Paying our MPs has proved an utter failure

Illustration by Jonty Clark

Since the New Year always brings with it a spate of interest in anniversaries, perhaps we can start 2011 with one likely to raise a scowl in the vast majority of readers. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the introduction of payment for Members of Parliament, seen at the time as a great reforming measure, but now one indelibly associated with the expenses scandal that has left the reputation of the Commons so badly tarnished.

Between then and now, of course, yawns a great cultural and social gulf. Payment was only introduced after the House of Lords had banned the trade unions from supporting Labour MPs, many of whom were far too poor to serve in parliament for nothing. And at the time, the Liberal chancellor, David Lloyd George, was adamant that payment was merely a means to better parliamentary representation, not a step towards professional politicians. “It is not a remuneration, it is not a recompense, it is not even a salary,” he insisted. “It is just an allowance.”

However, there is more to the story than meets the eye. Payment was not quite the novelty we now assume: between the 13th and 17th centuries, local authorities often paid their MPs a token wage, and Great Yarmouth even rewarded its representatives with fish. The poet Andrew Marvell, who served as MP for Hull, was one of the last to receive payment, and consequently felt obliged to write long letters to the city corporation on the major issues of the day. And although payment had largely died out by Walpole’s day, reformers of all kinds soon revived the idea. The Chartists, for example, argued in 1838 that MPs should be paid £500 a year, with their attendance records published after each parliament – though their scheme did not, it has to be said, run to moats and duck houses.

Although Lloyd George’s £400 does not sound like much, it was a great deal of money for Labour MPs from working-class backgrounds. In 1911, £400 was roughly six times the median wage; by contrast, MPs today are paid less than three times the median. Even when their allowances are taken into account, MPs today are, relatively speaking, less well paid than they were a hundred years ago. No doubt, looking at the current House of Commons and comparing it with one that contained Asquith, Lloyd George and Churchill, as well as Keir Hardie, Arthur Balfour, Joe Chamberlain and Stanley Baldwin, many readers will think that entirely appropriate.

But if the point of MPs’ pay was to make parliament more representative, it has, in the long run, been an utter failure. Writing in 1861, the great Liberal thinker John Stuart Mill rejected the idea of paying MPs because politics would “therefore become an occupation in itself; carried on, like other professions, with a view chiefly to its pecuniary returns, and under the demoralising influences of an occupation essentially precarious”. Many Tory MPs, who usually commanded immense private wealth, agreed with him: one objected that “caucus-fed professional politicians” would flood into the Commons, while another complained that payment would destroy the ideal of “gratuitous public service”.

A century on, these opinions look a little less outlandish. In the medium term, the introduction of MPs’ pay undoubtedly opened the way for the rise of the Labour party. Without payment, it would have been impossible for characters such as Ernest Bevin, a West Country labourer from rural Somerset who never knew his father, left school at 11 and had to read the daily paper to his illiterate relatives, to enter the Commons and become one of the last century’s undoubted political greats. But in the longer run, it is astonishing and depressing how rare characters like Bevin have become.

As Mill predicted, politics has indeed become an occupation, dominated by young men and women with Oxbridge degrees and privileged backgrounds. Far from becoming more open, parliament actually seems to be going backwards, growing younger and more exclusive. Self-made politicians from deprived backgrounds, such as Alan Johnson and David Davis, are increasingly rare. Perhaps it is no wonder, then, that so many people feel disenfranchised.

A century ago, when working-class MPs were storming the citadel of Westminster, could anyone have believed that things would turn out like this?

Dominic Sandbrook is a freelance writer on history and current affairs. His most recent book is State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970-1974 (Allen Lane). He is the regular columnist for BBC History Magazine.

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