Saturday, 30 May 2009
Latest expenses scandal raises a far bigger question
So the latest MPs' expenses scandal to hit the headlines is the case of Labour MP Frank Cook claiming, supposedly, a fiver he made as a church donation as a necessary expense of the job.
To be fair, he says he can't remember the donation, and has apologised. It probably was necessary that he made a donation to the church while attending a service - and it's only a fiver anyway.
On the evidence presented by the BBC, Mr Cook's crime hardly seems comparable with, say, Celia Barlow's £28K home improvements claim or Elliott Morley's phantom mortgage. I guess he's unlikely to be pushed, either by Gord-help-us Brown or his constituents.
But it does, for me at least, raise a much bigger question: that of the strange, historical relationship between the church and the British state.
In short: why does the head of the Church of England still have a constitutional role in signing new laws onto the statute books?
I'm proud to be an atheist. None of the various competing theological explanations for human history or the shape of society and our relationships with other peoples and species have ever convinced me. My parents never tried to use their privilege to embed any particular religious explanation for things into my growing mind.
The world's religions have undoubtedly brought much good, and provided justifications for remarkable charitable acts and social activism over the years. The opposite is also true. Just look at Al-Qaida, for example, or the genocidal policies of the Israeli state.
On balance, I think a scientific, and socially tolerant, attitude provides the best explanation for the way things are - and respecting others' religious views is key to a fair, peaceful society.
But I've never understood how the clear majority of people in this country who aren't followers of the Church of England square the idea that we live in a real democracy with that particular church's role.
I hope when the dust settles on all these expenses scandals we get some real constitutional reform. As Green Party leader Caroline Lucas has said, we need to blast this rotten system apart.
It isn't just about proportional representation, and getting rid of all the frankly stupid dressing up ceremonies - there can be no room in a modern democracy for a constitutional role for a monarch who serves as a great, harmless tourist attraction and head of a minority religion.
God save the Queen. But please don't ask me to endorse the authority of either of them, or pick up the bill.