Last week we discussed the notion that nobody should ever be above the law in a genuinely free society. Just as this means that PC Simon Harwood will rightly stand trial for manslaughter after the death of Ian Tomlinson, it is of course right and proper that our lawmakers, without exception, should be no more exempt from prosecution when they cross the line between 'legal' and 'illegal'.
Whatever good things Lord Taylor of Warwick has done in his life (and one could argue there are many), he has committed a serious crime which amounts to defrauding the taxpayer of over £11,000 in false expenses claims for overnight subsistence. The 12 month sentence (of which he will likely serve between 3 and 6 months) seems about right for the scale of the offence. Taylor has not been given the proverbial 'slap on the wrist' but then neither has the court appeared determined to 'make an example of him' either.
I have some sympathy for the view that those who have found themselves in front of a judge for false accounting are merely the softer targets - sacrificial lambs if you will for a system that was in truth rotten to the core. The high-profile serial home-flippers, the large scale evaders of capital gains tax and those MPs who contrived to trough their way through £400 worth of taxpayer-funded food every single month seem to have been let off with a small degree of public embarrassment and/or the inconvenience of having to write out a reasonably substantial cheque. The evidence that the expenses system was as endemically corrupt as many believed can be found in the fact that Taylor, who had lived an existence that stayed on a distinctly straight and narrow path up until a few years ago, managed to either drag himself or be lured into it, depending on how you wish to apportion blame.
Taylor's father was Derief Taylor, who played 16 first class matches for Warwickshire between 1948 and 1950. A competent lower-order batsman and slow left-arm bowler, he scored his only first class century when he made 121 as a nightwatchman against Leicestershire at Edgbaston in June 1949. After injury had ended his playing career, he remained a coach with the county, developing young players for thirty years until returning to his native Jamaica in 1982. His son won a scholarship at Moseley Grammar School, where he was head boy and went on to study law, becoming the first member of his family to attend university. After graduating in 1976, he rose to the bar two years later and had a moderately successful legal career before becoming a BBC producer, working on behalf of numerous charities and serving as a Solihull Borough Council between 1986 and 1990.
John David Beckett Taylor was also the first instantly recognisable black face in the Conservative Party's history. He sought to challenge the notion that people from ethnic minorities must always feel victimised and marginalised by society, therefore seeing parties of the left as the only enabler to a fair shake in life. Dismissing the attitude of the Labour Party in particular as patronising, he said, "They pat us on the head, tell us that we're black, we can't make it, we're disadvantaged because of the colour of our skin. That's not a positive message."
Unfortunately, this positivity towards the Conservative mantra was not always reciprocated by the party he represented. Selected for the safe seat of Cheltenham in 1992, he had to endure members of his own party urging constituents not to vote for him, racist jibes relating to 'monkeys' and 'coconuts' as well as a vicious letter to a local newspaper from a Party member which referred to Taylor as 'the nigger'. The Liberal Democrats cashed in on the chaos, taking the seat for the first time by 1,668 votes. He would later be critical of successive Tory leaders on the issue of race relations, once stating that the issue of race was "a cancer that is in the body that will spread and eventually kill the Conservative Party".
Perhaps with this in mind, Taylor was said to be "gobsmacked" when John Major appointed him as a life peer in 1996. Despite being critical of what he saw as the 'racist right' within the Conservative Party, amongst his most high-profile supporters was Norman Tebbit, creator of the famous 'cricket test' in the 1980s which Taylor himself may well have failed. The man who had also famously told the unemployed to "get on your bike" tipped the new Lord Taylor of Warwick for a future ministerial post and a bright political career.
However, the root of Taylor's difficulties appeared to be the absence of a salary for the work carried out by members of the unelected house. He repeatedly put forward the case for some sort of formal remuneration for those peers who had not already earned their pile and could therefore not consider the amendment of parliamentary bills solely as a public duty or a high-level hobby. When these attempts were unsuccessful, he claims that several peers told him he would be 'crazy' not to claim the overnight subsistence allowance even if his circumstances did not make him eligible for it. As long as there was some family connection to the house declared as his main residence then all would be well.
I suppose the question that stems from this is - do you believe that this recollection of events rings true to the picture that has built up over expenses in the last two years or so? I would have to say that his account sits pretty comfortably with my perception from the outside and that I personally have no issue believing it. This does not by any stretch of the imagination make his false claims any less dishonest, but puts a wider sense of context and culture to the misdeeds of those who have found themselves in the dock. Lord Hanningfield last week protested his innocence by claiming "it's an allowance system, not a reimbursement system", while Taylor stated in his own defence that he was led to believe that overnight subsistence was "part of the reimbursement system".
It is worth pointing out that opinion was divided on John Taylor even before this episode. For every person who saw a committed Christian who had risen to public life from humble origins and done a great deal of charitable work, there was another who questioned his ability. They naturally asked asked if Major's instalment of him as a life peer owed as much to political expediency as it did to finding the most capable man or woman for the job. While we'll never know exactly what went through Sir John's mind at the time that he appointed Taylor to the Lords, it may also be worth noting this:- if a professional who belonged to an ethnic minority sought a fast-track route to the higher echelons of the party machine on the basis of colour or 'novelty value' then the Conservatives were never the party to join. The Labour Party was, and on balance, probably still is.
There is a widespread view that politics generally attracts the types of people on whom you would not wish to turn your back for a single second - greedy, career-driven empire builders who care far more about furthering themselves than they ever will about their constituents. While there has certainly been a noticeable increase in the number of 'career politicians' in the last 20 years or so, I would still lean towards the view that the vast majority of those who go into politics do so for the right reasons. In my experience, every young person you speak to who feels strongly about political issues does not allow the issue of financial rewards to enter the conversation. It's just that somewhere along the way they get distracted by other interests, perhaps seen to be of more immediate and personal relevance.
Like most of us in our everyday lives, members of both houses generally believe that they deserve a better remuneration package than the one that they currently enjoy. Unlike us mere plebs, they previously had a large range of expenses from which to make up the shortfall, more usually than not on the basis of no questions asked and no receipt necessary. It is hardly surprising that people who had motive and were presented with a perfect opportunity were tempted into committing a crime. Of course the prosecutor's observation of how to deal with this no doubt resonates with many, myself included, " Just because your job doesn't pay you much doesn't mean you can put your hand in the till. You ask for a pay rise, and you explain why it isn't enough. If it doesn't go up, you leave and you get another job."
However, summing up after the initial guilty verdict in January, the judge had himself described Taylor as "a man of undoubtedly good character" who had made "a monumental error of judgement". Having taken the time to research at least an outline of his life before writing this, I would broadly agree with those sentiments, and see no reason to believe that this singular but substantial act of dishonesty was anything other than the exception to the general rule. Perhaps he is not alone in this and some of the other former parliamentarians who have spent time in jail will claim that the story of their public lives fitted a similar pattern.
The reason this instance stood out to like a sore thumb is because whether you particularly liked him or not, John Taylor did not come across in any way as a naturally dishonest man. He is no victim either, and as a Christian will know as anyone the importance of choice between the narrow path he led for so long and the days of disaster that invariably spring upon deciding to stray from it. He deserves his sentence just as much as the young person, desparate to make ends meet of just for a nicer life, who dips his hands into the petty cash at work. It may be worth contemplating though whether Taylor, along with some of the other convicted MPs are really the evil, filthy, money-grabbing swines as which they or sometimes portrayed? Or are they perhaps in reality, the living embodiment of the corrupting nature of our politics?