MY WEEK Clement Freud

Long live the amateur politician - amateur as in loving the work one does - who does what he thinks is right, what makes sense, and what will be to the general good of his constituents
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Indy Lifestyle Online
A Tatton woman who appeared on my television screen during a news bulletin said: "How can I vote for Martin Bell? I want to have a professional politician as my MP." I thought back 24 years, to a by-election in the Isle of Ely.

In 1945, the Isle had been the only constituency to have moved to the right. The voters elected a soldier instead of a banker. James de Rothschild (Lib) had broken his leg a month before the election; his wife and her companion campaigned for him, and the seat was won by Major Harry Legge Bourke (Con), father of the well-known Tiggy.

Some weeks later, when all the votes had been counted and Parliament convened, the major went to Ely station, Westminster-bound. The stationmaster congratulated him and asked if he might give a few days' notice of his annual visit to Cambridgeshire, as had been the practice of his predecessor.

Legge Bourke was a thoroughly honourable, decent man, but not even his best friends would have accused him of being a fine speaker, a deeply political thinker or one dedicated to his constituents. When they wrote to him with problems, he referred the letter to the minister responsible; when the minister's office replied, he sent the reply to the constituent, with a "with compliments" slip.

Sir Harry died after 28 years of doing nothing wrong ... except for being barred from the Palace of Westminster for three days for throwing a penny piece on to the dispatch box while Clement Attlee was speaking. "Change the bloody record," he had shouted, as his coin fortuitously struck the Prime Minister's water glass.

At the by-election, the Fen people got me. Professional politician? I was a television cook (when there were only two of us), sports columnist, broadcaster, author of children's books and winner of the Daily Mail London- to-New York air race. Politically, I was anti-Conservative and admired Jo Grimond - which very few people did not.

"What will you do for us", people had asked at my pre-election meetings. My best, I replied, promising to do nothing much until I had learned how one did things in the Commons.

I never became a "professional politician", whatever that might be, but was re-elected four times and became increasingly fond of my job.

Being an MP - and Martin Bell will discover this - is even better than being a communicator, for there is no editor, libel reader or proprietor to tell you what not to say. MPs have no job specifications. If they think a coffee evening in Grunty Fen is more important than a vote, lucky people of Grunty Fen.

Professional politicians have this burning ambition to achieve office, which means keeping on the right side of the whips, voting as advised to vote, and speaking when deputed to do so, on the lines that the party has agreed to pursue.

Long live the amateur politician - amateur as in loving the work one does - who does what he thinks is right, what makes sense, and what will be to the general good of his constituents, to whom he will have made clear that he holds certain personal views on which he will not be moved: hanging, field sports, federalism and Sunday shopping, perhaps.

At Westminster, my party, the Liberals, as they were, already had eight members. Bell's task, as sole independent, would be easier in that his speeches will not annoy his colleagues. But it will also be more difficult with nobody to fight his corner for an office, organise a pass for his research assistant, provide reminders of when to apply for Private Members' Bills, motions and adjournment debates, and give help with details of when to table questions. As for selection to go on parliamentary freebies, such as a delegation to commemorate the silver jubilee of a Speaker's Chair in Harare, he will miss out. Trips abroad are awarded for giving the whips no trouble; also, a single-member party will need someone to mind the shop.

In Finland, parliamentary salaries decrease the longer a member stays in parliament. The reasoning is that a new and inexperienced MP is keen, and will pursue issues regardless of the likelihood of success; the longer you have served, the less likely are you to chase "iffy" causes.

Finnish cynics maintain that this wage structure is correct: when you have been in for a while, your contacts are sufficiently lucrative to obviate the need for state salary. The cynics have a point: it takes a bit of maturity in office before people consider rewarding your services to them. Political lobbyists like to deal with professional politicians.

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