Monday, 1 June 2009

MPs' Expenses/New Speaker: Crusading Time Again

For most of my twenties and a bit of my thirties I held the peculiar view that being a Member of Parliament was a higher calling: one that bestowed an honour but also placed one in a certain tradition of service; and that accordingly MPs ought to be paid a decent but modest middle-class wage, their real reward being precisely that honourable service to the public weal.
In this belief, clearly, I was na├»ve and impractical, and time and experience have eroded its shaky basis in me. For what is an MP but a human man or woman doing a job? I suppose a bit of my thinking on same is vested in the character of Dr Martin Pallister MP in Crusaders. But certainly I saw enough of my contemporaries take a direct route from student politics through lobbying firms to seats in the Commons, just as one might steer a certain pre-set course to be an accountant or a barrister, or a graphic designer or a personnel manager, or any other sort of white-collar gig. Politics is a profession, requiring a particular set of skills, and one might seek admission to it based on the desire to improve the lots of others than oneself - or one might not. At any rate, you have to do something to make a living, and since one wouldn’t wish British politics to regress once more into the form of a rich man’s idle hobby, the basic salary of an MP mustn’t be a deterrent to attracting clever/capable people.
That’s all fine then. The problem, though, for me and the rest of the country, is this business of the perks, and who defines them, and who pays for them.
Put it this way: I’m thinking of buying a new rug for my gaff, and because of the non-standard dimensions of the ‘heavy traffic flooring area’ I need said rug to cover, I’m thinking of getting it made bespoke: a slightly pricier-than-usual undertaking, but certainly a household necessity, and a more economical choice to get a rug than a new floor. Still, I’m mulling over the cost a bit before plunging in, like most of us who buy our stuff according to the dictates of what we earn.
If, however, I were an MP... well, then obviously I’d stop wasting my precious mental energy and let you buy that rug for me, dear reader – you, that is, and your fellow taxpayers.
Vernon Bogdanor addressed the matter very eloquently in the Times a fortnight or so ago:
“The cost of furniture, gardening, swimming pools and horse manure should be paid by MPs from their salaries. This would mean, until Sir Christopher [Kelly] reports, a fall in the standard of living of many MPs. That, perhaps, is no bad thing when so many of the public have to confront the consequences of recession. It will put MPs in a stronger position to empathise with constituents facing hard times without tax concessions or an additional costs allowance...”
Meanwhile: this blog is hopeful that Frank Field will stand for election as Speaker of the Commons, even though this preference puts me in dubious company, including that of Simon Heffer. Clearly a rigorous fellow, with a strong conception of what is the right thing, the worst that can be said of Field, seemingly, is that he doesn’t tow the line, won't be bought and sold and, as a late-life bachelor free of dependents, has a slightly otherwordly conception of how to conduct oneself properly. Well, all that’s fine by me. Nothing wrong with high standards, eh? The job could benefit from an honest man: someone who's a bit of a -oh, what's the word? - a crusader.

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