Issue 302: 2021 11 25: Conflicting Duties

25 November 2021

Conflicting Duties

Jobs for MPs.

By John Watson

There is a certain sort of witness who appears in old-style detective stories. Having disappeared abroad to get away from family problems he or she hears about the trial of the suspect and, realising that the idiots back at home are about to hang the wrong person, returns just in time to give last-minute evidence for the defence and clear everything up. It makes excellent drama but one cannot help thinking how tedious it must be for the witness in question to be pulled back into a life he or she thought they had left behind. At the moment I feel particularly sympathetic because, having left for a long holiday New Zealand away from domestic UK politics, I find the debate upon whether or not MPs choose their career out of concern for the public interest so annoying, shallow and thoughtless that I feel obliged to intervene, something I am well qualified to do since I, as a young man, took the trouble to get myself installed on the Central Office list of approved Conservative parliamentary candidates before deciding that I was unlikely to be a success and abandoning political ambition in favour of a professional career. A number of my friends did the same and I think it is fair to say that we approached the matter in much the same way, and in much the same way as most of the young men and women who got on to become MPs for any of the main political parties.

So, the question is “why?”  Why do reasonably well-educated men and women who could have remunerative and interesting careers in the professions or in business decide to focus instead on the uphill struggle to become a Member of Parliament? Certainly it isn’t the pay. The salary for a Member of Parliament is currently around £82,000 a year. That isn’t to be sneezed at by any means and is more than twice the national median salary of £31,000; it is however less than most city law firms pay their newly qualified staff and you have to remember that the pool for MPs comprises confident ambitious young people who expect to rise to the well-paid top of their chosen field.  No, they would hardly decide to go into politics for the money.

What is it then? The public good? Certainly there are those who see their politics solely as a vehicle for the delivery of a particular message but that, I think, is a rarity. Yes, of course an aspiring politician will have views as the way in which society should be run, but as a reason for a political career the desire to implement those ideas is generally mixed with something stronger, the wish to shine and the wish to make, and be seen to make, a meaningful contribution in a very prestigious arena.

Of course it would be like that, wouldn’t it? That is how ambitious human beings are driven outside politics. Take your struggling artists. Do they not dream of the days when their paintings will adorn the walls of the Royal Academy and be the focus of newspaper supplements? Of course they do and they will struggle and starve all the harder in their unheated garrets because of the hope of recognition. That is not about money but the wish to have their talent recognised. Take the athletes, Olympic rowers for example. They sacrifice all other ambitions to their training – not because it will be remunerative but for the possible glory of winning or at least doing very well. Take the aging and decrepit barrister as he vapours on to the youngsters in El Vinos. He does not boast about the cases which brought him the most money but about his forensic triumphs, the arguments with which he redefined the law – particularly when he did so against the odds. It is la gloire which drives them all and also many others who just want to carve themselves a modest reputation or get the satisfaction of a job well done. It is the same desire to use and exhibit talent, and to shine, which drives the young politician and although the fact that the fight is in a worthy cause adds the spice of self-satisfaction it is very rare for it to stand alone.

Now the debate on Parliamentary conflicts has got into something of a mess. On the one side there is the question of whether MPs should accept money for their political support. That has the smack of corruption about it but even there it is not entirely clear. After all an MP supported by a trade union might be expected to represent that union’s views and provided the arrangement was open that might not be objectionable. Anyway it is a difficult area.

The other side of the debate is whether politicians should have other occupations, for example directorships or a practice at the bar. That is not a question of corruption but whether they have time to focus on their duties and one of the rather woolly proposals put forward by the government is that the code of conduct should ensure that MPs always prioritise their constituents.

Why? Suppose that some captain of industry, a Robert Maxwell or Richard Branson for example, has built an empire which he runs and thinks that he could perform the role of MP as well? What if it is the head of Friends of the Earth who believes he could use the position of an MP in support of his agenda. Or a priest, whose primary duty is to his flock. Should these people really be barred on the grounds that their representation of their constituency would be a secondary activity or is the question one to be determined by their constituents? We claim to run a representative democracy. From time to time Parliament has tried to prevent people taking their seat on the grounds that they were unsuitable, only to see them re-elected at the subsequent byelection. Such incidents have not been to its credit.  Surely the question of suitability is one for the voters and, if they prefer a representative who has another career over other candidates who do not, they should be able to make that decision and not have it upset by some Parliamentary commissar.   

It is I suppose arguable that candidates who have other interests should have to declare them at the time of their election, but really is this worth the bother? Most candidates boast of all their activities in their election literature. It would be rare for them to conceal how busy and important they are and, if they do so, there is the next election to think about.

Whatever the Parliamentary rules may be about paying for votes, there should be no requirement for an MP to perform his political duties in priority to anything else. Drop it, Boris.

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