The collapse of public trust in was not brought about by one of Britain's innumerable and always slightly eccentric sex scandals.
It wasn't the government's convoluted response to terrorism after 9/11, or the more recent economic collapse (to which it responded fairly well) or the internal factionalism within the Labor Party pre-, during-, and post-Blair, or even the Iraq war ("sexed up" document, dead scientists, MI6 plots).
It was something much more banal: an accounting scandal involving moats, television sets, spare apartments, gardening expenses and a porn movie or two. For weeks now, the Daily Telegraph (or Torygraph) has been revealing the details of internal Parliament records of the expenses claimed by MPs in the performance of their official duties. The tipping point seems to involve a Dickensian character called Douglass Hogg. Resisting the temptation to write about his snout in a trough, let us just say that Hogg, MP for Sleaford and North Hykeham, was rather indignant in explaining why he felt it was appropriate for him to bill taxpayers for having his moat dredged, stables cleaned and piano tuned at his country house.
When the BBC caught up with Hogg, he protested that all of the fees were cleared in advance with the Parliament office responsible for such matters. That was true--and a bit beside the point. Hogg's excuse was simply that he expensed the items because he knew he could.
Hogg later repaid the $2200 pounds associated with the moat and announced that he would stand down from running for re-election. He did not want to further inconvenience the Tories, who have been better about getting ahead of the scandal than Labor, even though there is no discernible difference in the degree of culpability. Hogg was one of the first politicians to be exposed by the Telegraph. Dozens of others, including cabinet ministers, had their finances exposed to the light of day. The next major casualty was the Speaker of the House of Parliament, who tried, without success, to turn the story into an expose of the Telegraph.
As was the case in Watergate, the reaction topples the crime in the court of public opinion. The technical aspects of the scandal are less relevant; in Britain, MPs can get reimbursed for expenses associated with apartments they use for official business in London, and many of them seemed to abuse the privilege. This will remind readers in the United States of the House franking scandal in 1992, when dozens of members of Congress were found to have abused the privilege that let them send free mail to residents of their districts.
The response of Britain's government has been the real stick in the craw. Gordon Brown was slow to realize the public's outrage, and most politicians did not seem to put 1 and 1 together--that precisely this sort of attitude is exceedingly aggravating to voters when they are being asked to scrimp and sacrifice during a recession. Never before have MPs looked so out of touch.
Even though the guilty parties cross party boundaries, the Labor party is expected to suffer heavy losses in today European and local elections. This expectation has led to another classic British political expression: the symbolic pre-announcement of which cabinet members would be "sacked" after the election rout. For some reason, leaking this information is supposed to help the party in power. (Earlier today, Labor MPs circulated a petition demanding that Brown step down.)
Some commentators have questioned whether the parliamentary system can survive without significant constitutional reforms. This has been an obsession of Brown's, and if he retains enough stature and authority, he might be able to convince a reformist-oriented parliament to act. Everything remains on the table, including the creation of independent watchdogs to monitor MP conduct and even a provision for recalling wayward MPs.
It may not be enough to save whatever modicum of trust British citizens have in the institutions that governor their democracy.