Friday, January 14, 2005

House Points: The wrong side of the blunkett

Here is my column from today's Liberal Democrat News.

The good old days?

Now that David Blunkett and his little lad have slipped from the headlines it is time to note two things. The first is that many authorities believe this affair gave rise to the expression “born the wrong side of the blunkett” to denote illegitimacy.

The second is a sad historical parallel with one of the less dramatic aspects of Nannygate. You will recall that Blunkett was found to have misused two first class rail tickets assigned to him for his work as an MP. We taxpayers are more forgiving than many employers: after he repaid the £179 they were worth, the matter was closed.

Things were not always so civilised. In 1922 Mardy Jones was elected Labour MP for Pontypridd. He had begun work in the mines at the age of 12, and like many working-class Members found life difficult financially.

Payment for MPs was one of the Chartists’ demands in the 1830s. It was not introduced until the Liberal government’s 1911 Parliament Act. In Jones’ day the salary was small, but MPs did receive a perk in the form of vouchers that could be exchanged for railway tickets between their constituencies and Westminster. As Matthew Parris reports in his Great Parliamentary Scandals, those tickets were strictly non-transferable.

Mardy Jones broke the rules. He sent two tickets to Wales to allow his wife and young daughter to make a rare trip to London. Unfortunately, one of them was six weeks out of date and the Great Western Railway pressed charges.

Despite an ingenious defence involving vital papers that had to be brought to him, Jones was found guilty and fined £2 plus costs. Worse, he was obliged to resign his seat before the case came to court.

David Blunkett, one newspaper suggested, attributes his fall attributes to “a millionaires’ plot to destroy a working class lad” and not his own disastrous judgement. But he doesn’t know the half of class prejudice.

When Jones was convicted the magistrate declared: “However disgusting this case is, and I think it is very disgusting, we have to remember that Mr Mardy Jones has risen to his present position from a coal mine.”

David Blunkett, more than most of us, should be thankful he does not live in the good old days.

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