Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a conservative peer, writer, and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020 and is now president of the Free Trade Initiative.
When the outbreak struck, Maria Caulfield did not hang around. Good-natured whip Tory traded her parliamentary attire for a scrub and rushed to help out in the Covid ward at the Royal Marsden. It was the state of hospitals in Sussex that brought her into politics in the first place, and after she was elected a Lewes MP in 2015, she continued to work shifts as a NHS nurse.
Does anyone think the country would be better off if Caulfield had to forgo nursing to get elected? I don’t just mean that it helps to have an extra nurse (even if it is). I want to say that Parliament is strengthened by its frontline perspective. It’s like one of those uniformed MPs you see in the 1940 images making one last contribution before being deployed.
Of course, in their day, it never occurred to anyone to complain that MPs have a “second job”. In fact, few people thought they were an MP like a job. Rather, being elected to Parliament was thought to confer a privilege (speaking in our nation’s supreme councils) with commensurate responsibility (representing everyone else).
The professionalization of politics is a recent phenomenon. Up until the 1970s, we still harbored the idea that citizen-lawmakers brought outside interests to the table. It was in the late 20th century that attitudes began to change. Some MPs – often Liberal Democrats – have gone to great lengths to promise “to work full time for you”. Parliamentary salaries have increased. Then, starting in 1995, parliamentarians began to be overseen by various committees rather than, as had been the case for the previous seven centuries, to hold them accountable by their constituents. In a short time, holding hands as a lecturer or lawyer became known, at least in the newspapers, as the “moon of the moon.”
Has the quality of our MPs materially improved as a result? The country is torn on the issue of external work, torn between two contradictory forces. On the one hand, voters think that (as Labor’s Jon Trickett said Monday) “being an MP is a full-time job: if you do it right you won’t have time for a second job”; on the other hand, they complain that we have “too many career politicians”.
It is the second impulse that is correct, as can easily be shown. Easy enough, because many MPs do other jobs in a way that doesn’t bother anyone, not even Jon Trickett. That is, they serve as ministers. Being a minister takes much longer than being a lawyer or serving on a board of directors. It also involves an inevitable conflict of interest, as a minister’s role is to exercise state power and a parliamentarian’s role is to bind it.
It could be said that we should make an exception for ministers. Okay, but you’ve admitted the principle that an MP is able to keep a full-time job. It is only favoring a particular type of work, thus making parliamentarians more dependent on the state and less in touch with the private sector.
All proposals to limit outside work run into the same problem, namely the presumption that there are “good” jobs and “bad” jobs. You may think it’s okay to work as an army nurse or reservist or minister, but not as a consultant. But who decides and on what basis?
On Monday, The Guardian listed 30 MPs who would be affected by a ban on consultations. Among them was Labor Khalid Mahmoud, Senior Fellow at the Policy Exchange, who works on Islamist extremism. Again, some seriously think the world would be a better place if Khalid, who was Britain’s only Muslim MP for a time, in the role he served as a balanced representative for his co-religionists across the country, it was not allowed to put this experience to good use?
The reasonable approach, it seems to me, is to prohibit, not the performance of a particular job, but the lobbying of Parliament on behalf of outside funders. And you know what? This is exactly what we do. Virtually everything you could write about the affaire Paterson was written.
But, whatever your opinion, one thing is undeniable: we enforce the paid advocacy ban. It can be argued that Paterson was treated harshly as he believed he was behaving correctly and made no effort to conceal his actions. Or you can argue that it’s hard cheese and dura lex sed lex and so on. What cannot be objected is that we show the slightest tolerance for lobbying paid for by parliamentarians.
Unfortunately, this distinction is being lost as, from a combination of opportunism, populism and envy, commentators and even some lawmakers deliberately give the impression that the private sector works. by itself it is unfortunate. It is not a new phenomenon. Growing intolerance for outside jobs was one of the factors that pushed the publisher of this website out of Parliament – not because he was personally affected by it, but because he anticipated that this would lead to a decline in the quality of parliamentarians.
You can agree or disagree with him. My point of view, for what it’s worth, is influenced by the fact that I became a co-worker in February. There are few arguments in favor of how members of the House of Lords are appointed; but there are many in favor of how they are paid. Peers do not receive a salary (although they do receive a daily allowance), but should instead have real-world jobs.
There are various elected chambers around the world, from Texas to Switzerland, where something like this concerns – that is, where lawmakers are given compensation in recognition of their time, but are expected to continue what they were already doing. They share the ups and downs of the economy, and as a bonus, they spend less time sitting, which leads to fewer laws and therefore more growth.
I accept that we are unlikely to replicate (or, more correctly, go back to) this approach. But let’s not make things worse. Instead of complaining about “second jobs”, let’s treat being a deputy as your second job and bring back citizen-legislators.