Yes, of course – Tom Beardsworth

Let’s be frank: the current mini-uproar over MP’s travel is nothing more than a media cat fight. The Guardian dished the dirt on Murdoch; The Sun broke PlebGate and three years ago The Telegraph had Parliament by its balls as it revealed MP’s dodgy ex- penses. The latest episode is another attempt by this last newspaper to whip up some sales. The truth is this: not only have no laws been broken but there is a profoundly sensible case to be made for politicians travelling in first class.

The revelations are that 185 MPs have enjoyed first class travel, exploiting a loophole in the IPSA rules that allows them to charge a first class ticket to the taxpayer if it does not exceed the price of a standard class ticket bought at short notice. The investigation was sparked by George Osborne’s humorous struggle to stay in First Class on a train from his Cheshire constituency down to Euston. ITV claim that an aide told the inspector ‘Oh, but the Chancellor couldn’t possibly move to Standard Class’ despite only having a Standard ticket. I’m inclined to believe the official line: Osborne had a Standard ticket, wanted to upgrade – and did, out of his own pocket. I believe that because (a) he’s not politically stupid and (b) he’s worth £4m; he can pay. Of course the next Chancellor may not have a personal fortune, so it’s important to ask whether the cost of travelling first class is worth it to the taxpayer? Equally, is the cost of him or her not travelling first class fair to the taxpayer? The answers are an emphatic ‘yes’ and ‘no’ respectively.

Travelling down to London on a Friday afternoon is likely to be a bit stuffy. One probably won’t get a seat, though Osborne would probably remember to reserve one. Even then, securely ensconced in standard class amongst the plebs, he would rightly be uncomfort- able sifting through sensitive documents, or chatting to the PM. It is entirely reasonable that the Chancellor should want to do his job without Joe Public peering over his shoulder. ‘Pschh. This is true for loads of people!’ my inner contrarian answers. Yes, and most of them travel in first class. Virtuous souls who choose to remain in standard don’t usually have a job as important as running the country’s finances.

The State currently makes up 48% of the economy. That’s an awful lot of taxing and spending. It’s important therefore that the chap responsible for all that taxing and spending works hard, and works effectively. Because the difference between a productive day and a mediocre day for the Chancellor is literally billions of pounds. If the Chancellor winds up next to a sick toddler, or worse, a journalist with nothing to do but spy, who pays? Us. So in the austere spirit of the day, let’s allow the Chancellor to travel in style.

 

Obviously Not – Hannah Timmis

Shortly before what our great British press have dubbed “The Great Train Snobbery”, a YouTube sensation was born: “Eton Style”. A parody of a parody, for 4:36 minutes the tails-clad, Etonian lads dance, horse-style, around the hallowed grounds of their infamous school, applying their own lyrics to the number one hit “Gangnam style”. Within 24 hours of going online, the video had received 43,000 views and had swamped the Twittersphere. At the time of writing, it has 1,644,900 views and counting.

The genius of the video is that Eton Style confirms all the things you thought you knew, or wanted to believe, about Eton. The kids do drink Moet like water! The teachers actually swan around in Jags! There’s a Russian cannon outside the geography dept! “We just don’t care,” chant the boys. Whilst acknowledging the exaggeration and hyperbole, what makes Eton Style so popular is the boys’ mockery of their ludicrous privilege. It’s hard to believe that “Barking-and-Dagenham-Eastbrook-Comprehensive-School-Style” would receive the same level of interest.

Of course, Eton Style is not the first pop sensation of privileged origins to capture the public’s imagination. Recall the success of Oxford’s own “Out of the Blue” on Britain’s Got Talent 2011. When James Kay first began to belt out Poker Face, the audience responded with gasps and cheers. Who knew that these shy, geeky, suits had actually heard of Lady Gaga?

Because for 99% of the population, scenes of boys in bow-ties dancing around a group of beagles or riding in tandem around the RadCam are as alien as women apparently are to Etonian sixth-formers. YouTube and ITV are the closest many people will come to experiencing the privilege that students at this university and others enjoy.

And this is why George Osborne and his fellow, often ex-Etonian, politicians should not travel First class. MPs are, in theory, representatives of the voters of their constituency to Parliament. Yet most of these guys have been separated from normalcy since birth, inhabiting medieval buildings, stone quads and every eatery except Greggs bakers. Travelling first-class reinforces an already existing barrier between the country’s leaders and the people they serve, and this is damaging for any representative government.

The most worrying aspect of Mr. Osborne’s decision to travel First when Standard was apparently too “crowded” wasn’t his ability to casually fork out £189.50 or his alleged argument (Mitchell Style) with the ticket collector. It was his total failure to recognize how politically insensitive his actions were. The Conservative Party are already in the dog house (beagle kennel). The ex-Chief Whip’s outburst at a police officer and Cameron’s controversial “mug a hoodie” anti-crime crackdown has confirmed in the minds of many that the PM and co. probably did spend their school days drinking champagne in a rowing boat made of caviar. Its unlikely, therefore, that they will be able to identify with the needs and interests of the public. 

At the same time, the nation has been expected to swallow Mr. Osborne’s smugly condescending Party Conference speech from earlier this month. “We made a promise to the British people that we would repair our badly broken economy,” he said, with an unnatural smile. “That promise is being fulfilled.” He later added that, of course, austerity and cuts to the welfare budget will continue. But don’t worry, Mr. Osborne soothed, “We’re all in this together.” Well, no, Chancellor, you’re in first class.