In the midst of the outrage at the deceit of politicians from both camps in last year’s EU referendum campaign, the former BBC Director General Mark Thompson argued that rhetoric is “the slap of paint used by politicians to cover who knows what”. The implication is of Machiavellian intellectuals relying on what an Ipsos Mori poll labelled the “presumption of complexity” to sell their schemes to a public who either can’t be bothered or think themselves incapable of understanding the topic. One might consider Tony Blair’s invocation of Weapons of Mass Destruction in justifying the invasion of Iraq a good example of this; moving the debate away from a difficult question of morality (should the West overthrow autocratic tyrants around the world?) to a simple national security issue.
However, following various TV appearances from the candidates in this campaign, this writer fears that, in this election, rhetoric fulfils a much more concerning role: disguising politicians’ basic incompetency. Phrases on both sides like ‘strong and stable leadership’, ‘coalition of chaos’, and ‘for the many not the few’ are deliberately superfluous and indisputable sentiments that can be wheeled out at the first sign of trouble. Even so, it hasn’t taken much digging for some interviewers to demonstrate the ineptness of some of this country’s foremost politicians. Diane Abbot’s mathematical failings on LBC have been well covered, but are disgraceful nonetheless for someone hoping to be the country’s Home Secretary. And it is not just the opposition - as The Economist concluded following Theresa May’s uncomfortable interview with Andrew Neil last week, the Prime Minister knows “precious little about business and economics”.
This is the first election campaign where the leading politicians are being skewered not on their principles or their private lives, but their basic capacity to remember, cost and stick to what they put in their manifesto. Blair’s most uncomfortable moments were when he was questioned on his faith, denying Jeremy Paxman’s suggestion that he prayed with George Bush, and relying on Alastair Campbell to intervene and say “we don’t do God” on another occasion. Equally, David Cameron’s trickiest situation during his six years as Prime Minister was the notorious ‘Pig Gate’ scandal, while Ed Miliband’s most well-known ‘gaffe’ was his struggle with a bacon sandwich. The days of messy eating have been replaced by an era of messy thinking.
The solution would be riotously unpopular, but is necessary nonetheless: the only way to ensure a better standard of politician is to pay MPs more. The standard wage currently is just shy of £75,000, which, while hardly paltry, remains modest for a job in which we want our nation’s sharpest minds. In the private sector, the majority of bankers earn more than £150,000 p/a, and according to the Independent, barristers can earn £1.5 million p/a. Even in the public sector, the minimum salary for a consultant is £76,000 p/a and often far exceeds this, and the aforementioned Mark Thompson received £838,000 p/a – in 2010, 9000 public sector workers earned more than the Prime Minister. Given the structure of our democracy and public sector, it seems ludicrous that Theresa May isn’t the highest paid employee of the state.
Obviously, people aren’t utterly financially driven, but upon leaving university with a minimum debt of £27,000, it seems natural that the brightest people in our country should shy away from public office in favour of occupations that are at least equally intellectually stimulating and invariably better paid. If MPs continue to be paid what they are, there is a risk that public office will become (if it isn’t already) a preserve of the landed rich, a few extreme ideologues and the unintelligent.
Read more articles by this commentator, or read Ryan McGovern's 16 June response to this article here.