Had the public been asked, before Monday morning, to identify two MPs who stood for honesty and decency, the names Jack Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind would have been prominent among their replies. Both have served as foreign secretary, Straw also as home secretary and justice secretary. Neither seemed unduly driven by personal ambition, nor were they the worst offenders in the expenses scandal.
Both are probably right in saying that they have not broken any rules when discussing work opportunities with employees of a Chinese company who turned out to be undercover Daily Telegraph reporters. But it is astonishing that both seemed to believe this sufficient to let them off the hook. It is galling, too, if you are a voter in Kensington, to hear your MP boasting of how much time he has on his hands and claiming that no one pays him a salary — when, of course, he is receiving £67,000 a year from taxpayers to be a backbench MP. If Sir Malcolm had become more interested in helping Chinese companies do commerce than in serving his own constituents, why stand again as an MP?
When Sir Malcolm entered politics, the greatest threat to the Conservatives was socialism. Now, the biggest threat to Conservatism is inequality. It is hard to defend the system of free enterprise when it seems that the rising tide just lifts the yachts. It’s hard to talk about a recovery when the average salary is lower than it was eight years ago. And it’s hard to talk about fairness when young graduates who work hard find they still cannot afford a house at the age of 30. There is a feeling that a new divide is opening in Britain — and that the super-rich, especially those of certain age, have spun off into a world of their own.
Sir Malcolm’s excuse that he needed to bump up his salary because the ‘vast majority’ of professionals earn ‘far, far more’ than an MP’s pay of £67,000 was arrogant and wrong. He would be right to say that people want MPs to be paid at a level similar to solicitors or doctors. But the median income for doctors is £71,200 — which is worse than the remuneration of MPs when one factors in holidays and expenses. The median pay for solicitors is £41,200. It’s true that the salaries of the top 0.1 per cent are astronomical, but must the pay of our MPs follow suit?
Sir Malcolm is not alone among MPs in having a warped view of what people in other occupations earn. Every parliamentary scandal is followed by pleas from MPs to be paid more, on the grounds that if they were ‘properly’ paid they wouldn’t have to fiddle their expenses or tout their services to the Chinese. It is an argument which does not stand up to scrutiny. Does anyone really think that were MPs’ pay to be doubled to £134,000 a year many would not still be tempted to take up the offer of lobbyists and others offering Sir Malcolm’s half-day rate of £5,000 in return for access and influence?
Some MPs have acquired a sense of entitlement to high pay because their view of society is informed by the people with whom their lives bring them into contact. They are constantly lobbied by wealthy interests, while their parties have become increasingly reliant on rich donors for funding. As a result, they come to think of the rich as the norm. At the same time, the contact between MPs and their constituents has diminished as they spend more and more of their time in Westminster. This means that political policies become ever more concerned with the well-off, for or against. An unhealthy amount of time in this parliament has been devoted to discussion of issues which only affect a tiny proportion of society. Fiscal policy revolves around mansion taxes and tax avoidance by billionaires, transport policy is dominated by a hub airport for London and HS2 — facilities of disproportionate interest to wealthy business travellers. Even equality policies are concerned mostly with the wealthy. As Professor Alison Wolf recently observed, feminism has become fixated around issues — such as the number of women in the boardroom — which are only of interest to the top echelon of professional women. Cleaners don’t a get a look-in.
You do not have to be on the left to be concerned about this warping of public life. The justification for free markets is that they bring wealth to the whole of society, not a few at the top. A good number of the billionaires with whom our MPs now seem to spend increasing amounts of time, either being entertained, lobbied or touting their services, hail from countries where the conversion to capitalism has been very recent and hurried: namely Russia and China. These are political systems where the voice of the average earner is very faint indeed.
David Cameron was lucky that a senior Labour figure was caught out alongside Sir Malcolm. There is nothing more toxic to his chances of winning the next election than the idea that the Tories are the party of the rich. The Prime Minister needs to seize the initiative, get out of the bubble which MPs inhabit with our wealthiest residents, and focus on the interests of the majority, who will never be billionaires or even millionaires, but who do aspire one day, if they work hard, to be almost as well off as their MP.
This is an extract from this week's issue of the Spectator, available from tomorrow.
The era of stable government is over