“So normally, if I’m doing a speech or something, it’s £5,000 a day…” “I am self-employed. So nobody pays me a salary…”
Two different men uttered those remarks, but in the public perception they seem interchangeable. The disgrace of Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind is just the latest episode in the long-running Westminster soap opera featuring greed and self-interest.
Straw’s alleged claim to have operated “under the radar” to change EU rules in the interests of a firm that paid him and Rifkind’s boast of access to ambassadors strike exactly the same note. Where the scale of the delusion became mind-boggling was when Rifkind claimed to have no salary. In fact he was receiving two salaries from British taxpayers: £67,000 as an MP and £14,876 as chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee. The Guardian reported that his outside interests earned him £270,868 between January 2014 and January 2015.
No wonder Rifkind subsequently described the “no salary” claim as a “silly thing to say”. With that, at least, most people would agree. In every scandal of this kind there is usually one feature that stands out and particularly inflames public opinion. During the MPs’ expenses debacle it was a duck house. In this week’s drama it was Rifkind asserting that it was “quite unrealistic” to expect MPs to live off their £67,000 salary.
This was the latest example of Westminster politicians’ enslavement to the “E-word”. The problem that lies at the root of the divorce of the political class from the electorate is our rulers’ rancid and undiminished sense of Entitlement. People like Us deserve huge salaries, expenses and perks because we are very important and special; that is what makes us so different from the mug punters who not only could contrive to rub along on £67,000 a year, but in many instances would regard it as wealth beyond the dreams of avarice.
The frequenters of the Westminster trough, however, do not lack supporters and apologists for their inflated claims to remuneration. Take one case study: Dan Hodges. Whenever you want to discover what the British public is thinking, by the simple expedient of tracking down the diametrically opposite opinion and reversing it, Hodges should be your first resort. In the Telegraph last Monday he demonstrated his usual flair for identifying and solving a problem in public life, with a piece headlined: “Want to kill cash for access? Simple ( whack up MPs’ pay to £150,000”.
Yeah, right on. Why not put that sensible proposal into the manifestoes of the three legacy parties and accelerate their demise that way? One of Dan Hodges’ grounds for recommending this astronomic increase for the denizens of the slime-green benches is “they should earn that because they are worth it”. It is difficult to imagine he picked up that view from overhearing conversations in the public bar of the Dog and Duck.
We can now expect to hear all the usual tired old clichés in defence of the indefensible being aired. Members of other parliaments earn more than at Westminster… Actually, in many cases they earn much less. It is desirable that politicians should have experience of the world outside politics… Yes, and the time they should acquire that knowledge is in the fifteen or twenty years of adult life before they stand for parliament ( not as a substitute for looking after their constituents.
Politicians should spend years in business or some other non-political vocation as a preliminary to politics. That should enable them to establish themselves financially and otherwise so that a Spartan stipend of £67,000 is adequate for their needs. For there is an elephant in the room, is there not, in this debate? Is it not the case that politicians, when asked about their career motivations, with a practised straight face, reply: “Public service.”
They are not in politics for money ( heaven forfend! ( but to “serve”. In that case, unlike the mercenary majority of us, they should be happy to accept their pittance of £67,000 plus generous expenses. There is no other category of employee in the country from whom disinterested acceptance of a relatively modest remuneration can more reasonably be expected.
Watch out, too, for an allied demand that is frequently revived whenever the political class is detected in some collective naughtiness: taxpayer funding of political parties. The temptation to fund their parties by unethical means is so strong, runs this outrageous argument, that politicians must be saved from themselves by being given millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money. The shamelessness is breathtaking.
The monarchy was neutered in 1688, the House of Lords in 1911. The signs are multiplying that history may be on the move again and that this time the House of Commons may have exhausted the mandate of Heaven, as used to be said of failing Chinese dynasties. It will be an interesting general election.