Beckmesser’s revenge

Rules are useful: without them we’d have chaos.

Except of course when they’re not.  When they become the enemy of commonsense or progress; the crutch of the jobsworth.

Sixtus Beckmesser is the narrow-minded, pettifogging town clerk: mediocrity incarnate.  When he encounters Walther’s true talent he is lost, and falls flat on his face.  Fortunately in their world all turns out well, as the sage Sachs, the voice of reason, is able to reconcile the old and the new, the rules and the constructive rulebreaker.

The story of our new government’s first public trouble – the circumstances of David Laws’s resignation – shows Beckmesser’s heirs in the ascendant in our time.

Laws is MP for Yeovil in Somerset, a constituency from which he couldn’t possibly be expected to commute to Westminster, so he was entitled to claim expenses for living in London.  The rules would’ve permitted him to claim over £20000 a year of taxpayers money, as most of his fellow MPs (including some who could easily commute) have done.  For that, he could have paid either rent or mortgage on a pretty nice place, and one big enough to house an MP’s family.  Or spouse, or any other kind of partner.

But instead of that, Laws rented a room in a shared house, at a much lower cost to the taxpayer (AIUI something in the ballpark of half what most of his colleagues claim).  Sounds like a Good Thing™ to me.  But it turns out that his landlord is also his partner, and that’s against the rules.  So he had to go.  He “should” have claimed twice as much and bought a new home, thus – if money is the object – freeing up his partner’s home to be sold or let at a big profit.

This is verily Beckmesser’s world.  It has cost us a minister who, in his very short time in office, had started to make a Very Good impression – more indeed than any of his colleagues (though I still have hopes of good things from one or two of them).  I don’t think the country can afford to lose him.

Meanwhile, his colleague and successor has apparently not merely claimed his full allowance (which is fair), but “flipped” to avoid paying CGT (which isn’t).

Posted on May 31, 2010, in politics, uk. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Yes, I agree that the government has lost the best man from that part of the coalition, if not both. However, I’m not clear as to wether there is a single Beckmesser or an aggregate one. It seems our PM would have liked to take the role of Hans Sachs but couldn’t quit swing it.

  2. Agreed. As a public employee (and former private sector one) I could see that Laws was making an impression fast and effectively. He understood his brief well and is a great loss to the government. I agree too with much of your analysis – Laws seemed to be a honourable man who did not set out to abuse the system.

    However it is not so much mediocre jobsworth bureaucrats who were responsible for his downfall, but rather a pair of feudal island-dwelling, tax-exile newspaper proprietors who, I expect, were deeply unhappy at the tory party entering into an unholy alliance with “liberals”, so were seeking out some scandal to discredit the coalition.

  3. I’ve concluded: higher population density equals more emphasis and adherence to rules, less reliance on individual interpretation thereof.

    It’s useless to fight against that trend (and probably a bad idea anyway, all things considered). The only answer is to change the rules themselves – make them more subtle, more nuanced, and easier to change further, in certain ways and within certain limits. It can be done – Japan shows that – but in Britain the problem is that the rules are currently being enforced by the (mostly Tory) press, and we know what scumbags they are.

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