A Message from the Dept for the Dereliction of Duty

579571_615268015179859_403003586_nBy Robin McAlpine

This time of year brings two small joys – the evenings are getting lighter and the fields around our house are filled with lambs. But lying in bed a couple of nights ago, the sound of howling wind hammering rain against our windows wasn’t enough to cover the anguished bleats of the fluffy little things. Imagine being only a couple of days old and being stuck on that exposed hillside with no shelter from a storm that felt like it hadn’t let up for three days.

Which is my point – I can’t. I can imagine what it would be like for me to be stuck in a field without shelter in the dark in a storm. But having lived in a rural area for much of my life I know perfectly well that every sheep that ever lived (in Scotland at least) was born amid storms and raised in the driving rain. A sheep doesn’t experience cold in the same way we do. They’re designed to repel rain. I don’t know how a sheep is feeling. I hear them bleat and I guess. Perhaps in the morning I’ll take the cheekier, nosier ones some carrots to ‘make up for’ their dreadful night. Will they understand the gesture? Do they prefer carrots or apples? It’s a lot to infer from a bleat.

As with me and the sheep, so with Malcolm Rifkind and the citizens of Great Britain. Sure he hears us bleating, but he seems to have no idea how we feel, how we experience the world. He does not seem capable of interpreting what the noises we make (to him distant and indistinct) are supposed to be communicating. So he guesses. And his guess is that we are concerned about his low income and applaud his efforts to better himself. Us outside in the storm, him warm indoors, entertaining the rich at our expense.

Jack Straw, meanwhile, has emerged from this all much more as sheep than shepherd. While Rifkind met the revelations of offering himself for hire to private lobbyists with outrage and indignation, apparently unable to see what the fuss was about, Jack Straw at least appeared immediately to grasp the seriousness of his position. Which seems to me an almost perfect encapsulation of his entire political career – to be fully aware that what he was up to was basically crooked but to proceed anyway on the basis of expediency and the belief that he was probably going to get away with it.

I fear that these are the two poles around which Westminster politics now revolves – utter cynicism and complete detachment. I spent a year working in Westminster in the 1990s and I quickly came to despise the place. Everything about it felt strangely unconnected to everything I knew. The language – they were always talking about ‘shooting each others’ fox’ and ‘having the whip hand’. I sat through many meetings wondering if I was every going to understand Westminster and its endless country gentleman, slave-owner metaphors. I one proposed a media stunt based around sending voters a ‘bill’ for what the lack of devolution had cost them. I pitched it to the Scottish Labour front bench team. Someone said that it wouldn’t work because people would think we meant a parliamentary Bill. I looked round the table to see who was going to jump to my defence and point out that probably no-one receives a bill through the door and thinks ‘ah, must have got through its third reading’. But all the politicians seemed to accept that the punters probably would be thinking about them as they opened their post in the morning.

It was a narcissistic world then – and that was before Blair and Mandelson let rip with their doctrine of intense comfort at people becoming stinking rich. In the Blair years Parliament weakened its internal watchdog (the most effective of whom was removed for being the most effective) and weakened or removed the rules about former Ministers with specialist knowledge being able to trade on that knowledge from the moment they left Parliament. This is a club that was caught out in the most blatant of expense rigging, clearly ripping off the public for personal gain. They showed contrition for what must have been weeks. Before they swept it under the carpet. (And its a decidedly lumpy carpet, harbouring beneath it the inquiry into the cause of the financial crisis of 2008, the inquiry into the Iraq war, a string of unsavoury accusations of paedophile rings and much more.)

We have a system in which parliament can find itself not guilty of almost anything. Sure, if it comes to it, the occasional politician may have to walk the plank for getting caught. Individual politicians are not immortal, but it seems that the system is. Again and again the same scandals recur. The public gnashes its teeth. The media shouts for a while. But the media stops before any real damage is done to the system and the public gradually forgets. And we return once more to government by corporations with a parliament that seems focused on stuffing its pockets. Rifkind and Straw are selling out the people of Britain not because they think they’ll get away with it but because they always have in the past. The Daily Mail might be annoyed this week, but next week they’ll be back to filling pages with columnists complaining that not enough corporate CEOs will become elected politicians because the pay is too low. Of course we want politicians with ‘other interests’, the wealthy (which is to say the media) will agree. ‘Other interests’ make politicians more like them, less like us. And the less politicians feel like us, the better it is for the corporations.

The failure of a politics of empathy in Britain is petrifying.

I have talked to people in political parties who really do believe that a single mother on benefits who has those benefits sanctioned ‘must’ have another option. The possibility that the only option she has is for her and her child to starve is not considered, not felt. It is assumed that there ‘must’ be a relative that can help (possible a parent that sexually abused her, possibly the brother who has also just been sanctioned) or that there ‘must’ be work. I project my feeling of cold onto a sheep; Tory politicians seem to project their extensive and wealthy support networks onto the poor. They do not understand the lives of the people they govern.

I have believed for some time that the single biggest problem with UK politics is that the lives of politicians have become so far removed from those who elected them that there is little or no chance of the politicians running country in the interests of the many. Being an MP immediately puts you in about the top four per cent of the population by income. It supplies you a pension and other perks that give you a level of security few of their compatriots have. Politicians fear neither the present nor the future. That, in itself, makes them nothing like most of the population of Britain. Having achieved a sort-of bullet-proof social security for themselves they seem little interested in exploring how they might achieve social security for everyone else.

Usually when I write something of this sort I would at this point stress that most of the politicians I have come across get into politics for the right reasons and do, generally, believe that they are doing the right thing. I would caution against simply writing off all Westminster politics as dirty and grubby and corrupt. But I think I have reached a point where that caveat no longer feels like a comfortable response. If Westminster believes that every Muslim in Britain has a responsibility to police the behaviour of ‘their community’ then it is time to expect the same of politicians. Every Westminster politician that votes for a pay rise when the rest of the country is struggling is part of the problem. Every politician who defended the expenses system is part of the problem. Every politician who had their Christmas card sponsored by a corporation with commercial interests that could be influenced by that politician is part of the problem. Frankly, after Britain’s dark decade (the one that started with the Iraq war scandal in 2003 and ended with the emerging paedophile scandal in 2013 and encompassed the expenses, phone hacking and financial scandals among many other failures, none of which have been put right), a politician who thinks Westminster is ‘OK’ seems to me to be part of the problem.

This is a problem that was understood as far back as Plato. In his Republic, the lawmakers were kept in basic comfort – but not too much comfort. They were forced to live ascetic lifestyles which gave them no opportunity to put their own venal interests above those of the people they were to represent and govern. The current view is that this would put off the ‘dynamic entrepreneurs’ who might otherwise step forward and take a public role for the good of us all. Hallelujah say I – how often must these ‘dynamic entrepreneurs’ turn out to be money-grabbing chancers before we realise that personal gain is the enemy of good governance. To serve your country you should be paid a fair wage. And if that is not enough then you are not serving your country, you are serving yourself.

Holyrood is not perfect; the house-flipping and mortgage support scams from the early years were unedifying. But it is substantially better than Westminster, a parliament which seems almost under permanent siege by commercial interests. I have concerns about governance and accountability in local authorities in Scotland but less so Holyrood. This is above all a failure of one institution, not the institution of politics or democracy. This is Westminster’s shame and Westminster must act.

In China they have a Department of Dereliction of Duty. Had Rifkind and Straw done nothing other than reveal that they have nothing to do all day, I would have liked to see them paid a visit by someone from the Department. Of course, there is little confidence in the Department in China. So a campaign is growing for a ‘Sunshine Law’ to cast light into the murky shadows of a dodgy system. I have come to believe that we need a ‘Sunshine Politics’ in Britain, a new era in which what politicians think they are ‘for’ changes radically and what Parliamentarians believe is their ‘dues’ is substantially rethought.

Because in the end my anthropomorphic misunderstanding of the lives of sheep may be foolish, but it at least comes from my humanity (and my love of new-born lambs). I fear that Westminster’s misunderstanding of what the people expect from it comes from something that looks a lot more like contempt.

I shall now file this article properly. I’m absolutely sure there will be a perfect opportunity to use it again sometime soon.

Comments (30)

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  1. Les Wilson says:

    Excellent article, said as it is.

    1. Ursula Bear says:

      Nicely written. The thing is: we’re farmed, but it’s more than that. We’re the collective host of Dark Tetrad Psychopaths not farmers – more like – tapeworms. We are not sheep. Underneath the concrete & plastic we are fierce & wild & creative & free. We are the people & we don’t belong to anybody.

  2. Frederick Robinson says:

    Robin McAlpine, comfy in his bed, unable to imagine the sufferings of the sheep and lambs (presumably under his care) bleating, out amid the wind and rain, uses this as a metaphor for MPs (i.e. him) oblivious to the sufferings of the constituents (i.e. sheep) under his/their care. I’m a city person, but some years ago I drove to visit a former Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama colleague who had married a farmer, and now lived in Wales. En route, asking the way of locals, I was told, after getting directions, ‘And tell Mrs Y I’m prayin’ for her leg!’ Was this some strange Welsh custom, I wondered? Did people leave legs as their legacy? (Boom boom!) The answer came when, at about 8p.m., the farmer-husband still busy with his cows, I was met at the door by my former colleague – both her legs in plaster to the thigh. Not long before, I learned, a ewe lambing before dawn, and her husband (who, typically, having come in/came in on this occasion, too, exhausted, at about 11p.m.) fast asleep, she went down alone to the icy yard, and slipped, breaking both her legs. She lay there for a couple of hours (the lamb meantime emerging of itself) until her husband woke and found her. So the ‘praying’ was for her legs to get better. Later during my short stay, helping as well as I could (they were well-organised without me), two incidents stick with me: (i) taking a half-sack of sheep-pellets to a midfield trough, and finding myself scarily stuck, legs wedged tight, by the suddenly-assembling mass of hungry sheep, I roared – frightening them away – and ran for the trough, to be tripped up and have sheep eating pellets out of my clothes, hair, the half-sack….(ii) A field with parallel hedges. A lamb bleating painfully: it is stuck between the hedges, the ewe, on the other side of the hedges, echoing its suffering cries. Picking up what proved to be, not the soft cuddly toy I’d imagined, but a muscular, struggling, bundle of energy – and joy! – I managed to pass it over the hedge, where lamb and ewe were happily reunited.
    My biggest overall impression was how ENDLESS the task confronting the farmer and his family seemed.
    How these anecdotes tally as metaphors the readers must decide for themselves.

    1. Muscleguy says:

      Why do you assume Robin has care of these sheep? going down and offering the bolder ones carrots is the act of a country resident, not a farmer. It is rarely economic to feed sheep supermarket carrots.

      I grew up in New Zealand a country that has so many sheep (70million at one point, since reduced) that there’s a joke that if aliens landed there they would observe a large population of woolly quadrupeds looked after by a small population of bipeds and walk straight up tot he nearest sheep and say ‘take me to your leader’. I have stayed on and helped out in a number of farms in my time. On one stormy Boys Brigade camp we came across a lamb stuck to it’s withers in good NZ clay (it was so wet we had been driven from tents into the farmer’s barn and our bus). We extracted it and took it to the farmhouse where it was wearily received. In that case the mother was nowhere to be seen. The chances of such a lamb if she cannot be fostered are not good.

      But as Robin points out, sheep are adapted to being born on exposed hillsides (made exposed by the actions of sheep) in dicey weather. The NZ southern High Country (where most of the sheep are) is no tropical paradise either. In NZ the sheep are often too numerous even to be brought onto the home paddocks for lambing and must cope up in the hills. They did not get to 70million by dying easily in Spring.

      I might also note as a biologist that wool on sheep is far more insulating than it is, scoured to remove the lanolin, carded, spun and knitted into human clothing. At school in NZ you get trips to the wool scourers, the carders, the spinners and the freezing works. You are not left with much in the way of fluffy lambkin ideas. More casting your eyes on the near yearlings and deciding which will yield the tastiest leg joints.

  3. Hugo says:

    Politicians in general have no idea of the hardships experienced by the citizens of this country. The absolute greed and the vanity of this breed of people knows no bounds. The mainstream parties (I exclude SNP) treat the people with contempt, a habit which makes me sick to the stomach. In their wee spoiled world they actually believe that is acceptable to behave like dodgy salesmen, selling their contacts to the highest bidder. Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw should be held to account for this blatant act of money grabbing.To rub salt into the wounds, Rifkind then denied any wrong doing.His denial on TV only helped to reinforce the fact that politicians could not give a toss about public opinion or indeed morals. I am sure I could “smell shite” coming from the telly when that pompous, arrogant,smug,revolting, distasteful etc etc.claimed on camera that he had did no wrong. He looked down his nose so hard that I’m sure he was cross eyed !
    This is another example of disgraceful behaviour by these so called politicians, and please God let’s hope that the usual feeble meaningless apology does not follow. It’s not enough.Lets use this escapade to pull these bleating ,greedy people into line once and for all.

    1. Monty says:

      Why exclude the SNP? They are as much in a world of their own as any of the other parties

      1. Anton says:

        I think this is a fair point. But It seems to me that public contempt for the political class has often turned into support for a new breed of populist “anti-politicians” such as Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, and (I regret to say) Alex Salmond. Indeed, it’s often occurred to me that Salmond’s anti-Westminster rhetoric has been pretty much interchangeable with Farage’s anti-Brussels posturing.

        That’s one of the main reasons why I think that Nicola Sturgeon’s accession as First Minister augurs so well for Scotland. She’s introduced a new sense of stability and determination where before empty eloquence too often held the day.

        In short, my optimism about the future of Scotland is even greater than before.

      2. FrankM says:

        One would have to disagree with you Monty, when we look at their overall record over their term in government. Can you back up your statement?
        You are falling into the ‘they are all as bad as each other trap’, which I know you don’t like used in football supporter terms. Please try to be objective.

      3. Clootie says:


        An easy throw away comment. Parties are made up of individuals and in my experience every party has “good” individuals and “poor quality” individuals but you can never label a Party by the measure of the behaviour of an individual.

        I believe that the YES campaign (SNP/Greens/SSP/Labour for Indy etc) had far more people interested in a fairer society. Although not a party a common objective was evident.

        I firmly believe that the parties on the YES side of the Referendum debate had far more politicians interested in their society than the self interest so evident in the NO campaign.

        So rather than have your cheap “they are all the same”. I prefer looking at a scale when judging parties and if the SNP/Greens/SSP etc were on one side then the current Labour Party / Tories / LibDems / UKIP would be on the other.

        Westminster is stuffed with people who cannot even hear the bleating sheep. The carrots may appear at the budget though!

      4. Smokeball says:

        The SNP may not be as bad as the Westminster establishment yet, but if they stay in power in Holyrood long enough, they will get that way. Whoever said ” power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” was bang on the nail. I’ll vote SNP in May, but not for them in 2016 for Holyrood.

  4. Darien says:

    “This is Westminster’s shame and Westminster must act.”

    We have the opportunity on May 7th to democratically remove the rotten British state (including the BBC) from Scottish territory. Westminster will then no longer be our problem. All it requires is 30+ SNP MP’s with backbone, and about 2 million of us. The union ends the same way it began, by a majority of Scots MP’s.

    1. FrankM says:

      I heartily agree with this Darien and I hope the figure is much higher than this, as is currently predicted.

    2. Pedant. says:


  5. Tom says:

    Wonderful words. A joy to read and a comfort to those who live in hope of a fairer and just society with fair and just representatives looking after all people’s lives in a real and genuinely compassionate way. If Westminster will not change then Scotland’s affiliation to Westminster must change in favour of social democracy and justice in its own right

  6. “Britain’s dark decade” [2003-13]

    I hope we do not enter into a darker, darkest scenario for the next two.

  7. tartanfever says:

    Last weekend saw me stuck in the house with a cold. I decided to catch up with ‘Spinwatch’ – an excellent website dedicated to highlighting exactly this kind of behaviour.

    After a couple of days watching videos and reading articles about the abhorrent deceptions being foisted upon the largely unaware masses I was staggered to see this story break. Instant karma I thought.

    I’m now totally sure that the only way forward is for a completely transparent lobbying register that lists all meetings, representations and funding not only with lobby groups but also the dreaded think tanks. It must be updated daily.

    The other thing I’m convinced of is that as politicians cannot be trusted we should start discussing the banning of all party donations and pay them from the public purse. I’d rather spend say £50m from the public purse for political parties to use in campaigning and so on. Of course to fund this we could abolish the House of Lords (saving us an estimated £4bn a year) and instead elect a house of 50 or 60 ‘senators’ at a much reduced public cost.

    For those not familiar with the Spinwatch websites, here’s a link:


  8. rogerhyam says:

    If I found a teddy bear lying in the street I would pick it up and sit it on the side somewhere safe and more comfortable. I’m the one who invests it with feelings. I don’t need to be a cuddly toy to have empathy for it. It doesn’t even have to be sentient to deserve my compassion. I would just feel the world would be a better place if it were cared for.

    Politicians don’t need to have experience of different walks of life to do their jobs well. They deal with far too wide a range of issues for that.

    What they need is empathy and compassion. That only comes through having genuine contact with people and that only comes from being open and vulnerable – i.e. admitting weakness.

    Unfortunately our competitive culture doesn’t value those attributes and they certainly don’t get you to the top in politics. This is why politicians have the “Mistakes were made” culture.

    I do wonder if we are reaching a tipping point though. For example, does Natalie Bennett’s recent apology for having a “brain fade” make you more likely to vote Green? I’m sure there are many people who would rather vote for a human like that, even and incompetent one, than one of the usual attack robots.

    How can we help? By supporting and praising those who stick their heads above the parapets even when we don’t agree with them. Admiring courage and honesty where ever it comes from. By condemning actions but not people.

    1. tartanfever says:

      Interesting point Roger. The culture of ‘denial politics’ – which has led to the inevitable stand off between the media interviewer and the politician only promotes the black and white presentation of political culture.

      So as far as I’m concerned, I agree with the premise that Natalie Bennet’s interview may actually gain her supporters. Being human not only adds some grey areas to the picture but also some much needed colour.

      The down side is that this is probably how many UKIP supporters view Nigel Farage.

      I have no doubt however, that as much as politicians are too blame for their own demise, the UK media is as much too blame with creating this veneer of un-reality of all things political.

      How I long for an honest political interview with real human beings (faults and all) rather than some programmed party line repeating facsimile.

  9. rogerhyam says:

    p.s. Another really practical thing we could do is pay politicians a multiple of the MEDIAN salary i.e. link them to what the rest of us get.

    p.p.s. Even better link MP’s pay to a multiple of the minimum wage. If the economy can only support a minimum wage of £6.40 / hour (£13k/year full time) then it can only support politicians on say 5 x £13k = £65k. Think how the minimum wage would rocket up if it were hard linked to politicians remuneration packages!

    1. Darien says:

      “link MP’s pay to a multiple of the minimum wage”

      How about Scotland gets rid of rule by Westminster MP’s completely in May. And the House of Lords. Its called a Declaration of Independence. 30+ SNP MP’s is sufficient to end the union as it began – no need for bribes even!

      1. Brian Fleming says:

        You seem to be a voice crying in the wilderness, Darien. But i agree with you. All it would take is the guts to do it. I believe they’d have the public support it would need to be successful.

  10. ELAINE FRASER says:

    ‘ the lives of politicians have become so far removed from those who elected them ..’

    Just finished reading ‘Hand to mouth – the truth about being poor in a wealthy world’ by Linda Tirado. The writers 2013 essay about her own struggle to work and support her family was shared around the world and now this moving and in parts funny book. Although US based the story is universal. Ten short chapters including ‘I’m Not Angry So Much As I’m Really Tired’ and ‘Being Poor Isn’t a Crime – It Just Feels Like It’, her final chapter is ‘An Open Letter to Rich People’.

    I thought I knew – I didn’t really

  11. onwardsx3 says:

    How about making volunteering part of a politicians role. Say 25% of thier contract is mandatory,ringfenced time to be spent working along side community projects/groups/workplaces. Call it a “keeping it real” clause. This must be completed each month to enable full withdrawal of agreed salary. No ifs,buts or negotiation it’s simply the job on offer. Take it or leave it.

  12. Portjim says:

    I am sure that most politicians start out with good intentions. How many are still honest by the time they transition from their local council to Westminster is another question, but it is unarguable that the culture at Westminster needs to change.
    I was going to suggest a link between MP salaries and the average wage, but I like rogerhyam’s link to minimum wage much better.
    I would also suggest that a “hostel” be built, with each MP having his own room – something like Holiday Inn standard – for use when in London. Simplified expenses = fewer “mistakes”. Subsidised food and drink in Westminster should stop – when their constituents are having to rely on food banks, taxes are being used to let MPs have access to cheap champaign.
    If we pay them a fair wage (5x min wage sounds good enough), we are entitled to expect their full time effort – no directorships, no consultancies etc. If something (eg giving access to ambassadors, or influencing govt / EU policy is in the interests of the country and their constituents, well, that’s their job and they should be doing it for “free” (their salary). If it is against those interests, then doing it should be a chargeable offence – possibly treason?
    I seem to recall that in one of the Central / South American civilisations, people were not considered equal before the law. The higher up the tree you were, the more you got from your society and the higher the standard to which you were held. The same offence could warrant flogging for a peon, but a death sentence for a noble. At the moment, our society seems to work the other way about – the “better” you are, the more you get off with.
    I believe that MPs found to be corrupt (although, who will find them so?) should be removed from office, jailed and barred from ever holding public office or becoming company directors.

  13. Wul says:

    I’m currently helping to set up a small, local charity. In the application process charity trustees must promise to always put the interests of the charity first and never their own, personal interests. I reckon that many Westminster MP’s would not even pass this basic “Charity Test”. Most MPs are not morally qualified to run a WRI group or Cat Protection society.

  14. Robin Ross says:

    My son’s friend, who left the finance industry, said, “Big money does no attract the best brains, it just attracts the greedy ones.”

  15. oldbattle says:

    Burns 18th century “parcel of rogues’ have been part of the ruling class in every century. There must be a book surely covering the venal litany of Parliamentary rogues if not it needs to be written and so expose the British state as one that deserves to be changed: changed utterly.

  16. ian says:

    The act of Union in 1707 was founded on the greed and corruptness of the few when the vast majority of ordinary people did’nt want it and it will die the same way.

  17. Pedant. says:

    ‘…Jack Straw at least appeared immediately to grasp the seriousness of his position. Which seems to me an almost perfect encapsulation of his entire political career – to be fully aware that what he was up to was basically crooked but to proceed anyway on the basis of expediency and the belief that he was probably going to get away with it…’

    ‘entire political career. Wow, the casual racism. Can see where Robin’s interests and priorities lie!

    Apart from the Macpherson Enquiry, taking on the powerful and institutionally racist Police Met/ across England and Wales while home secretary (was kind of important, no?). Plus bringing in the equal age of consent despite huge resistance.

    Scotland’s a bit backward when it comes to racism and homophobia- still waiting for a similar report up here!

  18. Pedant. says:

    ‘….The language – they were always talking about ‘shooting each others’ fox’ and ‘having the whip hand’. I sat through many meetings wondering if I was every going to understand Westminster and its endless country gentleman, slave-owner metaphors.’???????

    Er no, the Whip hand comes from Equestrianism?, One hand on the reigns, the other…you get the point.’

    Stop using other people’s genuine civil and human struggles for your shallow nationalism!

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