Allan Massie: Politicians and outside interests

Former senior ministers will always be targets for recruitment by legitimate companies. Picture: Getty

Former senior ministers will always be targets for recruitment by legitimate companies. Picture: Getty

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NOTHING to stop members of parliament from having outside interests, in fact it is something to be encouraged writes Allan Massie

Something between 10 and 15 per cent of the House of Commons and of the Scottish Parliament have second jobs. Shock, surprise and cries of “how dare they?” Being a member of parliament is supposed to be a full-time job, isn’t it? Well, as it happens, these members with these particular jobs prove it isn’t. They are government ministers, you see, and inevitably and properly spend much, even most, of their time on government rather than parliamentary business. Nevertheless they continue to be responsible for their constituency and, one trusts, responsive to the people who elected them. I don’t suppose Nicola Sturgeon neglects the people of Govan now that she is First Minister. I know that my local MP, Michael Moore, still occupied himself with constituency business when he was secretary of state for Scotland.

So it’s clear: if government ministers can still find time to attend to constituency matters, backbenchers and shadow ministers in the Opposition parties can’t credibly pretend that being a MP or MSP is properly or necessarily a full-time job. In the case of MSPs elected on the Party List, it certainly isn’t, for strictly speaking they have no constituents, and nobody cast a personal vote for them. Of course they may choose to handle constituency business, sometimes to the irritation of the directly elected member, but there is no requirement for them to do so. In any case
the Scottish Parliament has a
short working week, and, like Westminster, long recesses. There is plenty of time for members to have other work.

This wouldn’t apparently be popular. The demand that being a member of parliament should be a full-time job is frequently and loudly made. In one sense this is a bit odd. There are equally frequent and equally loud complaints about the professionalisation of politics and the apparent tendency for today’s politicians to have no experience of what is called the real world. Well, one way of engaging with this real world would be for a member of parliament to have outside interests in business, the professions, community enterprises, and such like. A member of parliament who owns a farm is likely to speak with greater authority about the problems of agriculture than a full-time politician might.

Of course many think politics should be a full-time job because members of parliament are handsomely paid. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, caught in a newspaper sting operation, has probably angered more people by saying that he has lots of free time and implying that he needed to earn more than his parliamentary salary of £67,000 than by whatever representations he may have shown himself willing to make on behalf of what he was led to assume was a Chinese company. He was surely telling the truth when he said he had lots of free time, but it is usually rash in public life to be so honest.

As to the salary, well, most of us would think that quite satisfactory. Members of parliament also enjoy quite generous expenses, though, if these are properly policed, they are incurred legitimately in the course of work. A member of parliament gets no pecuniary advantage from having secretarial work paid for from public funds, or from travel expenses incurred on parliamentary business.

Moreover if politics is to be regarded as a full-time job, then the salary compares very badly with many other posts in the public sector, let alone with what a man or woman of ability can earn in business or the professions. If Sir Malcolm had chosen to remain at the Scottish Bar, his earnings over the years from the practice of law would surely have been higher than his earnings as an MP and even government minister.

Sir Malcolm is a former foreign secretary, as is Jack Straw, caught in the same sting operation. Both have much higher profiles and greater earning power than your average back-bench MP. I can see no reason why they shouldn’t profit from their experience and reputation, provided they do so honestly and provided there is no conflict of interest with their parliamentary work – in Sir Malcolm’s case as chairman of the commons intelligence and security committee. (Straw is leaving the Commons in May; and Sir Malcolm has now decided to resign that chairmanship and also to stand down as MP for Kensington.)

Politics is a precarious career, as Sir Malcolm previously discovered when he lost his Edinburgh Pentlands seat in 1997, and was out of parliament for eight years till he won his present seat in 2005. So his ministerial career ended when he was just over 50. He declined office in the present coalition, saying the only post that interested him was foreign secretary. (He might have been a better one than either William Hague or Hague’s successor, Philip Hammond.) However, senior politicians of ability have always been in demand when their ministerial career is over; it is natural that they should be, for their experience and connections are obvious assets.

Some find this reprehensible. I think that unreasonable. But then I don’t think politics should necessarily be a full-time job, and I find the prevailing anti-politics mood of the country cynical, silly and damaging. I’ve never known a politician who wasn’t engaged in working to promote the public interest as he or she understood it – often, admittedly, in my opinion, wrongly. Of course they have personal ambitions too, as most of us have. Of course there are fools and incompetents among them, and some may be less than honest. But this is true of people in all walks of life.

The greedy or dishonest politician may bring public life into disrepute, and so do some damage to democracy. But democracy is much more severely damaged by a public ready to distrust all politicians and even regard them, and the practice of politics, with contempt. We often speak of “mature democracies”, but the present anti-politics mood and the suspicion directed at all politicians are signs of an immature and envious electorate divorced from the realities of political life and from a sympathetic understanding of human nature. No doubt politicians should behave better than some of them sometimes do. But we, the People, should behave better too, as responsible adults, not hysterical adolescents. Life is an imperfect business, and politics is not only “a rough old trade”, but also an unavoidably imperfect one.

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