trust via the folk devils of sinister anti-liberal forces promoting manipulative anti-elitist frames.

In both cases, though strong cases can be made for versions of these arguments, the general drive appears to be an unwillingness to take a concern at face value because we don’t hold that position ourselves, and don’t understand why anyone would. But the truth is likely both more prosaic and less edifying. Brexit was primarily about immigration, and the expenses scandal was about expenses. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.


Notes

Nick Dickinson is a PhD student in politics at the University of Exeter. His doctoral research focuses on the regulation of parliamentary salaries and expenses. He completed a BA in History and Politics at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, in 2013 and a masters (Mst.) in Modern British & European History the following year. He came to Exeter in autumn 2015 and completed a masters (MRes) in Politics, staring his doctoral research in autumn 2016. He tweets at @NickSDickinson.

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