If you want a guaranteed round of applause on television and radio shows in which the voting public participates, then one of the safest fallbacks in the UK is the declaration that MPs should be full-time and not have any outside interests or second jobs.
One can easily see how we got here, after the justified public outrage in 2009 over MPs expenses, which followed several decades of scandals about naughty and criminal behaviour by a minority of MPs. In those circumstances, it is hardly surprising if the public attitude to MPs is as follows. You want to be my MP? That means you work every hour for me. Be grateful for the salary and prepare to be fired every five years.
But this standard issue attitude is an example of the public adopting a position that is clearly not in their interests, perhaps because the argument against second jobs has an emotional pull and because the counter argument is hardly ever made. Many MPs, journalists or public officials can explain privately how we would be better governed if MPs were not full-time politicians, but why risk public and media wrath?
The latest MP under attack is an SNP MP, Dr Philippa Whitford. The Daily Mail reports that she has been “moonlighting” in the holidays at a hospital, undertaking work as a £500 per day cancer surgeon. Moonlighting is such a journalistic word that only journalists ever use. It suggests slyness or wrong-doing in a sneaky way that stops short of an outright accusation.
The Scottish hospital she works at is also described as “cash strapped.” The implication there seems to be that in undertaking this work she is somehow fleecing a hospital that is short of cash. No, she is providing a service the hospital needs. Does everyone imagine that skilled surgeons work for free? Do journalists? Would you?
But then the criticism she is facing is really down to the stupid remarks made by some of her SNP colleagues who suggested that no SNP MP would have a second job. I hope Dr Whitford sticks to her guns. Just because one of her colleagues is prone to saying stupid things does not mean that the NHS and her local hospital should be deprived of her expertise when she has the time, during recess and at weekends, and even during the week when she is not at Westminster. The ludicrous outrage about Dr Whitford illustrates once again that the spread of full time politics – meaning that MPs are expected not to do any other work – has been a complete disaster in Britain.
All it does is reduce the independence of MPs, increase the power of the party machines and encourage blandness and servitude. An MP who has no outside interests at all must, by definition, be more scared of the party machine, because it is makes them the sole source of pay and patronage. The machine can also, when it needs to, control selection and deselection.
In the UK we need independence of spirit in parliament even more now than then, because the state is much bigger than it used to be and the machine – government I mean now, not party – needs to be held to account by the brightest people from all backgrounds, not party hacks desperate to stick in with the leadership.
There is a further problem. Once those MPs and members of the devolved assemblies are full-time they then need things to fill their day, which means scouting around for new things to legislate on (often quite badly). Add together Westminster, Holyrood, Cardiff and the European Parliament and the opportunities for daft legislating and pontificating have mushroomed in the last twenty years. Are we better governed after this explosion of professional politics? Perhaps not. I’m just, as they say in modern management parlance, putting that thought out there.
It would surely be much better if these parliaments and assemblies did less, making it feasible for our elected representatives to source some other fully declared income (to protect their independence from party bosses) in the law, the health service, business, technology, education, trade unions, charity or even the media, even if it is only a few hours each week. There should be only one exception. When an MP becomes a minister, they should give up all outside interests for the period they are in office. Other than that, we should be very suspicious of MPs who cannot find other part-time work and issue censorious statements about their talented colleagues who can.