Disgraced politicians should not be relentlessly persecuted, says Rod Liddle. We should address the problem of MPs’ expenses by raising their salaries instead
I felt a little ashamed watching the Westminster Three — Elliot Morley, Jim Devine and David Chaytor — herded into a magistrates court to face charges of defrauding the taxpayer with their MPs expenses claims. Outside the court there were the usual maniacs howling at them, or grunting like pigs — one man even wore a pig’s head to drive home the point more forcefully. Can you imagine the sort of people who would do that? ‘Any plans for the day, dear?’ ‘Yes, I’m going to dress up as a pig and shout abuse at MPs. I have hired a pig’s head from a theatrical supplies shop, precisely for this purpose.’
And yet if the disgraced MPs and their alleged venality are somehow emblematic of our times, then the incontinent self-righteous anger of embittered nonentities is even more so, a sort of flip-side to the bizarre vomiting of public grief which we first witnessed with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Anger which can never be assuaged and is always on public display. It used to be just a few illiterate and apoplectic working-class people hammering on the sides of police vans when child killers were being driven to the cells; but today there are thousands and thousands of people who have been outraged and must publicly display their anger — with the casual tapping of a key on the internet, or by text, or in person dressed as a pig. Every week is Hate Week. I found the furore in the case of Jon Venables, the outpouring of bile, utterly bewildering, a regular Salem. For the howling mob, no punishment would be too great for Venables, just as no punishment would be too great for Morley and co, as far as Pig-man is concerned.
The feeling of shame settled upon me because I had thrown in my two penn’orth of vindictive glee last summer, when the stories broke. I thought I was right at the time, but then we always think we’re right at the time. Luckily, as soon as the Westminster Three arrived in court they got their counsel to ask the magistrate if it was ok if instead of sitting in the sealed dock, they might lounge around at the back of the court. I felt a bit better about myself then: they still don’t get it, they are still somehow aloof to it all. There is, beyond doubt, a problem which is both systemic and personal.
But the public loathing has sort of lost its moorings and floated up, up and away towards the stratosphere; there is now nothing that the MPs, any of them, can do to persuade the general public that they are not all filthy, overpaid, venal scumbags. Channel 4 recently took advantage of this disposition with the imbecilic programme Tower Block of Commons, in which four MPs were required to abase themselves before selected representatives of the untermenschen; sleep on scuzzy couches in piss-stained tower blocks, pass the time with idiots, eat awful food and have no money. The subtext of the programme was: let’s see how the bastards like this!
The MPs, a decent bunch, were made to feel bad about their comparative affluence, to apologise for it, to have their noses ground into the dirt. I remember one exchange in which a woman was outraged — everyone is always outraged, remember — that MPs earned £65k per year. Why should they get more than me, was her — apparently rhetorical — question. Well, the obvious answer is that they are not feckless skagheads with 93 children, but people who work for a living, and work long hours too, and who learned stuff at school and have worked their way into a position of some responsibility. But the woman’s argument is not terribly far from the general point of view of much of the public. They are still paid too much, MPs, even if it is only the average wage of a London plumber. And anything would be too much, anyway. Pay them nothing, prosecute them, then dress up as a pig and oink at them as they emerge from court. There is no justification for this.
Of course they must be paid more, and in the cases of Morley and Chaytor perhaps twice their current salary. You may have noticed that the average age of almost all the expenses scandal’s worst miscreants (both those facing prosecution and those who have escaped it) is a good 15 years above the average age of all MPs (which is 50.1, since you asked). That £65k is a lovely salary for the newly elected Chloe Smith in Norwich, because she is the youngest MP in the House and well under the age of 30 (even if she was a management consultant before being elected). But for Morley and Chaytor? Come on, do we not think that these people could be doing rather more remunerative work elsewhere?
The truth is, unless MPs become ministers, the salary of an MP for those past the age of 45 is pretty small beer, unless you believe we should all be on exactly the same wage (a suggestion even Lenin thought infantile). We complain, with justification, that there are no ‘characters’ left on the backbenches of the House of Commons — and this is why; they have been stripped of both money and power, and so nobody with any sense would wish to become one. This is a bad thing. We complain that our MPs are too often careerist wonks and munchkins — well, this is why; because being an MP is both financially and spiritually bereft.
My suggestion would be to keep the starting salary of MPs as it is currently and then to increase their pay by £7,000 for every four years they are in office. That way we reward wisdom and experience and dedication and age; we reward the mavericks who do not sell their souls for ministerial careers and a mess of pottage. We keep a sort of pace with the rewards they might have received for promotion and long service in the commercial world (although nowhere near what it is in the rest of the public sector).
The retreat of ideology from the political debate has undoubtedly made the expenses scandal worse than it might otherwise have been. It is gratifying to think that our MPs might actually believe in something, it would cheer us up to think that this wasn’t all about power or money. But then if there is a role for the conviction politician now, then it is on the select committees and on the backbenches. We need to make the job of an MP more attractive. Paying them a lot more is a start.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 20, 2010