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French sociologist Émile Durkheim maintained that criminals performed an invaluable social function: They united the members of the rest of society, who might otherwise have had little in common with each other, in their detestation.

It now appears that members of Parliament, the elected representatives of the people, perform more or less the same function in Britain. Men and women of the most disparate social and political views are united, as in wartime, against the common enemy - not Germany, but the political class. This class, it seems, has been fiddling its expense claims for years; no man is so rich that he disdains to charge the public for the new chandeliers in his mansion.

The difference between criminals and many members of Parliament, in behaviour as in function, seems now not to be very great; indeed, there is considerable overlap. For example, at least one member of Parliament claimed as an expense the interest, to the tune of about $25,000, on a mortgage that he had already paid off. Since the redemption of a mortgage is almost always a memorable event in the life of a man, it beggars belief that this member had simply forgotten that he now owed nothing.

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The first man to fall victim of a crisis so severe that it would have created a revolutionary situation in Britain had there been any leadership so inclined or able is the Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, who has announced that he will resign on June 21. The last man to resign the position did so because he was drunk on the job; but the last man actually forced out of the position was in 1695, for taking bribes.

Mr. Martin's first reaction to the revelations in The Daily Telegraph was to call in Scotland Yard to find out who had provided the newspaper with all the damaging information with which, like an expert poisoner, it has dosed the public for almost two weeks. Since then, the Speaker has done everything possible to suppress open discussion of the matter, which is not altogether surprising, since he was in charge of the department that oversaw the payment of expenses.

At least we can be proud of the fact that there has been no discrimination in the emptying of the public purse: Everyone, from left to right, and without regard to race, has been allowed to do it. A socialist member, who is to stand down next year and who lives in a Scottish castle, claimed $35,000 for bookcases in which to keep his parliamentary reports; he was allowed "only" $15,500. The conservative shadow home secretary claimed (and was granted) thousands of dollars for renovations to the second home that he claimed was necessary for the performance of his parliamentary duties, though it was only 27 kilometres from his main home.

Members of Parliament said in their own defence that their claims were "within the rules," disregarding the fact that they had made up the rules themselves, that many of them had broken even those rules and that some members claimed no expenses at all.

The public has reacted to the revelation of parliamentary financial skulduggery with a mixture of glee and anger, but it has missed the wider point: that behaviour of this kind is not a mere accident or untoward event in Britain. Indeed, the dissolution of the distinction between the licit and illicit, the legal and illegal, the honourable and dishonourable, has been the principal social and economic policy of the British government for a long time, since Margaret Thatcher at least. And, with everyone implicated, no one can stand out.

Public employment has been vastly increased under the current government, without any concomitant improvement in public services. The employment has been an end in itself, to extend the client state.

Wages and allowable benefits in the public service have been vastly increased, particularly at the top. For example, the director-general of the BBC, a public corporation, was paid nearly $1.5-million last year. Chief executives of public hospitals are paid the kind of salaries and other benefits that a few years ago only the chief executives of giant corporations would have been paid (until they, too, made alternative arrangements for the legalized looting of shareholders' funds). Executives in public employment are often sacked with large payoffs, only to find equivalent work a few miles down the road, or to become "private" consultants to the organizations they have just left.

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In essence, Britain has become a swamp of political patronage of the kind not seen since the 18th century. The distinction between the public purse and private wealth has been eroded, with the result that Britain is now a nomenklatura state.

A British writer and retired physician, Theodore Dalrymple is the author of, among other works, Our Culture, What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses .

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