Belfast Telegraph

Why it takes more than balance sheet to figure out MPs

By Gail Walker

The decision by all the candidates of the London mayoral contest to publish their tax returns has been lauded by many as a breakthrough in transparency. Furthermore, it has been held up as a triumph of democracy.

But is it really?

Of course, in the context of the race to be next Mayor of London, with Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone slagging each other off about how much tax they pay, the decision makes a kind of sense.

But where now do we draw the line?

Already George Osborne says he is relaxed about tax returns being released for those in government and, as is the way of these things, it looks set to become the norm.

Yet what gives us the right to know that a public representative got a little windfall last year when a parent died? That their small nest egg in Legal and General earned a few hundred quid? That they received a lovely carriage clock when they took out the funeral expenses life insurance as recommended by that lovely Frank Windsor during the ad break in Countdown?

Of course, we know what gives us the right to know. BECAUSE AT HEART WE ALL KNOW THAT POLITICIANS ARE LYING TOERAGS - for whom the normal rules of "innocent until proven guilty" don't apply.

In fact, quite the contrary, the new norm now means that we presume they are all up to no-goodery until they prove otherwise - fiscally, at least. (Give it time and we will soon have the technology put a meter on their beds to keep an eye on what they get up to there as well).

Who needs to live with that degree of suspicion, that degree of hostility, that degree of rude presumption?

Yes, there are issues to be raised about politicians and how much they earn. Politicians who call for people and business to pay their "fair share" of tax while indulging in tax avoidance schemes should be held up to ridicule. Those who may be indulging in other financial grey areas may be a fit subject for inquiry. But there should be at least prima facie evidence against them.

Would you like the financial details of your life held up for the inspection of a nosey public determined to rubberneck into your life?

How many people would be put off the idea of contributing to public life if they knew that their whole life would be laid open to aggressive inspections? I would - and I'm just a humble PAYE wage slave.

And if you're honest you might be as well.

Indeed, if this kind of transparency were to become the norm, it wouldn't really effect the political class (to whit, those who drop out of the womb hellbent on a political career). They would be too smart.

But what about the person who founded their own business and felt that he or she had something to contribute? Why bother?

Also, we are not American. Commentators noted with varying degrees of satisfaction that Livingstone and Johnson's (self) disclosures represented an Americanisation of British politicians. No, it represented an Americanisation upon an Americanisation.

America elects individuals to positions, be it sherriff, mayor or president of the whole shooting match. There, they largely elect the individual not the party. Here it's supposed to be the other way round. In the old days we used to elect politicians because of the beliefs and political ideology. Now, like the US, we have shallow popularity contests with the inevitable concentration upon the personal. In other words, relative trivia as opposed to substance.

In our new X-Factor politics, we prefer to dwell on what goes on between their balance sheets and their bedsheets rather than what's going on inside their heads.

A childish need for 'charisma' and simple minded mistrust towards those entering political life - it will prove a poisonous mix in the long run.

Democratic accountability isn't a simple matter of calling in the accountants.

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