After the latest controversies about MPs' pay and benefits, Parliament faces another clean-up. But let's not kid ourselves it was once a noble and flawless institution.
A POINT OF VIEW
By David Cannadine
The salaries paid to members of Parliament, and the additional benefits they enjoy, have been two subjects much in the news of late. But that's not the only reason why these controversies, and the revelations which have fuelled them, have attracted my interest and attention, for I sit on the Editorial Board of an organisation known as the History of Parliament. It's an enterprise devoted to doing just that, namely promoting the study of the English - and subsequently the British - parliament, from its medieval origins until as near to the present day as it's possible to get.
And since our legislature is, on virtually any historical reckoning, just about the oldest in the western world, this is an enterprise of considerable magnitude, and one that's well worth undertaking.
The founding father of the History of Parliament was a remarkable man named Colonel Josiah Wedgwood. Born in 1872, he was descended from the great 18th Century Staffordshire potter whose name he shared; and all his life, this latter-day Josiah, who was known to his many friends as Josh, was animated by a strong sense of family pride, and he also identified very powerfully with north Staffordshire, which Arnold Bennett made famous in his novels about the "five towns".
Across Europe, representative institutions were being undermined or snuffed out and Wedgwood thought it important to tell the very different history of the British legislature
Josh Wedgwood trained as an engineer, he served in South Africa during the Boer War, and he was Member of Parliament for Newcastle under Lyme from 1906 until 1942, initially as a Liberal, and later as a convert to the Labour Party, and he held minor office in the government of Ramsay MacDonald in 1924.
As such, Josh Wedgwood was both a parliamentary insider and also a Westminster character. He possessed great social confidence and a strong sense of social obligation, which derived from the famous name he bore, and from his private wealth. He was also fearsomely independent in his political views, he was a master of Commons procedure, he thought it important for MPs to prevent any government from becoming too overbearing, and he cared deeply about freedom and liberty.
But this meant he was a bad team player, and his ministerial career fizzled out. As a result, he was very much liked, he had friends on all sides of the House, and he venerated the Palace of Westminster as a great national institution, whose history was, he believed, co-terminus with the history of the English nation and the growth of English liberties.
In his spare time, Josh Wedgwood was a talented and energetic amateur historian, and much of his work was devoted to the study of his family and also to his home county of Staffordshire. But during the late 1920s, and as his own political career went into decline, he became captivated by the idea of inaugurating a full-dress history of the parliament to which he was so devoted.
Across Europe, representative institutions were being undermined or snuffed out, from Spain to Russia, and from Germany to Italy; and Wedgwood thought it important to tell the very different history of the British legislature, which was to him one of freedom, progress and democracy.
Parliament's first official historian, Josh Wedgwood
He lobbied hard and persistently to obtain government and private support, he set up a board consisting of politicians and academics, and he personally researched and wrote the first two volumes, covering the 15th Century. They appeared in 1936 and 1938, and they were appropriately bound in covers of Wedgwood blue.
But there, for the time being, the great parliamentary history stalled. The academics thought Josh Wedgwood's work was hurried and superficial, and as the prospect of war loomed ever more ominously, Wedgwood and his fellow politicians increasingly had other things on their minds. From 1939 onwards, the History effectively came to a standstill; and Josh Wedgwood died in 1943, having been ennobled by his friend Winston Churchill just one year before.
Only in the 1950s was the History of Parliament revived and renewed, as public funding was made available from the Treasury; control was divided between trustees, drawn from the Commons and the Lords, and an editorial board, consisting of academics; and since the 1960s, volumes of the History, which are mainly concerned with constituencies and biographies of MPs, have appeared at regular intervals.
However you look at it, the history of parliament, initially in England, and later in Britain, is a remarkable story, but it's also a story about which there are many popular misconceptions. It's widely believed, for instance, that our nation pioneered democracy in the modern world, and that the distinctive silhouette of the Palace of Westminster is often taken to embody that noble idea; but when Barry and Pugin designed their Gothic-revival extravaganza, in the early part of Queen Victoria's reign, only a tiny percentage of the male population had the vote.
MPs locally paid
As late as 1914, and after three reform acts, the British parliament possessed one of the narrowest electoral franchises in Europe: this was scarcely democracy as we know and understand it today, and full adult suffrage was only achieved with the passing of the Fourth Reform Act at the end of the First World War, and with the later extension of the vote to women in their twenties.
The silhouette is often taken to embody that noble idea, except....
The history of the payment of MPs, which is causing such a furore at the moment, is in some ways equally surprising. From the 13th to the late 17th Century, members of the House of Commons were paid locally, by those who lived in the constituency they represented, which meant their MPs could be held directly accountable for their performance by the people who had voted for them. But thereafter, the practice lapsed, and during the 19th and 19th centuries, MPs were unpaid.
Even to get elected to parliament, you needed leisure and a substantial unearned income; and some MPs also made fortunes from public office, perhaps most famously in the case of Sir Robert Walpole, who constructed his great house in Norfolk at Houghton from what would now seem his ill-gotten gains.
It was during the late 19th Century, as working men were elected to the Commons, initially for the Liberal Party, and subsequently for Labour, that the demand began to grow that MPs should be remunerated. But it was not until the Parliament Act of 1911 that they were actually paid: initially in the form of an allowance of £400.
That sum was actually reduced during the financial crisis of 1931, and it's only since the 1960s that MPs' pay has been on an ever-rising curve, and that they've also been given special allowances and pension rights. Today, MPs receive a sum in excess of £60,000 in salary, and more than £100,000 in terms of allowances, including secretarial help and travelling expenses, if their constituency is outside London.
Sir Robert Walpole made a fortune from public office
In recent years, discussion of MPs' pay and allowances has focussed on three different issues.
- The first is: are they paid enough? I have to say that I'm not sure that they are given the burden of their responsibilities and the near limitless workload.
- The second is: are their allowances appropriate? I suspect that they're more than enough, even though a minority of MPs don't seem able to use them altogether appropriately.
- The third issue is: should MPs vote their own pay rises and allowances? To be sure, recommendations are made about these matters by the Review Body on Senior Salaries, but it's the members of the House of Commons who decide whether or not to accept them. It's this practice which often seems to provoke the ire of journalists, many of whom, I suspect, are paid substantially more than the MPs they criticise; but even so, they do have a point.
This may be a vexed problem, of whether MPs should actually determine their own salaries and benefits, but in essence it's scarcely novel. In Plato's Republic, the polity of labourers, slaves and tradesmen was governed and protected by an elite group known as The Guardians, but if they were the ultimate authority, then who was responsible for overseeing them? And this question later received its famous Latin formulation from the writer Juvenal: "quis custodiet ipsos custodes?", he asked, or "who shall guard the guardians?"
Ever since, lawmakers have struggled to create constitutions which answer this question, but none have wholly succeeded, and they certainly haven't done so at Westminster. For what it's worth, my view is that MPs should be paid more, but that they shouldn't pay themselves. We've been promised that these matters will have definitely been resolved by the summer; but if Plato and Juvenal are any guide I rather doubt it.
Below is a selection of your comments.
What a surly piece of writing. "let's not kid ourselves it was once a noble and flawless institution." Compared with anything else in the world in 1295 the English Parliament was unique, and an extraordinary innovation in Europe's political apparatus. Unprecedented and unparalleled.
"It's widely believed, for instance, that our nation pioneered democracy in the modern world . . .but when Barry and Pugin designed their Gothic-revival extravaganza . . . only a tiny percentage of the male population had the vote".
And which country in the world had a larger proportion of its population enfranchised at the time?
This sort of shallow cynicism makes the writer - in my opinion - unfit to sit on the eidtorial board of such an organisation. He hasn't the historical perspective, and it sounds like he's sucking up to public opinion.
Stephen Carter, London
As head of state, maybe the Queen should decide and make it on a pay performance basis. If the country is performing at a level most people are happy with then allow a pay rise level with inflation or amount agreed with the Treasury. If not then maybe a freeze or deduction would be in order. After all they are her (or the Crown's) ministers, governing on the Crown's decree. We are after all a monarchy, not a republic. Anyone got a better idea?
Chris, Bristol, UK
MP remuneration should be decided by a comittee composed of members of the public.
R.Haywood, Canterbury Kent
As much of Parliament's power have been ceded to Brussels there should be fewer MPs or they should be paid less.
Cannon, Great Bedwyn, Marlborough, Wilts
I found David Cannadine's article most interesting and very balanced. I agree with his view that most MPs give very good value for the not over-generous pay they receive, quite miserly in comparison with many other countries. I also agree that the issue of allowances needs to be cleared up and made much more transparent and that probably decisions about pay need to be taken out of the hands of MPs themselves, even if only to deprive the gutter press of a stick to beat them.
Graham P.Thomas, Sonning Common
The main problem is that most MPs are pretty clueless about everyday life and the issues that people want dealt with. MPs lead a privileged and protected lifestyle, all the "work they do" is mainly done by their staff and researchers and their ideas and decisions are what these hidden middle/upper class advisors tell them. Thus they do not really run the country, it's the faceless people behind them, mostly young inexperienced kids or the older masonic still in the dark ages.
MPs not paid enough given their responsibilities and the weight of work they do? What nonsense! We all know that MPs are mere figureheads. All the work is done by unelected civil servants. And it's such hard work running the country that MPs are able to take on several lucrative side-jobs at the same time. An immediate pay cut or a few weeks doing real work in a factory or busy hospital would be more appropriate than any pay rise!
Hilary James, Glasgow, UK
The bullet points at the end of the article seem to confirm my own views that our MP's are certainly underpaid, salary wise.
I have the greatest respect for our MP's, whatever their political party, because of the work they have to do and the hours that are required to do a good job.
The media like to attack MP's when they vote themselves increases, so in the end, they up their alllowances.
Its therefore time that maybe a group of elder statesmen were called to review the whole situation and devise a scheme to give MP's a salary that reflects their position and worth. Also, the allowances need to be reviewed and a proposal drawn up to independently review their pay and allowances, annually.
A final point, the salaries of Ministers also needs to be looked at as well. I was always surprised at the low sum we paid Tony Blair as PM. Effectively, our PM is Chief Executive of Great Britain PLC and the salary was a pittance compared to salaries earned by other top chief executives in the UK.
Can we have an all inclusive review, please, to try and restore some respectability to our democracy.
Andrew Lye, Johnston, Pembrokeshire
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