Paying the members of parliament

OK, I have to make a confession. Today the British newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, was to be found in our household. Let me emphasise immediately that it wasn’t mine, another member of my family wanted to read it. But my confession is that I did also have a look at it. Just for the pictures, of course. But my eyes were drawn to a comment piece written by the paper’s former editor, Charles Moore, in which he assesses the implications of the row on the expenses of British MPs. You can read the whole thing here, but I want to quote the following extract:

‘And why are MPs nowadays the salaried staff of government? There is a basic conflict of interest in the fact that those whose job it is to guard the taxpayer from the demands of government are more and more dependent on the taxpayer for their existence. Surely, they should be self-employed, with personal, not state pensions.’

What does he mean? Maybe what he has in mind is some mechanism by which MPs become independent contractors earning a fee for their ‘services’ – hardly a great idea, as it will first and foremost strike everyone as a tax evasion measure – which will probably not improve their image. But there is a more worrying thought – that he thinks that members of parliament should not be paid at all by the taxpayer. This strikes me as possible because the title of his piece is ‘Now is the time to obliterate the professional political class.’ It suggests he doesn’t want ‘professional politicians,’ but rather politicians whose main income comes from something else. And he also writes:

‘Labour really does believe in a political class. It thinks that having lots of full-time politicians paid lots by the state is good for them and good for the rest of us. It thinks that if they are paid by the state they will not be corrupt, and that, government being a self-evident good, it is better to have more of it.’

This sounds to me as if he wants to return to the 19th century, when MPs were not paid. If that is so, it’s a daft idea, and dangerous. Not paying parliamentarians means that you will only ever have MPs who are rich; or who have rich backers. I cannot really believe that having an MP beholden to, say, a large company, or even to their own professional income, makes them less corrupt. In fact, the British parliament in the middle of the 19th century was a hive of corruption, with seats in Parliament being bought and sold. If you were to read one of the novels by Anthony Trollope, in particular Phineas Redux or Ralph the Heir, you get a good sense of the sleazy corrupt nature of parliamentary politics back then. Not to mention the absence of women MPs.

There is no alternative in a democratic society to paying members of parliament, and indeed paying them reasonably well. The problem is not, as Charles Moore seems to think, over-payment: it is that an unacceptable framework for expenses was allowed to develop which actually encouraged petty corruption. That all this needs to be cleaned up goes without saying. But not by going back into pre-democratic times.

In the meantime, we need to ensure that our system in Ireland is of a high ethical standard. We must not fall into the same swamp that has become visible in Britain.

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3 Comments on “Paying the members of parliament”

  1. Vincent Says:

    We in Ireland have an expression which covers here, gobshite. It is a glorious little word heard rarely between Bray and the Liffey and inside a line from Kilmainham to the Scalp. And you would think it would. Anyhoos, I’m betting you know the term in its various manifestations. And can understand the essay contained within the word and how it would apply to Moore. Oh, the Telegraph is good for the low blood-pressure.

    In all of this what is really really really annoying is I missed just when Labour stopped going after someone with a bloody Moat. That is the kind of thing which should get them an election. FGS, the divide along Class lines with the expenses claims should have been a godsend.

  2. Jilly Says:

    You were way ahead of me there: as I began reading the Charles Moore quotes, I was thinking of Phineas Finn, and clearly you were too! It reminds me that when John Major was Prime Minister, he famously said that Trollope was his favourite author. I think in his case (given that he didn’t come from a moneyed background) it probably meant the Barchester novels, but for the Conservative Party as a whole, I think the Finn novels may be more appealing.

    The Telegraph really is the most odious paper…

    • Yes, I remember John Major and Trollope – and I agree that he was probably a Barchester man. The Finn (Palliser) novels are actually wonderful, not least because they give a real insight into 19th century politics.

      At the time when Major was telling us that he read Trollope, Toy Hattersley argued that Trollope was not for real book lovers. I never understood where that came from…

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