Corrupt? By global standards, our MPs are not even trying.

The prime minister is bad with money. So bad that he relies on rich friends to pay off his debts, and uses his position to bully the Inland Revenue into reducing his tax bill. He insists on breaking Whitehall’s rules by keeping government files as if they are his private property, so he can use them to write lucrative books when he leaves Downing Street.

Before Boris Johnson reaches for his lawyers, I am referring not to him but to Winston Churchill. David Lough tells the story of our wartime leader in “No more champagne: Churchill and his money.” By today’s standards, Churchill fell short time after time. In the early 1920s, Lough writes, “while responsible for South Africa’s government as colonial secretary after the First World War, he held on to his South African mining shareholdings; and within a year of losing office in 1922 he earned a substantial fee from two oil companies in return for lobbying his former ministerial colleagues.” In the late 1940s, when Churchill was leader of the Opposition, he accepted interest-free loans from the Daily Telegraph. (No, Boris, don’t even think of going there.)

If any of today’s politicians were caught doing any of these things, they would be in deep, career-ending trouble. However, the point of recalling what Churchill did is not to accuse him of being a crook, but to show how standards have changed. At the heart of the Owen Paterson saga is a paradox—and a telling example of the law of unintended consequences.

Our contemporary story begins in the early 1990s, when John Major’s government was buffeted by a succession of stories that made his party look sleazy: MPs exposed for taking cash to ask questions in parliament, a minister found to accept from a Saudi business men a free stay at the Ritz on Paris (and subsequently jailed for perjury) and a steady trickle of sex scandals.

In 1994, Major set up a new committee on standards in public life, chaired initially by Michael Nolan, an eminent judge. It was designed to uphold seven principles of behaviour in public life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. Over time, new institutions have been added to uphold those principles. In 2013, MPs established the Commons select committee on Standards. It was this committee, chaired by the Labour MP Chris Bryant, that found Paterson of breaching the rules.

Announcing the establishment of the original Nolan committee, Major told MPs: “This country has an international reputation for the integrity and honour of its public institutions. That reputation must be maintained and be seen to be maintained. I hope that the standing committee I have announced today will… reassure the people of this country about our determination to maintain high standards of conduct in public life.”

If reassurance was Major’s objective, he has failed. YouGov’s tracking surveys have found that MPs are widely believed to tell lies—though many people have a higher opinion of their local MP than of MPs generally, whom they learn about in the news. It’s hard to prove the point absolutely, but what we now know about Churchill (and other politicians of his era, such as Lloyd George) suggests that fewer politicians behave really badly today than in the early and middle decades of the twentieth century.

Transparency is the problem. What was intended to be a guarantee of good behaviour—that transgressions would be uncovered and punished, and hence deterred from happening in the first place—has turned into a production line generating a succession of scandals. Today’s MPs behave far better than their predecessors, but their fewer lapses are far better known.

The stories about MPs’ expenses more than a decade ago illustrate this vividly. Day after day the Daily Telegraph published leaked details of what MPs had claimed. There were some entertaining horrors—moats, duck houses and the like—but in the main, the dubious claims were pretty small. Overall, I doubt whether the total amount for all the questionable claims reached a million pounds. I’d wager that if the same details were disclosed for the legislators in parliaments around the world, today’s MPs would turn out to be not just the most honest in our history, but among the least corrupt on earth.

Owen Paterson, then deserves some sympathy—but not too much. He should have known the rules, and he should not have broken them. But now he has resigned as an MP, there are two lessons to be learned.

The first is that we—voters, journalists, politicians—should retain a sense of proportion. Our MPs are not as venal and dishonest as the polls show that people think. We should celebrate their commitment to public service, and not treat the transgressions of a few individuals—even those having trouble paying for wallpaper—as evidence of terminal political decay.

The second lesson is that democracy cannot be done on the cheap. The expenses “scandal” had its roots in decisions to hold down MPs’ pay and, in compensation, create a nod-and-wink culture that allowed MPs to use expenses to top up their income. Today a typical GP earns £100,000 a year; so do many secondary school head  teachers. MPs should be paid at least as much as them, and arguably more. Instead they earn £82,000 a year, and the days of expenses top-ups have gone.

The chances of either a sense of proportion or appropriate pay levels coming soon? None. Some might hanker for a return to the old pre-transparency days; that’s also a non-starter. We will be stuck with the kinds of scraps we have just witnessed, though hopefully without ministers making them worse by being so ham-fisted. Which makes it even more important to acknowledge that when it comes to an international league table of political corruption, Britain thankfully remains at or near the bottom.

This blog was first published by Prospect