Of all the unfortunate, or uncomfortable, or just plain bad news that continually emanates from the Palace of Westminster, what could be more disheartening than to hear that our glorious elected representatives are to get yet another pay rise? Even the most skilled practitioners of spin would have a hard time portraying this decision in a positive fashion.
The reaction from the public, meanwhile, has been predictable: Shameful! Outrageous! In this age of austerity too! How can politicians justify giving themselves a pay rise? Technically, however, ‘they’ don’t give themselves anything. In the dying days of the Brown administration, an independent commission was established in order to adjudicate on parliamentary salaries, not that it’s helped much.
Yet, if the public are not groaning at the supposed greed of our 650 elected representatives, they are instead lambasting them for being, say, 'career politicians' - a term levied at these individuals for lacking a proper job while being embarrassingly penniless in that valuable currency known as 'real world experience'. Of course, the term 'career politician' is a misnomer – being an MP is a career, alien though such a notion may be. Also, when the Chancellor George Osborne delivered his 'emergency' Budget earlier this summer, he was accused by Harriet Harman, amongst others, of harbouring an ambition to succeed David Cameron as Prime Minister. Again, why should he be vilified? Ambition, the driver of all enterprise and success, is not something to be attacked, not even in a rather smug Chancellor. As for 'inexperience', most senior political figures regularly travel all around the country and beyond, meeting all sorts of people from every kind of background. I know for a fact David Cameron has been to more countries and has met more international potentates than I have. That is ‘experience’, of a sort.
Granted, many MPs (especially the Chancellor and Prime Minister) have their faults. But I remain intrigued as to why they all get such a consistently bad rap. A small clue to this puzzle is perhaps provided in a novel by Nancy Mitford called ‘The Pursuit of Love’. As the title suggests, the book follows a young woman named Linda as she attempts to marry into the crumbling 1930s aristocracy (this is no chic-lit, it’s a seriously funny book). One of Linda’s earliest catches is a young Tory MP of German extraction called Tony Kroesig. Dreadful though he is, Kroesig is a spirited defender of the many unacknowledged achievements of Parliament. Indeed, he takes particular pleasure in lambasting those grandiose Members skilled in the art of degrading the establishment. I remember being amused at how an 80 year-old book, with its yellowing pages and curling corners, evoked the modern caricatures of Boris Johnson, Alex Salmond and other swaggering parliamentarians.
In this sense, our analysis of Westminster politics is thus a bit like watching the news. We always here of the bad that is going on in the world, never the good. There are reports of invasions and bloodbaths almost every night, but very few pieces of genuinely uplifting news. From Westminster, we hear mostly about government incompetence and ministerial foul-ups, but very little of the success stories. All this relates to one of the life lessons we first learn in the playground: the bullies and loudmouths misbehave and the whole class gets a bad name.
Recall Michael Cockerell's fascinating documentary 'Inside the Commons', which aired earlier this year? It was praised not only for shedding light on some of Parliament's banal traditions, but also for its focus on otherwise obscure junior MPs who plod away judiciously in the background. For instance, Cockrell interviewed the now former Liberal Democrat MP for Cardiff Central, Jenny Willott, who was shown trying to balance her career and a young family. Like Tony Kroesig, Willott was frustrated with the public's perennially low opinion of Parliament. "Some people don't even think MPs should be paid," she told the camera, worriedly. Then there was Liverpool MP Steve Rotherham’s cool but stubborn determination to fix a loophole in a transport bill regarding the use of tyres on public services vehicles. Hardly riveting stuff, but absolutely necessary in order to prevent future blowouts and potentially fatal road accidents. Reviewing the documentary, a Telegraph journalist wrote that these local hero MPs brought 'wonderful passion and excitement at the possibilities of politics that was not so evident in the House’s more experienced members.' Distrusted and disliked though many of them are, our politicians are ultimately public servants. They may not be capable of ushering in revolutionary changes on a daily basis, but many of them have improved our country, if only in minor ways.
It is still admittedly difficult to defend the pay rise announcement, especially at a time when, as many are keen to remind us, public services are being severely compromised by austerity. But, it seems we live in an unfair world, one where cocaine addicts in the City are paid millions for destroying our banking system, while nurses and fireman and other ‘everyday heroes’ are paid a great deal less for their troubles. It is on this same unfair planet that good is all too often neglected in favour of dramatic mishaps. As a result, small but worthwhile achievements in Parliament are drowned out by the din of another trust-eroding lobbying scandal or bungled Budget. So, whenever you next hear of an MP (or Lord) caught with their trousers down, do not generalise. The vast majority of our MPs do not deserve to be scorned.