It’s not often I sympathise with British politicians. Their behaviour doesn’t easily lend itself to sympathy, and while I have little time for the argument that they’re paid too much, it’s undeniable that their attitude to, and claiming of, expenses over the past few years has been contemptible at best and downright criminal at worst. I don’t for a heartbeat think that all MPs who misclaimed expenses did so with malice aforethought, but neither do I accept for a moment that all of those who could have been prosecuted for fraud felt the copper’s hand on their shoulders, along with an accompanying “you’re nicked, my son…”
We ask Members of Parliament to do a job and to take on responsibilities that we don’t expect of anyone else. I’m not for one second suggesting that nurses, teachers, care workers, civil servants don’t work hard or don’t deserve higher pay themselves, but making laws, passing legislation that affects every person in the country, is not something we should delegate lightly or without care. I guess I’d turn that around; what makes you think that MPs don’t work just as hard as nurses, teachers and other people who are generally and genuinely seen as important to making society better? A gut instinct? A ‘feeling’? That’s not enough to condemn an entire class of people, most of whom I have no doubt enter politics with a genuine desire for public service.
Every time we vote for someone to become a member of Parliament, we entrust them with that responsibility, to represent us in a Parliament that has passed legislation for centuries; both good and bad legislation, carefully thought out and rushed legislation, important and trivial legislation. And while examples can be found going back fifty years or more of MPs complaining that they’re not paid enough, similar examples can be found of equal vintage of complaints that they’re paid far too much. I’ve never found any arguments supporting the latter case satisfactory.
It may be moral cowardice on my part that I’m pleased, no make that desperately pleased, that I’ve not been someone who’s been called upon to make the decisions that MPs make in the house of Commons every week. Leaving aside the ‘loyalty’ vote, where you have to compromise your own earnestly held – and previously passionately expressed – views in order to progress up the greasy pole, when money is tight in the national purse, do you cut money from this department or that? Do you raise taxes on this proportion of the population or that? Do you close this hospital or that school? Do you raise subsidies for rail transport or road? And yet, I’ve rarely been pleased with how my own Member of Parliament has acted in the role of legislator. There are many reasons for this, but put plainly, I can’t think of a single election in the past thirty years where I’ve agreed with even the vast majority of any party’s manifesto. I can’t really speak on how they’ve acted as a constituency MP, on the other hand, with one exception. My Member of Parliament for some years was Sir Sidney Chapman, a man with whose politics I disagreed. Yet, I never heard a single complaint from across the local political spectrum about his activities as a constituency MP. He seemed to be that apparently most rare of species: someone who believed, once elected, he owed a duty to everyone in his constituency, whether or not they’d voted for him.
The change in how MPs are ‘seen’ by the public, both literally and figuratively, is neither something to be pleased by or disgusted with. It’s just… happened. But it’s impossible to deny that televised parliament, the twenty-four hour news cycle and – most importantly – social media’s ability to circulate an image with astonishing rapidity has increased the cynicism of the public towards politicians. And for once, it’s not the politicians’ fault in any way. Instead, split second images are taken, used, abused and promoted with political intention without indication nor disclosure of that intention.
Years ago, when taking a tour of the Houses of Parliament as part of my Government and Comparative Politics A-Level, I was shown and told about the grilles in the benches of both Houses, those of the Commons and Lords. These grills, a couple of inches across, are at neck height when sitting, and contain speakers, to carry the voices of those speaking in the relevant House. In order to hear the sounds coming from them, if the member of parliament actually speaking is way across the chamber of the House, it’s not uncommon for MPs to ‘slump’ slightly, and even sometimes close their eyes to concentrate on the words rather than the low level of surrounding noise. And any MP doing this, in an image snapped from the televised stream will appear asleep.
Do MPs sleep in the chamber? I’m sure some do, but it’s prejudicial to state that someone’s sleeping in the chamber when you’ve no actual evidence to back you up. And yet such images are often shot around Twitter, Facebook and the like as proof itself that our elected representatives are sleeping on the job and couldn’t care less about the issue being discussed.
Another favourite image that regularly does the rounds is one purporting to show the House with only a couple of dozen MPs in the chamber, and to state that this in and of itself proves that something important to the person who first took the screenshot – and of course the assumption is that many share his or her view of the matter – is of no interest to the political parties. There’s no context to the picture, of course; no indication as to whether ten minutes earlier, or ten minutes later, the chamber was full to overflowing or even had another couple of hundred or so MPs in attendance. To believe that MPs should always be in the chamber is to wilfully (or maybe not wilfully, maybe it’s just ignorance) misunderstand the job of a member of Parliament. As is reasonably well known, there’s no actual job description for MPs. And even if there was such a thing agreed by most people not even the most jaundiced onlooker of that species known as MP would suggest that they should spend all their time in the chamber. There are meetings to hold, correspondence to deal with, select committees to serve on, constituency matters which require attention. All of the foregoing take place out of the chamber itself. How many people know, for example, that debates are often held at Westminster Hall, sometimes at the same time as those in the Commons? Those ‘missing’ MPs? They may well be doing important work outside the Commons at that moment.
And, further, not every clause of every Bill is important, even if the Bill itself is important. A bill about increasing the amount of information disclosed by companies about taxation in their financial statements may be very important; a clause within that proposed set of laws discussing whether the information should be in a separate note to the accounts or whether it should be included within the taxation notw isn’t likely to be a must-attend debate.
And that’s not even taking account of the parliamentary convention of ‘pairing’. (Of course, as I’ve pointed out before, divisions in the House of Commons don’t actually need that many MPs in attendance. As long as there’s 40 in attendance, the House can vote on something.)
And then there’s smiling or laughing. I may be a heretic here but I don’t want my representatives in parliament to be humourless robots; I want them to be human, and that means that, occasionally, they’ll laugh at a witticism or funny comment. And not only at their opponent’s discomfort. Sometimes a genuinely funny comment is made in the chamber; it happens more often than you’d think, but far less often than the MPs thing, to be fair.
OK – here’s a picture of George Osborne and David Cameron laughing on the government front benches. Yeah, I know, I’m sorry. You might have to drink to forget that image, but I’ve put it there for a reason. No, not for you to have an excuse to drink to forget that image. Well, not wholly.
Anyway, there’s Prime Minister and The Chancellor of the Exchequer laughing during a debate about… Well, you don’t know, do you? It could be about something deadly serious or it could be questions to the Leader of the House about suggested debates. The comment could have been a political point scored against Ed Balls or it could merely be that someone farted in the chamber. But if someone tweeted that picture and said “Look, this is from today’s debate about food banks! See how the Tories laugh at poverty”, it’d go round Twitter tweeted and retweeted as gospel.
Finally, my sympathy even stretches to Michael Gove. Only for one thing, mind you, since I think he was a disastrous Secretary of State for Education and is not exactly shaping up to be even a half decent Whip. But let’s attack him for what he’s done recently, not for stuff he did before he was even an MP. It’s similar to my views on the Daily Mail: daft to constantly bring up the Mail’s support for fascism 80 years ago (!) when there’s so much to attack the paper for now.
So, Michael Gove. There’s a pic that’s been doing the rounds for the past year or so. Here it is:
If true, it would be a horrible thing for a politician to say, let alone a Secretary of State for Education. But he didn’t say it as Secretary of State for Education; he wrote it in a piece for the Times when he was a working journalist, before he even became an MP. And yet the pic states – or at least heavily implies – that he said it as a politician. That’s just flat wrong, and indefensible. It’s certainly fine to ask Gove whether he still thinks that, and then to attack his view if he confirms that. But there’s no way it’s fair to suggest he said it as a representative of government.
A picture tells a thousand words; nowhere, however, does it say the words are accurate.