Daniel Hannan: Proposals to restrict MPs’ outside work run up against the same problem. What are good and bad jobs?

10 Nov

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 Initiative for Free Trade.

When the epidemic hit, Maria Caulfield didn’t hang around. The good-natured Tory whip swapped her parliamentary attire for scrubs and rushed to help on the Covid ward at the Royal Marsden. It was the state of hospitals in Sussex that had brought her into politics in the first place and, after being elected as the MP for Lewes in 2015, she carried on putting in shifts as an NHS nurse.

Does anyone think that the country would be better off if Caulfield had had to give up nursing on being elected? I don’t just mean that it is handy to have an extra nurse (though it is). I mean that Parliament is enhanced by her front-line perspective. She is like one of those uniformed MPs one sees in images from 1940 making a last contribution before being deployed.

Of course, in their day, it never occurred to anyone to complain about MPs having “second jobs”. Indeed, few people thought of being an MP as a job. Rather, being elected to Parliament was thought to confer a privilege (speaking in the supreme counsels of our nation) with commensurate responsibility (representing everyone else).

The professionalisation of politics is a recent phenomenon. Well into the 1970s, we still cherished the idea of citizen-legislators bringing outside interests to the table. It was in the late 20th century that attitudes began to shift. Some MPs – often Liberal Democrats – made a big deal of promising “to work full time for you”. Parliamentary salaries rose. Then, starting in 1995, MPs began to be invigilated by various committees rather than, as had been the case for the previous seven centuries, held to account by their constituents. Before long, keeping your hand it as a lecturer or solicitor became known, at least in newspapers, as “moonlighting”.

Has the quality of our MPs materially improved in consequence? The country is conflicted on the issue of outside work, torn between two contradictory impulses. On the one hand, voters think that (as Labour’s Jon Trickett put it on Monday) “being an MP is a full time job: if you’re doing it properly you wouldn’t have time to be doing a second job”; on the other, they complain that we have “too many career politicians”.

It is the second impulse that is correct, as can be easily enough demonstrated. Easily enough, because lots of MPs hold down other jobs in a way that doesn’t bother anyone, even Jon Trickett. That is, they serve as ministers. Being a minister is far more time-consuming than being a barrister or serving on a company board. It also involves an inescapable conflict of interest, since the role of a minister is to exercise state power and the role of an MP is to constrain it.

You might say that we should make an exception for ministers. Fine, but you have conceded the principle that an MP is capable of holding down a full-time job. All you’re doing is privileging a particular kind of job, thereby making MPs more dependent on the state and less in touch with the private sector.

All proposals to restrict outside work run up against the same problem, namely the presumption that there are “good” jobs and “bad” jobs. You might think that it’s fine to work as a nurse or an army reservist or a minister, but not as a consultant. But who gets to decide, and what basis?

On Monday, The Guardian listed 30 MPs who would be affected by a ban on consultancies. Among them was Labour’s Khalid Mahmoud, who is a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange, working on Islamist extremism. Again, does anyone seriously think the world would be a better place if Khalid, who was Britain’s sole Muslim MP for a time, in which role he served as a level-headed representative for his co-religionists from around the country, was not allowed to put that experience to good use?

The reasonable approach, it seems to me, is to ban, not the holding of any particular job, but the lobbying of Parliament on behalf of outside paymasters. And you know what? That is precisely what we do. Pretty much everything that could be written about l’affaire Paterson has been written.

But, whatever view you take, one thing is undeniable: we enforce the ban on paid advocacy. You can argue that Paterson was harshly treated given that he believed he was behaving correctly and made no effort to hide his actions. Or you can argue that that’s hard cheese and dura lex sed lex and so forth. What you can’t argue is that we show the slightest tolerance for paid lobbying by MPs.

Sadly, that distinction is being lost as, from a combination of opportunism, populism and envy, commentators and even some MPs deliberately give the impression that private sector work per se is discreditable. It is not a new phenomenon. The increasing intolerance for outside jobs was one of the factors that drove the editor of this website out of Parliament – not because he was impacted personally, but because he foresaw that it would lead to a decline in the quality of MPs.

You can agree or disagree with him. My view, for what it’s worth, is influenced by my having become a working peer in February. There are few arguments in favour of how members of the House of Lords are appointed; but there are plenty in favour of how they are remunerated. Peers are not paid a salary (though they get a per diem allowance), but are instead expected to have real-world jobs.

There are various elected chambers around the world, from Texas to Switzerland, where something along these lines pertains – that is, where legislators are given some compensation in recognition of their time, but expected to carry on with whatever they were already doing. They share the ups and downs of the economy and, as a bonus, they spend less time sitting, leading to fewer laws and so to higher growth.

I accept that we are unlikely to replicate (or, more correctly, return to) that approach. But let’s not make matters even worse. Instead of complaining about “second jobs”, let’s treat being an MP as your second job and bring back citizen-legislators.