Paying politicians is good for democracy
Forget the expenses scandal: politics was far more rotten when only the privileged few could afford to be MPs.
As the expenses scandal continues its dispiriting domination of British public life, the nation’s bedraggled and humiliated political class has never seemed further removed from those whose interests they are, after all, meant to represent. With each petty revelation, each tawdry detail – from driveway reshingling to mortgage dodges – MPs of all parties are left looking as if they’re only in politics for what they can get out of it.
Using rhetoric he had previously only aimed at British bankers, the Archbishop of Canterbury felt moved to identify a ‘clawing greed’ at the heart of Westminster (1). Even the ‘clawing’ politicians themselves concurred, albeit claiming that they’re as much the victims of the ‘greed at the heart of Westminster’ as its agents. ‘The [expenses] system is rotten’, moaned Northern Ireland secretary Shawn Woodward, an unfortunate beneficiary of nearly £100,000 in mortgage allowances (2).
Confronted by eagerly self-flagellating MPs and a media-class performing sanctimonious somersaults, public cynicism, damaging though it is, is understandable. To be an MP today appears to be little more than a lucrative end in itself, a job perhaps not as financially rewarding as careers in law or finance, but a nice little earner nonetheless. Parliamentary politics now even seems to have a uniform career path, irrespective of party allegiance. A dabble in student politics perhaps, a bit of networking (ideally at Oxbridge), an internship with a think-tank, an unrewarding spot as a parliamentary assistant, and, if you’re lucky, a pop at a safe seat somewhere. While it might no longer be a vocation, politics has never seemed more like a profession, perks and all.
It’s this cosseted, wage-plus-expenses existence that some seem to suggest is the problem: MPs’ only interest appears to be self-interest; their only motivation, self-enrichment. Critics are quick to spot the hypocrisy: while politicians are preaching austerity, they are practising state-funded indulgence. ‘How can [MPs] now talk about the disgraceful behaviour of bankers or demand sacrifices from voters to cope with the recession?’ complained Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer (3). Trevor Kavanagh in the Sun was more blunt: ‘A message from the little people to MPs: you disgust us.’ (4)
In light of the handwringing over MPs’ greedy, grasping behaviour at a time of severe economic hardship, it’s worth recalling that, historically, the campaign to pay MPs a decent wage was not a self-interested demand made by politicians on the make. And nor did it come during a time of prosperity. No, the demand that MPs should receive a wage from the Treasury came from the mass of disenfranchised and impoverished pushing for reform, indeed for political transformation, during the nineteenth century.
At the forefront of this movement were the Chartists. Although the Great Reform Act of 1832 – to give it its typically self-congratulatory Victorian prefix – had extended the franchise, abolished many rotten and pocket boroughs and given industrial towns such as Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham electoral representation, it was neither quite as Great, nor as Reforming as its title suggests.
By 1839, just 858,270 men were allowed to vote, which amounted to about one in seven of the adult male population (women would have to wait nearly 80 years to join in). Not that there were was much to vote for at that time: between the Tories and Whigs, over half of whom were descended from or related to peers, the choice was between the lesser of two privileged evils. It seems that while the House of Commons was no longer the private fiefdom it had been in the eighteenth century, it was still very much the preserve of the propertied elite.
In response, the reform movement gathered pace. Published in 1838, the People’s Charter had been signed by over one and a half million people by the time it was delivered to parliament the following year. The six principal demands included suffrage for all males over 21 years of age, annual June elections, no property qualification for those wishing to stand for election, a secret ballot, and, right at the end, the demand that MPs should be paid: ‘Be it enacted, that every Member of the House of Commons by entitles, at the close of the session, to a writ of expenses on the Treasury, for his legislative duties in the public service, and shall be paid [a fixed amount] per annum.’ (5)
The reason was simple: To give working men the opportunity to take up a seat in the House of Commons. Addressing parliament in favour of the Charter, Thomas Attwood contended that ‘the commons should send into the house men accustomed to the calamities of the people… The man whose bread and the bread of whose children depends on his labour has as great a stake in the country as the Duke of Northumberland.’ (6) Three years later, Thomas Duncombe, when presenting the Charter for the second time, saw the payment of MPs as a bulwark against corruption. ‘Seats in your honourable House’, he declaimed, ‘are sought for at a most extravagant rate of expense; which proves an enormous degree of fraud and corruption… Your petitioners therefore contend that to put an end to secret political traffic, all representatives should be paid a limited amount for their services.’ (7)
While paying MPs would certainly prevent parliamentary politics from becoming a plaything of the propertied, it wasn’t the sole reason. Rather, it was because the role of MP, a representative of the people’s interests, was deemed too important to be left to those who could afford to do so. Payment of MPs wasn’t advocated, therefore, just to purge parliament of corruption; it was because being a Member of Parliament was too politically valuable to be left to wealthy amateurs intent on preserving their own privileged existence. People wanted MPs who were able to articulate their interests, who would fight for their vision of society.
Writing in the Poor Man’s Guardian in 1834, James ‘Bronterre’ O’Brien expresses the social vision, the dream of wresting governance from the landed and the moneyed, that underpinned the demand for political reform: ‘Be not deceived… What concerns us is that we ourselves be represented in the legislative body and that we employ our own power to emancipate ourselves from the middle class… Become your own governors in the workshop as well as out of it… It is only as an auxiliary to social reform, or as a means of protecting the multitude in the establishment of new institutions for the production and distribution of wealth, that universal suffrage will develop its virtues.’ (8) To be able to represent people’s interests mattered. The impoverished and the disenfranchised did not resent an MP the prospect of a decent salary, they advocated it.
Little wonder that successive parliaments, dominated by those whose interests were threatened by the reform movement, saw fit to resist the demands (most strikingly formulated by the Chartists during the 1830s and 1840s) well into the twentieth century. In fact, it was not until the 1911 Parliament Act that MPs were finally given an annual salary – of £400.
An MP’s wage currently stands at £64,766. It’s comfortably above the national average wage of £24,000, but it’s less than, for example, the average secondary school headteacher or family doctor would expect. Now, however, even that would seem too much for a perceived bunch of mediocrities intent on little more, so the caricature goes, than lining their own pockets.
While such resentment is understandable, the view that it’s the riches on offer from politics that has corrupted the politician, as even MPs are all too keen to admit, misses the point. For the problem with today’s expense-exploiting, public-purse-pinching MPs is not that they’re being paid so much, but that their politics is worth so little.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
Previously on spiked
After the MPs expenses scandal, Mick Hume asked what price democracy?. He also argued that scandal dominates debate while governments achieve nothing. Tim Black looked at the Corfu funding allegations. Matthias Heitmann suggested the Paul Wolfowitz affair reveals how fear of corruption undermines political life. James Heartfield said that we should get rid of codes of conduct, not sack ministers. Or read more at spiked issues British politics.
(1) MPs’ prestige at low ebb, BBC News, 10 May 2009
(2) Shaun Woodward: MPs’ expenses system ‘is rotten’, St Helens Star, 13 May 2009
(3) These scams are atrocious. Worse is the lack of remorse, Observer, 10 May 2009
(4) A message from the little people to MPs: You disgust us , Sun, 11 May 2009
(5) See ‘The People’s Charter’ at Marxists.org.
(6) Cited in The Vote: How it was won, and how it was undermined, by Paul Foot, Viking Press, 2005
(7) See ‘Duncombe’s speech introducing the Charter’ at Marxists.org.
(8) Cited in The Vote: How it was won, and how it was undermined, by Paul Foot, Viking Press, 2005