THIRTY-EIGHT years ago this week Richard Nixon told a press conference, held appropriately enough at a Disney resort: “I am not a crook.”

However, he was – a monstrous crooked abuser of the immense power of his office – and within nine months he had resigned, the only American president ever to do so.

On Wednesday the UK’s present Prime Minister told his COP26 press conference: “I genuinely think that our institutions are not corrupt.”

Similar but crucially different. For a start Johnson would not, as usual, take any personal responsibility, repeatedly refusing to apologise for his own role in this sleaze storm, even though he was centrally involved in an attempt to drastically dilute House of Commons rules against malpractice and corruption, rules that are already much weaker than they should be.

That was done not out of concern for Owen Paterson (below) but because Johnson is worried about himself. He may well fall foul of the same rules soon for any one of a whole host of reasons which include trying to conceal the source of money to do up his officially provided flat and holidaying in a luxury villa free of charge, provided for him by someone he ennobled and appointed to a ministerial job. 

The National: Owen Paterson last week resigned as the Tory MP for North Shropshire after a lobbying scandal, throwing a renewed focus on the issue of MPs’ work outside Parliament

So his defence was mere deflectionary verbiage, designed to avoid rather than address the issue, a smoke-screen tactic like the leaking of the pompous and greedy Geoffrey Cox’s obscene earnings.

Johnson is like the whole Westminster parliamentary system – the Lords and the Commons – out of touch, backwards-looking, elitist, self-serving and unrepresentative. He and that system remain deeply rooted in a corrupt and archaic network of privilege and preferment which still predominates. The number of Old Etonians in his government stands as symptom and symbol of such exclusivity as does the extreme wealth of several of his appointees.

I believe most people become politicians because they are altruistic and want to change the world for the better. But undoubtedly others are less starry-eyed, quickly learning to make the Westminster web of advantage and entitlement work for them, lining their pockets by representing not their constituents, but those who can pay for special access.

READ MORE: Lesley Riddoch: The real issue with Tory sleaze is that it's all above board

That approach is particularly tempting to those whose ambition is greater than their talent.

This whole situation confirms that post-Brexit Britain is now an ethically challenged backwards-looking state. It is time Scotland was out of it, and living independently in a modern Europe.

Yet although our political effort should be focused on achieving that essential change, we should also be willing to work with all those rooting out corruption wherever it poisons society.

Much of the political debate in recent days has been focused on how to bar MPs from second jobs. That is understandable, but the real issue is not how much Parliamentarians work, but why some of them behave in a grasping and criminal way – for such behaviour is and should be categorised as criminal, just as it already is in the Scottish Parliament Members’ Code.

Put bluntly they do it because they are arrogant, self-centred and greedy. They no longer care that their actual task is to represent those who put their trust in them at the ballot box and consequently they need reminded. That can best be done by placing an absolute bar on them representing, in any way at all, anybody other than their constituents.

In other words their “for hire” sign must come down the day they agree to serve the people and they must be forbidden from raising it again – openly or clandestinely – while they hold elected office, and perhaps for a period afterwards as well.

Under that definition, Geoffrey Cox and Owen Paterson can be seen to have been doing exactly the same thing – renting themselves out to represent someone other than their constituents, whether that be the government of, in Somerset Maugham’s great phrase, a sunny place for shady people, or undertaking special pleading for companies. This approach addresses not the subsidiary question of having the time to undertake other tasks – busy talented people will always make time and ministers already have to do many things over and above constituency work – but the central question of what is being done, for whom and why.

It also correctly differentiates between someone like Owen Paterson and others such as the surgeon Philippa Whitford (below), who must keep her valuable professional skills up to date within the NHS or for charities, as she already does.

The National: Philippa Whitford, the SNP MP and breast surgeon, spelled out what the consequences of Brexit will be

In addition, it allows some harmless activity to continue, such as writing on political or other topics which does not suborn the proper role of an elected member. I declare an interest as I have done that in the past myself.

Having to get prior permission from a standards commissioner would be a good additional check, as would a cap on earnings and a requirement to donate 50% or more of any payments to a central charity pool. This should also apply to members of the House of Lords, whose earnings will probably the next scandal to break.

No doubt those who like the notion of Westminster as the “best club in London” will find such proposals unpalatable. They will argue “good people” will be deterred from serving their country. But those parliamentarians taking advantage of their position aren’t “good people” and any country would be the better without their service.

These are also not just recommendations for Westminster. Holyrood should be hungry for reform as well, not because it has a current problem but because it must always be aware of the potential for such a difficulty to arise.

However, the impetus for continuous improvement at Holyrood – from upholding standards to resourcing members, introducing elected and paid committee chairs and creating fewer committees allowing members to specialise – has flagged in recent years and needs to be revitalised by the new Presiding Officer.

This is precisely the issue which could – and should – kick start it again.