Westminster's mirror to the real UK

The register of MPs' interests reveals a Britain of do-gooders, consultants and fat-cat journalists; Almost every MP who isn't a consultant is a columnist for someone
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LEGAL NOTE: Legal Message:- See correction and apology to George Howarth MP published 10 May 1996.


It is a failure of character, doubtless. Just as some sad people pore with fascination over old railway timetables and others hunch intent on minutely memorising Wisden, so I find what MPs do in the apparently spacious acres of their spare time fascinating. In the new social calendar, few events are more thoroughly enjoyable for political nuts than the annual publication of the Commons' Register of Members Interests.

There have been many columns written about the question of parliamentary ''interests'' - what should be banned, what declared and why certain MPs refuse to participate. In the post-Nolan era a battle will now ensure between the press and some parliamentarians about their duty to be frank. But that has become familiar enough. Today I want to try a different tack and ask what the register says, not about individual MPs, but about Britain in 1996.

Some people will object that it says nothing at all about ''Britain'', only about the 600-plus members who deigned to fill in the forms. But this is wrong. True, MPs do not comprise a sample of the nation - they were chosen by party caucuses and the wider electorate, not by polling organisations. They are mostly male and middle class.

But they are representative in a different way. However cross we may be with them from time to time, they are our elected representatives. They have fought their way up and claim to speak for us. Their interests and self-image are a very distorted mirror of the nation, true. But this mirror's pitted, bumpy reflection is worth squinting back at, even so.

Let's start with the best part of the reflection, which is that there are a remarkable number of unpaid and voluntary acts of charity work recorded here. There are lines and lines of unpaid directorships of companies restoring old housing or helping people with learning difficulties; of charity work on behalf of everyone from the obese at home to the starving abroad; and of trusteeships of everything from opera festivals to campaigns for the Brighton Pier.

No one talks about it. But it's there, alongside the fat-cat directorships and the headlines about sleaze. Some of the voluntary work is, no doubt, nosey do-goodery. But a lot is just the doing of good. Not all MPs are cynical. Not all the cynical ones are all cynical. In that the register is a useful mirror; for Britain remains a country pullulating with quiet voluntary activity.

What about those other organisations for mutual self-help, the trade unions, whose sponsorship of Labour MPs is another of the most regular features of the register? Should we exclude them on the grounds that they are a political relic? The Labour modernisers would prefer that the subject became unmentionable in polite society. They would prefer a more genteel source of party funding - such as the general taxpayer.

But the array of Unison, Usdaw and GMB sponsorship for local parties in the register is worth recording, if only as a reminder that, however briskly metropolitan Britain has dismissed trade-unionism as an irrelevance, 9 million Britons are still trade-union members. Even after casualisation, contracting-out, ''the end of the job'' and all that, 36 per cent of employed people are in a union.

What else? MPs travel both more than most of us and to odder places. Few private citizens are sent plane tickets by the Greek Cypriot Brotherhood, the Provincial Grand Orange Lodge of Ontario East, or the People's Assembly of Syria. Thomas Cook this isn't.

In some respects, the popular prejudice about MPs' junkets is amply born out; few financial systems and refugee camps can have benefited from such gratifyingly close attention as those which happen to be situated in the Cayman Islands. But MPs' travels do have some wider messages about Britain in 1996. Among the most frequently visited countries, Germany ranks very high and Italy, often because of German-sponsored political conferences, is popular too.

Reading through the register you come across many references to the Konigswinter conference; to visits to Munich to discuss Rover cars with BMW or to attend the Wehrkunde conference; to the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. That partly reflects the wealth of the big German political foundations. But, insofar as it also reflects a country with increasing German links - not something you'd discover from most newspapers - the register's distorted mirror doesn't lie.

Looking hard, you can find more clues about our recent economic history. There is the odd, forlorn-sounding one-liner: Labour's Doug Henderson records his involvement in ''Ossian Economic Services Ltd (no income).'' Neil Hamilton, the Tory who helped back a former colleague, records: ''Cottonrose Ltd, clothes retailer - no dividend ever received.'' Add in the numerous references to Lloyds (''resigned'') and you begin to get the message; these have not been golden years.

How, then, might this Register Nation of taken-over manufacturers and struggling traders be earning its living today? Here, readers prone to depression or anxiety attacks should break off and head south-west to Miles Kington. For the truth is that we seem to be becoming a nation not of shopkeepers but of consultants. Among the MPs are consultants to leisure companies; consultants to recruitment consultancies; consultants to management consultants. Here a consultant, there a consultant ...

The relatively obscure Labour MP George Howarth turns out to be a ''consultant'' to Coopers & Lybrand ''on global economic and financial issues''. One Tory MP is a ''consultant'' to a company specialising in document management. An emblematic MP in this respect is Sir Patrick McNair-Wilson, who is a public relations consultant to a ''surface coatings'' company and a director (I kid you not) of ''Ferret Public Relations.''

Now, what is alarming about all this is that it corresponds so closely to one's perception of what is happening to the country beyond Westminster. Almost everyone seems to be a consultant these days, advising other people on something slightly difficult to pin down. One half expects to see, some years hence, a single paragraph in the International Herald Tribune reading: ''The United Kingdom was unavailable yesterday. Everyone was in a meeting.''

Even now, the country seems divided into three main groups. There are the honestly and officially unemployed. There are the consultants. And then, according to the register, there are ... well, the journalists.

The highest-paid of those MPs who deigned to register their employment is Roy Hattersley, who makes well over pounds 100,000 from his journalism. But he is only the most successful of a vast and growing army of scribbler- politicians. Almost every MP on the register who isn't a consultant seems to be a columnist for somebody, a freelance journalist or a broadcaster.

A strange crossover is taking place. As real journalists lambast the parliamentarians and attempt to set the political agenda themselves, so the politicians are hitting back by turning themselves into journalists. Why not? Journalism is often better-paid, easier and just as influential as the life of the backbench MP. And we have one great advantage: with the exception of the press gallery, journalists don't have a register of interests for the rest of the country to mock.