John O'Farrell: Our politicians deserve better

If your sole motive was to rip people off, there are easier jobs than being an MP

Saturday 31 October 2009 01:00

I have just written a comic history of modern Britain, from 1945 when Britain emerged from the Second World War with a shattered economy and massive debts, all the way up to 2008 by which time Britain had a shattered economy and – well, you get the general idea. But in all the gags about how history endlessly repeats itself, one thing seems to have fundamentally changed, and it's rather left the joke on us.

The people we elect to rule over us have never been held in such contempt. Ministers and Members of Parliament have plummeted in our estimation – from respected national servants to public whipping posts regarded with about the same level of derision of sex tourists or child molesters. In fact it might make things simpler if we just elected Gary Glitter to the House of Commons; at least PMQs could have one straightforward answer, "No, this Prime Minister does not wish to be in your gang".

Somewhere between the Suez crisis and the Profumo scandal came the widespread realisation that our politicians were not always telling the truth or serving the public interest. Just as that decade saw British teenagers emerging as a distinct demographic, rebelling against the establishment and sneering at their elders and betters, so their parents experienced a political adolescence of their own.

Large sections of the previously deferential British public matured from a childlike state of naive trust and unquestioning respect for their "superiors" into a sort of grumpy political puberty; "OMG my Prime Minister is like, sooo embarrassing!" and "Chancellor; UR ruining my life!" and "I'm like, totally old enough to read Lady Chatterley's Lover and there's nothing you can do to stop me!".

But necessary though this political awakening was, our national attitude to those in charge seems to have got stuck somewhere around the attitude of a persistent truant from the Year 10 Citizenship class. The nation is gripped by a simplistic fiction that all politicians are self-serving, money-grabbing, lazy, nepotistic tax-fiddlers. "They are all in for themselves" and "they're all as bad as each other". I hate clichés like this. Actually it's just a small minority who have spoilt it for all the others.

If your sole motive was simply to rip people off, there are a hundred easier jobs you could do rather than become a Member of Parliament. You could sell replacement ink cartridges for my printer. You could refill cars that have been hurriedly returned to Hertz car rental with empty petrol tanks. Or you could just exaggerate your expenses and do a bit of personal admin while at work – oh, that's all of us, isn't it?

Imagine if the great statesmen of years gone by had had to endure the vilification and cynical scrutiny of today. "Shame of Churchill's brandy and cigars paid by the taxpayer!" or "Mrs Attlee joined Clement for Potsdam beano!".

In recent decades, the atmosphere of suspicion and knee-jerk vilification became such that politicians dared not award themselves a salary in line with comparable professionals. The ludicrous expenses system was devised to make up the shortfall, and the result was something that looked far worse.

But even now the political leaders are competing with one another to feed the idea that politicians are not worth an appropriate salary. Next week, Christopher Kelly's report will probably recommend that MPs are not paid at all. In fact, they will be ordered to pay back the entire amount earned since they started at Westminster before being told to move into the tatty protesters' tents in Parliament Square, which frankly are far too good for them.

I just don't understand why we hold our politicians in such low regard. In all my years working on Spitting Image or Have I Got News for You, we always did our utmost to point up their best side. It may not be very fashionable to say it, and it certainly wouldn't earn you much of a laugh on any satire show, but MPs are worth far more than we are paying them. Because being a politician is a really, really lousy job.

In 1265, Simon de Montfort summoned the first "parlement" in order that knights of the realm may "give up their weekends knocking on doors to be insulted or listening to the commoners moaning about bloody everything". The historic proclamation also stipulated that every representative be called a toady if he agreed with the leader and doomed to ineffective obscurity if he didn't. And worst of all, they could never ever admit to being bored sick of bloody steel bands. Simon de Montfort met a violent end and his body was dug up and cut up into little pieces, which is not far off what sections of the press are advocating for his successors.

Instead of MPs themselves having to do the embarrassing business of setting their salaries, the decision should be handed over to an independent body (though probably best if it's not the Question Time audience). An average of comparable professional salaries could then determine how much politicians would be paid over a parliamentary term – in line with solicitors, hospital consultants, university lecturers and maybe Simon Cowell just to bump it up a bit.

You wouldn't want the headteacher of your kids' secondary school to be paid an MP's salary, because the best candidates would soon get jobs elsewhere. You wouldn't tell your dentist that he should take a massive pay cut and live on a politician's wage. Well, you could try, but I would wait until he's put down that electric drill.

And yet the really important business of governing our country, passing laws, debating policy and representing our views is worth far less to us than the salary we pay our corporate lawyers, company directors or lower division goalkeepers. If history has taught us anything, it is the truth of the old adage "You pay peanuts, you get John Prescott".

John O'Farrell's books include Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter. His latest is An Utterly Exasperated History of Modern Britain: or Sixty Years of Making the Same Stupid Mistakes as Always, published this week by Doubleday

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