Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is How we invented Freedom and why it matters.
Let me advance two ideas which are becoming almost unspeakable. First, it is a good thing for MPs to have outside jobs. Second, MPs ought to vote on their own terms and conditions.
Wait! Come back! I’m going somewhere with this! Look, I know that the current mood is that MPs should be housed in barracks, watched over by warders, made to account for their private telephone calls. I understand that, should a charge be brought against them, they will be denied the presumption of innocence. When, for example, accusations were made last month against Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind, neither man was allowed to defend himself. Each believed he had a good excuse: Sir Malcolm that no job was offered, let alone accepted; Straw that he had been talking only about what he might do after he left Parliament. I have no way of knowing whether these defences were valid; but they were never heard. Both men were presumed guilty and disowned by their parties, despite what a judge might call their “previous good character”.
Inevitably, the affair has led to demands that second jobs should be banned. Ed Miliband says he would limit outside earnings to 15 per cent of a parliamentary salary. Depressingly, he has public opinion on his side. We evidently want a chamber of full-time politicians who look to the state for every rise in life. So much for the citizen-legislator.
What used to be regarded as an honour – the extraordinary privilege of representing your community in the nation’s counsels – is now treated as a job. Hence the anger when MPs are seen to be doing things which we can’t do in other jobs, such as having long recesses or voting on their pay or combining their duties with outside employment.
These criticisms are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what Parliament is for. MPs are not there to plough their way through legislation. Frankly, the less time they spend regulating and taxing the rest of us, the better. They are there, rather, as representatives – which needn’t be a full-time occupation.
In Texas, the legislature meets for 140 days every two years. No one treats it as a job: the remuneration is $600 a month, plus a $150 per diem when the assembly is in session. You may have noticed that Texas is doing rather well: income tax is zero and the economy is growing more than twice as fast as the USA as a whole. The closest European equivalent is Switzerland, which also has part-time MPs, who are compensated for their time but expected to derive their chief income from whatever they were doing before. It, too, is doing rather well.
Instead of prohibiting second jobs, we should treat serving as an MP as being a second job. Our representatives should live mainly on whatever they earn as novelists or mechanics. The parliamentary session would have to be shorter, and the hours fitted around the working day, but would this be such a bad thing? Many of the affairs that currently occupy MPs could be devolved to local authorities or, better, to individual citizens.
At this stage, an old, spavined objection is trotted out. Politics, we are told, would become “the preserve of the rich”. But this objection applies in theory rather than in practice. Until the 1990s, local councillors were all, in effect, unpaid. There were declining industrial towns in northern England where income was well below the national mean, but where you could find decent, conscientious Labour councillors who were proud to serve their communities. The same is plainly not true today in – to pluck an example from the air – Rotherham. Similarly, MPs were meanly paid and largely part-time until a generation ago. John Smith practised as a barrister, Michael Foot was an editor. Again, would you say that the calibre of our parliamentarians has improved significantly since the 1970s?
Worst of all is the cant. For all his class-war rhetoric, Ed Miliband knows perfectly well that you can combine being an MP with other paid work. He knows it because he used to do it himself, serving a full working week as Energy Secretary. Indeed, he aspires to do so again, working full time as Prime Minister (I know, I know, but humour me) while representing Doncaster.
A ministerial job is more demanding than keeping your hand in as a lecturer or solicitor or farmer. And, unlike private sector work, it necessarily involves a conflict of interest, because a minister’s job is to wield executive power, while an MP’s is to constrain it.
Before the 1990s and “sleaze” and Nolan and IPSA, the presumption was that an MP was responsible for his own behaviour. When outside regulators began to itemise precisely what was and wasn’t allowed, a culture of conscience was replaced with a culture of compliance. Instead of asking themselves “Is this the right thing to do?” MPs asked “Is this within the rules?” Hence the reaction of virtually every parliamentarian who was found to have behaved spivvily by the expense claim leaks, namely “I was within the letter of the regulations”.
We’ve now reached the absurd position where IPSA presumes to decide whether an MP has been in the Commons on important enough business to qualify for an overnight stay, and even talks of allowing some MPs to earn larger outside incomes than others. Being a state agency, its assumption is that legislators should be as dependent on the state as possible.
If MPs are expected to prostrate themselves before such a quango, is it any wonder that they are so feeble before the European Court of Human Rights or the EU?
Am I saying that MPs should be spared scrutiny? No. I’d subject them to an extremely strong external regulator, a regulator empowered to sack them altogether. That external regulator should be the electorate. Its powers should be boosted in two important ways: through open primaries (which would end safe seats) and through Zac Goldsmith-style Recall. It should certainly not be weakened by allowing a quango to reverse its verdict – which, if you think about it, is what we mean when we say that a committee should be able to dismiss an MP who has won an election.
“If you give people more responsibility they behave more responsibly,” said Keith Joseph, in one of the pithiest summaries of conservatism you’ll find. It’s true for almost everyone. Including MPs.