16 April 2009

Who are these "best" legislators then, eh?

Although I see that Jeff suggests Screaming Lord Foulkes' begging bowl article in the Edinburgh Evening News doesn't warrant the condemnation typically attending the doughty tribune's public pronouncements - I think we should be careful about o'erhastily simplifying the various strands of the argument.

In particular, it is crucial to differentiate between raising MP/MSP expenses and increasing salaries. Foulkes cheerfully and breezily smears the two themes together, fronting his article with the delicious representation of the historical parliament where “being an MP had been the prerogative of the rich Tory gentry and a few good solid Labour MPs with union backing enabling them to survive”. His point, perhaps fairly, is that the expenses aren’t “codpieced” but are forked over to various elves and sprites with which an individual tribune surrounds him or herself to do their bidding. All well and good. However, what concerns me is the last section of his article – and Jeff’s relatively casual suggestion that “
"...if we want the best then we need to pay for the best.”
But first, the Screaming Lord:
“Democracy is beyond price. I have seen military dictatorships and communist states and know how vital it is we have a fair, well respected and effective democratically-elected parliament.

In order to get the right people to stand, they need to be properly paid so we can attract people from all backgrounds. The current level of pay will not do that. If we pay peanuts, it is not surprising that we end up with some monkeys. Thankfully, we also end up with great leaders who are willing to accept the sacrifice.

There is, however, a quid pro quo. If a decent salary is to be paid to our MPs then they, in turn, might accept no extra outside jobs and pledge to work full-time for their constituents and in scrutinising legislation. That is only right and should, of course, also apply to MSPs.

I know I am setting myself up here, but please note that proviso. This would apply once elected members – MPs and MSPs – are properly paid. And it would also apply to members of the second chamber at Westminster if they also become full-time elected salaried members.”
The clear thrust of this, which SNP Tactical Voting clearly goes along with, we’ll call the thesis of representative merit. The argument’s architecture is Palladian in its cleanness, and seemingly irrefutable in the form it is envisaged.
Do you want to be represented by numpties?
Would talented people be better?
What are those talented people doing?
Disposing of those talents, for lucre
How must we tempt them away?
Enter Dubloons, stage left.
What the thesis conceals rather than illuminates, however, is the shakiness of this judgement of who constitutes the “best” legislator, or in the alternative, the most proficient representative member. So we must attend to the framing fundamental question in which this judgement is rooted - what are those standards of merit? It is assumed, I think, that this analysis has a sort of borrowed objectivity – namely that the sorts of folks one is tempting to become MPs are already in particularly highly remunerated jobs, and have thus, on some level, performative proof of ability.

However, I don’t believe we can collapse the whole complex web of capacities, abilities, character and education down to a simple grubby calculation that someone is sticky with excess income and therefore simply splendid in every particular. Of course, that is to put it a bit strongly. Yet to my leery eye, this sort of argument seems to be the judgement implicit in breezily and comfortably referring to “the best” without qualification in a parliamentary context.

There is another point related to all of this, and over which I fall out with Foulkes far more significantly. It is obscene for a man who claims to be committed to social justice, who claims to represent the underprivileged, to suggest that a salary of £60,000 per annum is “peanuts”. If that is peanuts, consider the number of people and families across Scotland and the United Kingdom who have to console themselves with far, far less. So why does Foulkes frame it in this fashion? This returns us to his salty vision of the “best” member and the conceptually deserving candidate:
“In order to get the right people to stand, they need to be properly paid so we can attract people from all backgrounds. The current level of pay will not do that. If we pay peanuts, it is not surprising that we end up with some monkeys. Thankfully, we also end up with great leaders who are willing to accept the sacrifice.”
While the introductory section is familiar Labourite flummery vaguely implying “inclusion” and “opportunity”, he immediately falsifies this vision. Why, do you think, this level of pay wouldn’t attract people from all backgrounds? Which backgrounds are being “excluded”? Hardly the impoverished, languishing on the pittance of a Jobseekers allowance, who after all, wouldn’t be making a “sacrifice” if they took their seats on the green benches and £60,000-odd quid of salary home.

And here’s the crucial point. Foulkes’ “right people” are constituted exclusively by middle class professionals sufficiently flush already to be chubby about the purse. Presumably Keir Hardie would be excluded. The manner in which the Screaming Lord envisions the barriers which standing to be elected brings – and relating this coin-pinching drama to a discourse of opportunity - lends the passage its curious bipolar whiff and to my mind, renders it insupportable. Just another, dreary, bourgeois paradigm, bemoaning its tawdry losses.

Which is, perhaps, an argument and a model of merit for members which some people might support. I would be surprised, however, if it was terribly many, once we’re up front about it. If we disagree, however, what alternatives are there for judgements about who are the most meritorious members or members-to-be?

One answer we might look to is Rousseau’s – my favourite Genevese spankee – who suggested that the legislator – here envisaged rather more as the law-giver than as the people’s representative – would require the following attributes:
“In order to discover the rules of society best suited to nations, a superior intelligence beholding all the passions of men without experiencing any of them would be needed. This intelligence would have to be wholly unrelated to our nature, while knowing it through and through; its happiness would have to be independent of us, and yet ready to occupy itself with ours; and lastly, it would have, in the march of time, to look forward to a distant glory, and, working in one century, to be able to enjoy in the next. It would take gods to give men laws.”(The Social Contract 1762)
Not many of those kicking about, I suspect.

My argument here - as will be quite clear - isn't an answer to the problem of what judgements and ideas should inform our ideas of legislative and representative competence. That is an issue for another post. However, please, don't lets be thoughtless about what Foulkes' suggestions and characterisation of the problem implies. A little reflection hardly recommends it, to my mind.


  1. Far better argued than my post on Jeff's blog where I did a comparison the an army officer. I still consider our politicians fall far short of army officers in the form of commitment and ability (with the odd exceptions of course).

  2. Auch that should with comparison WITH not the of course. Apologies.

  3. And of course, generally speaking they don't perish in the act of duty. Well, unless they are accidentally auto-erotically asphyxiated per Stephen Milligan MP.

    That's the way I want to shuffle off this mortal coil.