- Alastair Cavendish
It's Not All About the Money
The results of the recent Led by Donkeys undercover operation do not make for edifying viewing. The videos in which Members of Parliament eagerly put themselves forward for an unspecified role with a non-existent South Korean company demonstrate that the former Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, cannot add up and the former Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson has the vocabulary of a P.E. teacher. Neither is quite as shameless as the former gameshow contestant, Matt Hancock, who tripped over his own tongue when demanding £10,000 a day to do… well, just about anything really.
This spectacle inevitably led to another tedious discussion about how much Members of Parliament are paid and ought to be paid. Konstantin Kisin, a libertarian comic who often speaks sense, though I have yet to hear him tell a joke, made the familiar case that if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. Many other pundits made similar points, after carefully pointing out that Kwarteng, Williamson, Hancock et al had done nothing illegal. If the pay were higher, the argument runs, not only might you get better people, but those people would be less inclined to seek second, third, fourth or fifth jobs to make ends meet. Others equally predictably fumed that £84,000 a year is far more than most people are paid (though not, presumably, the well-padded professional fumers of Talk TV and GB News).
Here's a thought: it doesn’t matter. Members of Parliament were not paid at all until 1911, though in the nineteenth century they were protected from being arrested for debt, providing Anthony Trollope with a useful plot device for his political novels. In 1911, an annual salary of £400 was introduced, hardly a king’s ransom even then. Over the next century, increases were fairly modest and infrequent (£1,000 by 1946, £11,000 by 1980). Members of Parliament may well have been in it for the money they would make indirectly and subsequently, but there were always much easier ways to earn more in alternative professions except, perhaps, for George Brown.
Recently, parliamentary salaries have risen more rapidly. Has this led to a corresponding rise in the ability and dedication of MPs? Clearly, it has not. The problem with Members of Parliament is not that they are underpaid or overpaid, it is that they are worthless. Matt Hancock is not worth £10 a day, let alone £10,000. Parliament is supposed to scrutinise the actions of government and prevent oligarchy or tyranny. The last few years have provided the clearest possible demonstration that it is incapable of doing this. It is difficult to see what higher salaries would do to ameliorate the situation. You would not get better people in parliament, only greedier people. Did anyone really think, when parliament proved so supine in the face of government overreach, that what we really needed was a few more investment bankers and hedge fund managers on the back benches?
You undoubtedly know several conscientious, intelligent people whom you would trust to represent your views and values. Why are none of them in parliament? This is a difficult thing to gage, but it is unlikely that money is the principal reason. Many of these people, after all, are probably not as highly paid as MPs in their current jobs. If you consider these people, or introspect and think about why you are not a politician, these are probably some of your thoughts:
1. Politics is boring.
2. All political careers end in failure.
3. The political process is corrupt and corrupting.
4. Many people would hate you simply because of the party you represent.
5. You would have to work in a boorish, uncivilised, sexist atmosphere.
6. Becoming an MP involves jumping through a great many hoops over several years.
Half of these difficulties probably cannot be solved, while the other half require long-term cultural and systemic change. As an individual, perhaps all one can do is to change one’s attitude and stop treating politics as a branch of show business for ugly people. I am well aware, for instance, that I ought not to waste my time clicking on headlines that claim to reveal Hancock’s Latest Humiliation. It is an empty claim in any case. By the time you have finished reading it, Hancock is bound to have made a fool of himself in some other way. His personality is like some disaster – the Titanic or the Hindenburg – from which it is impossible to look away. This, I suppose, is the point. Stare in horror at the freak on the stage while his accomplice picks your pocket. Most people who would be capable and honest administrators do not want to be circus freaks, and increasing the price of admission to the big top is unlikely to make much difference to their reluctance.