Friday 6 March 2015

The Philosophy of a Ruling Class

Two former Foreign Secretaries, Labour's Jack Straw and the Conservative Sir Malcolm Rifkind, last week were caught in a sting by Channel 4 and the Daily Telegraph. Journalists posed as representatives of a fictitious company based in Hong Kong, and the two MPs offered to use their influence on the company's behalf, in exchange for exorbitant fees. This opens wider questions about what MPs are for.

"Hey, I'm a firm believer in the philosophy of a ruling class. Especially since I rule." --- Randall, "Clerks" (1994)

It was tawdry behaviour, even by the debased standards of our politicians. Both said they would expect at least £5000 for a day's work. Straw was already retiring at the next election; Rifkind intended to stay on, but now has announced he will not seek re-election in May.

Jack Straw (left) and Sir Malcolm Rifkind (right). Source: Daily Telegraph

Rifkind's case is particularly egregious, because until his resignation last week, he was chairman of the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. The ISC is powerful and secretive; its members have access to highly classified documents; and it constitutes the only parliamentary oversight of the UK's intelligence services, MI5, MI6 and GCHQ. These agencies are prone to overreach, and prying into areas where they have no business. Conversely, they have a responsibility to protect the UK from genuine security threats.

For the chairman of the ISC to offer his services to a bogus Hong Kong company, without even the most basic scrutiny of its credentials, is appalling. If a serving military officer did such a thing, he or she would rightly face a court martial. Rifkind's position is no less vital to national security, so why should he be held to a lesser standard?

In the video obtained by the sting, Rifkind openly boasts about how much free time he has. This wasn't even a negotiating tactic. If Rifkind was trying to get a better price for his services, he should have said the opposite: "I'm terribly busy, but maybe I can fit you in if you make it worth my while." Instead, he comes across as a proud gentleman of leisure, enjoying the status and perks of his position, and any notions of public service be damned.

If Rifkind believes the oversight of the UK's security services is not worth his attention, he should have resigned long ago and given the job to someone more interested.

Greed in action

An MP's basic salary is £67,060, which puts them comfortably within the top 6% of taxpayers in the UK. It is accompanied by substantial allowances for office and travel expenses, perks such as subsidised House of Commons facilities, a generous final-salary pension, and a "severance payment" of tens of thousands of pounds at such time as they leave Parliament. By the standards of an overwhelming majority of their fellow citizens, they are well compensated for what they do.

They are not paid as much as the wealthiest elite of our society; Straw and Rifkind appear to consider this an injustice. The median pay of a company CEO is £98,557. The former CEO of Royal Dutch Shell was paid £14 million in 2014. Last week, Rifkind claimed it was "unrealistic" to live on an MP's salary alone.

MPs are elected to serve their constituents; as such, they should not be totally remote from their everyday concerns. On their salaries alone, MPs probably can't afford a new Range Rover every year; dining every night in London's finest restaurants; or a luxury townhouse in Mayfair. At least, they can't afford all of them at once. This is a good thing. If they occasionally have to think about how much things cost, that is an experience they share with the rest of us.

Take the example of housing. Rifkind's Kensington constituency is the most expensive in the entire country. The mean price of a flat there is £1.3 million, almost 20 times the basic MP's income. There is no way of buying one on the salary of a backbench MP, brain surgeon, or senior police officer.

Given his extensive business interests, and time outside Parliament in 1997-2005 to trouser whatever the private sector would pay him, I doubt Rifkind has difficulty keeping a roof over his head. A man of moderate intelligence might realise not all professionals are so fortunate; and pricing everyone but the filthy rich out of large swathes of London is not necessarily desirable. It might even occur to him that Parliament has the ability to address this sort of problem.

MPs regularly mix with phenomenally wealthy people. In the worst cases, such as that of Tony Blair, they are overcome by greed. The current salary of the Prime Minister is £142,500; and while in office, Blair was married to a barrister paid up to half a million pounds a year. This evidently was not enough for him. He infamously scrounged luxury holidays from the likes of Silvio Berlusconi, and since leaving office has shown an unseemly eagerness to cash in on his status.

For some people, no amount of money would be enough. This is why proposals to drastically increase MPs' salaries, perhaps as "compensation" for a ban on outside business interests, are so laughable. They are unnecessary for MPs who have some concept of public service, and useless for those who do not. Furthermore, being a politician offers fame and power as well as money, and there are plenty of volunteers for the job.

As Rifkind and Straw appear to have forgotten, their power and status was not given them by divine right. It was obtained as a result of democratic election, to be used for the benefit of their fellow citizens. A person can join the financial elite, or exercise political power, but not should not be able to do both at the same time.

Time and money

Julian Huppert, the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge, argues that being an Member of Parliament should be a full-time job, with no room for outside employment. Huppert makes a good case, and I certainly appreciate his point of view, but I'm going to disagree slightly.

There will always be important things for an MP to do in his or her constituency, as a sort of local mayor and troubleshooter. (They might be better done by an actual mayor, but the dysfunction of British local government is a separate issue.) As one of Huppert's constituents, I'm very pleased he is a dedicated local MP. But this is not the only way for an MP to serve his or her country. The Prime Minister oversees the entire British government while retaining his constituency duties, so surely his colleagues can also take on extra projects.

It is good for MPs to have freedom. They can become experts in particular policy areas. They can discuss, debate, learn, and think. They can give lectures and write articles. If they have some particular professional expertise, in law, business, or academia, they can take time to maintain that knowledge. When he was a backbencher in 2001-05, William Hague wrote a scholarly biography of Pitt the Younger. That may or may not have made Hague a better Foreign Secretary in 2010-14, but if his local voters don't have a problem with it then neither do I.

MPs should have freedom to spend time; but this cannot come with freedom to make money. Rifkind and Straw are the latest in a long line of examples of how the latter will be abused. It probably won't happen, but I would like to see very strict limits on what an MP can earn in office from any source. That could take the form of an overall cap, punitive taxation, or placing the funds beyond reach until after they leave Parliament. (A total ban on outside earnings might not be workable, for those who have income such as book royalties or investments made before they entered Parliament.)

As it stands, some MPs earn the vast majority of their income from outside business, which must raise questions about where their priorities lie. The Conservative Stephen Phillips claims working as a barrister gives him valuable experience, which he can apply to the job of being an MP. I'm prepared to consider that argument; but it is not unduly cynical to wonder if payment of £700,000 per year has swayed his judgement a bit.

The Greater Good

I will agree with Straw and Rifkind on this narrow point: A former Foreign Secretary has valuable skills, experience, and contacts; and local constituency matters may not be the best use for them.

It seems Rifkind in particular was bored, the poor unimaginative man. Whatever is someone with his capabilities to do, other than take long walks and discuss employment with bogus overseas companies?

There is no shortage of opportunity for a former Foreign Secretary to do good works. They could consult for overseas aid and development charities; work on disarmament, election monitoring, and projects to build civil society; mediate in peace negotiations for conflicts around the world, including those which seldom make the headlines. This is the sort of thing Jimmy Carter and Nelson Mandela did after leaving office.

Straw and Rifkind are getting old; both are aged 68. If they are lucky, they have a few years of good health and productive work left to them. In that time, they could achieve things to be proud of. Straw in particular has much to atone for, after his prominent role in the Iraq war.

Instead these two petty, shabby individuals could think of no higher purpose than grabbing more money, to augment their ample pensions and fund some more luxuries in retirement. It is fitting that their greed has been exposed, and they are now leaving Parliament in disgrace.

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