For a mediocre wage you get a dim MP

Our parliamentarians are scared to press their case for higher salaries too loudly. But it has merit; People regard MPs as lazy, third-rate bores, as riddled with rot as a row of Stilton cheeses
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Members of Parliament are like the rest of us. They want to be paid more. According to new research, 85 per cent of them want an increase in their pounds 34,085. Unlike the rest of us, they can vote themselves any increase they want. But they don't, because they are frightened of the rest of us.

And rightly so. Their paymasters are not impressed. People regard MPs as lazy, third-rate bores, as riddled with rot as a row of Stilton cheeses. MPs are unhappily aware of this, and rarely even mention the subject. They think the whole matter must be shoved off to an independent commission, the essential institutional camouflage behind which Honourable Members could hide when explaining any future pay increase to irate constituents.

Above all, they are scared of the newspapers, of headlines about Members, snouts and troughs. And there is huge hypocrisy here. Many of the media people who would lead the charge, the editors, pundits, correspondents and TV anchorfolk, are paid vastly more than backbench MPs, and more, too, than cabinet ministers.

We, the new guardians of public morality, believe we are worth more that people who have merely been elected by tens of thousands. We have successfully argued that MPs should disclose some of their earnings, and cease taking other payments - as we wouldn't dream of doing. And we believe that they should be subject to close personal scrutiny of a kind that would have most of us squirming.

Something is wrong. But in making the unpopular case, and supporting higher salaries for parliamentarians, it isn't enough to denounce media hypocrisy. There are also three better-known arguments to be demolished - the market case against better-paid MPs, the political case and the moral case.

The market argument requires one to compare the Commons to any other business. It is declining. In terms of power, it is losing market share to other institutions, both public and private. It is losing authority, including to the press pulpits and BBC bishoprics. If this were another business, MPs would be being laid off, or at the very least having their pay cut; indeed, if this were any other business, MPs would be leading the chorus of unsentimental approval.

This is a satisfying analogy for the pub, the populist political equivalent of alcoholic lemonade. But we can dismiss it pretty quickly. As the prime democratic institution, Parliament stands for a system of values which go well beyond any market - and, indeed, are needed to harness, civilise and perpetuate successful markets.

If a company or even an industry loses market share and eventually collapses, it may be sad but it isn't a national disaster. If the democracy finally lost its authority or relevance and subsided, it would be a disaster. I conclude that if one could demonstrate that higher salaries for MPs would strengthen the Commons, then it would be a powerful reason for supporting them.

The political case against higher salaries is different. It is that Parliament should be a mirror of the nation. The nation isn't highly paid. Any increase in parliamentary salaries would, therefore, make the Commons less representative and would therefore be a bad thing.

This is a trickier one. When oil-traders, Queen's Counsel, best-selling authors, company directors, neurosurgeons and similar riff-raff say with one voice that they proudly support our ancient institutions and then imply that they will not serve in them for less than, say, pounds 70,000 a year, it is difficult to sympathise.

But Parliament should be a beacon, not a mirror. If it is to matter, its Members need to be among the brightest and best in the country, the most articulate and far-seeing people available. Salary may not be the most important factor in attracting bright people, but it isn't negligible either.

There was an MP a few years back who used to admit, with some pride, that he was not very bright - but would then pause and lean forward smilingly to point out that there were a lot of dim people in the country and they deserved their say too. Well, no doubt; but they should get it on daytime television, not in the House of Commons.

Finally, there is the moral case, which is simple and popular. It is that public service is a high calling, a matter of duty, which should not be polluted by mercenary considerations.

This, as it happens, was the main argument against paying MPs originally, and featured heavily in the debate in August 1911, when Lloyd George, as Chancellor, carried a resolution for every MP, except ministers, to be paid pounds 400 a year. (Using a multiplier of 40, that is roughly equivalent to pounds 16,000 today - thin fare. It was said to be "just the salary of a junior clerk in the Civil Service'', which I guess is still about true.

Some things said on that long summer night 85 years ago read strangely today. Paying MPs, said one, would fill the House with salaried agitators. Ramsay MacDonald, on the other hand, hoped it would make the Commons as public-spirited as the German Reichstag. But most of the arguments read freshly. Lloyd George argued that being an MP was becoming a full- time job and that salaries were needed to bring in "men of wide culture, of high intelligence and of earnest purpose".

The great difference was that he meant the poor. In 1911, paying MPs was a left-wing cause: throughout the previous century, radicals had seen it as essential to end the exclusion of bright middle-class and working- class politicians. The "moral case'' was a disguised argument for keeping them out. Today, by contrast, the salaries question is more a right-wing cause.

The "moral case'' against higher salaries now is not a way of excluding the poor, but of keeping out the rich - or, to be more precise, the relatively affluent professionals who now shun politics as involving too much intrusion and risk for too little reward. While public service motivates many people, it cannot be an absolute answer. Parliament isn't a monastic order of contemplatives, but a place that aspires to be at the busy centre of worldly affairs; it needs worldly, experienced people.

Money matters to them, and since it matters to most of the rest of us we are in no position to sneer. Most politicians are not corrupt. Nor are they poor. But they tend to live professionally short, high-stress lives, during which those with large families or commitments often scrabble rather pathetically for low-grade consultancies and milk their travel allowances to pay the monthly bills.

It shouldn't be like this. Unless we want to see their quality decline, our MPs should not be generally less well-off than senior civil servants, middle-ranking professionals - doctors, lawyers, business executives - and, yes, the journalists who criticise them.

Our elected representatives matter; and they should be able to concentrate on their parliamentary work without being desperate for outside earners or government office to bring them the rewards of successful middle-class life. I would rather look up to a well-paid, successful politician than save a few quid and look down on a dud.