MPs should serve more than their wallets (YP)
published in the Yorkshire Post 25 August 2012
The whole nation should be grateful to Mr Mark Field, the Tory MP for the Cities of London and Westminster. He has unintentionally renewed a long debate about the nature of political service in our country.
Defending his outside interests, which earned him nearly £100,000 last year above his MP’s salary, Mr Field said “the last thing you want is a political class full of full-time politicians who have no other experience. That would be disastrous for British politics.”
Britons traditionally prefer to think of politics as a form of voluntary service rather than a profession. That principle still applies, formally, to local councillors who are paid only through expenses and allowances. Like certain former amateurs in county cricket, some councillors do very well out of these but the amateur principle remains intact. MPs did not get salaries until 1912: long after the great democratic reforms of the nineteenth century, representing a constituency was still regarded as an obligation rather than an occupation.
This attitude lingers on in Mr Field’s remark. It would have sounded extraordinary if he had said “the last thing you want is an accountant class full of full-time accountants who have no other experience. That would be disastrous for British accountancy.” But he can still talk in this way about politics.
The House of Commons still runs on voluntary effort. The only formal requirement of any MP is to vote for his or her party on demand. Otherwise MPs are free to choose whether they even decide to turn up. Any other activity besides voting is voluntary – speaking, asking questions, serving on committees or the front bench, promoting or scrutinizing legislation, promoting any cause. Of course, MPs are expected to do their constituency casework, but they decide how much effort to put into this. Much casework would be better done by a local councillor, but for many MPs it becomes a refuge from the frequent emptiness and under-achievement of Commons life. But that does not counter the central point: beyond a certain minimum all efforts by MPs for their constituents are voluntary.
However, we are undoubtedly experiencing a professional takeover of British politics. For the first time, all three of the major United Kingdom parties are led by people with little or no experience outside politics while more and more seats are represented by such MPs. Many commentators share Mr Field’s view that British politics needs more people who have had success in other occupations. However, that should not give MPs a licence to make money outside the House of Commons. It is possible to acquire experience and expertise without being paid.
One of Mr Field’s lesser sources of outside income is the European Azerbaijan Society, which has been criticized as a mouthpiece for a repressive and corrupt regime. Even if that criticism is unfair, Mr Field simply does not need its money for his Parliamentary duties. The House of Commons has a superb Library and research service, which can give him a full, unbiased briefing on Azerbaijan – or any other country – on request, for nothing. He and other MPs should take special care not to make themselves beholden to foreign states. (So should ex-Premiers, like Tony Blair, who is paid by the President of Kazakhstan but will not tell us how much or what for). MPs might claim that they are promoting diplomatic or business links with foreign states, but that is not their business. We pay officials to do that, and businesses pay commercial representatives.
MPs have one simple duty, to represent their constituents in Parliament, and nothing else should interfere. Any MP should ask himself whether outside interests help him to deliver a better service to them. Even if he can honestly answer “yes,” he should then ask whether the benefits are outweighed by the potential damage to his independence and reputation, and to the general perception of British politicians.
What do voters think if they see their MP earning as much money, or more, from outside activities as he does from his work for them? Perhaps a few might think themselves lucky to have such a talented and sought-after representative. But in the present climate, they will be massively outweighed by those who resent their MP for having the time and energy and inclination to seek money from outside.
For MPs in this happy state there is plenty of extra work available inside the House of Commons. They could devote more time to examining legislation and making it comprehensible, instead of passing complete gobbledygook and expecting the Lords to clean it up. They could do far more to uncover the billions wasted each year on failed programmes and policies. And, in case they had not noticed, our economy is in dire shape, and the combined Front Benches are several concepts short of a clue on how to fix it. We need independent thinking on a host of problems, immediate and long-range. That should be a full-time occupation for any MP.