Sunday, 18 April 2010

Some thoughts on M.P.s and their expenses

I sometimes think I must be the only person in the country not getting all hot under the collar about M.P.'s expenses. I shall explain why.

The first point to make is that Members of Parliament and government ministers are not paid much by executive standards. A back-bench M.P.'s pay is similar to that of a senior housemaster at a major independent school, and well below that of a headmaster. Here in Staffordshire, no less than four of the directors of the county fire service earn more than a cabinet minister. About 50 BBC executives earn more than the prime minister (to say nothing of the high-profile stars!), as do many local government chief executives. When we read denunciations of "political corruption" in the press, we should bear in mind that journalists on the national press are much better paid than those they are denouncing. (Why should you want to become prime minister when you can earn vastly more money sneering at the prime minister in a tabloid newspaper?)

This comparatively low pay for politicians is a recent phenomenon. In the past, govenment leaders were some of the highest-paid people in the country.It was a characteristic of early modern societies that just about the only way to make a lot of money very quickly was to get into government and so get hands into the public coffers. This applied in England from late in the middle ages until the early 19th century, and I think it has left a residue of contempt for politicians amongst the population (I shall develop this point in my next blog entry, looking at "court vs. country" ideas). One of the few sensible comments on current scandals was made by William Rees-Mogg, writing in the "Times". What was the pay of the prime minister a hundred years ago, he asked? The surprising answer was that in 1900 the prime minister's salary, allowing for inflation, was the equivalent of £900,000 today! The Lord Chancellor earned more, but both were dwarfed by the earnings of the Archbishop of Canterbury, which came to £1.3 million! Today's holders of these posts are very poorly renumerated by comparison!

We all know the saying, "If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys". The extremely high pay of bankers, footballers and Jonathon Ross is always justified by citing the need to attract superior levels of talent. So why does the same logic not apply to politicians? Presumably we want our government leaders to be people of high ability. Members of Parliament constitute the very narrow pool from which all prime ministers and almost all cabinet ministers are selected, and this has been the case for well over a century. But how do we propose to attract very able people into Parliament when they can earn very much more in other jobs?

There is a widespread contempt for "professional politicians". This too is strange, because in other walks of life "professionalism" earns praise. It has long been the case that anyone hoping to become prime minister needs to enter the House of Commons before the age of about 35, which does not leave much time for a high-level career outside politics. This applied in the past to such leaders as Gladstone and Disraeli, Lloyd George and Churchill,and Margaret Thatcher, and what were these much-admired leaders if not professional politicians?

Critics of our political leaders speak as if it is somehow sordid and disreputable of them to be trying to make more money. But it is a basic principle of free-market economic theory that people are motivated primarily by a desire to better themselves, with making more money being an obvious aspect. Do we expect our politicians to behave differently from everyone else, and if so, why? We are often told that politicians ought to be motivated not by financial gain, but by an idealistic desire to help their country. I have a simple riposte to this: if the speaker is a conservative, I reply, "You mean, like Lenin?", and to a left-winger I reply, "Like Hitler?"

A final point: it is said that the background to the expenses scandal is that some years ago M.P.s decided not to award themselves a pay rise because it would be unpopular with the public, but instead opted for an open-ended system of expenses with no questions asked, and that this is what has led to the current situation. If true, then they are well punished for their cowardice. After all, who would care about moats, duck islands, or even soft-porn videos, if they were paid for out of salary? Indeed, it would be no-one else's business what the money was spent on. But I do not think anything will be gained by forcing politicians to live off less.

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