Like most men, my multi-tasking skills are a bit limited. I do manage to keep a fair number of balls in the air: Parliamentary and constituency, military and Polar interests; writing; home life. I have no paid outside interests bar a few fees for speaking, completing Ipsos Mori questionnaires and similar minutiae (all declared in the Register of Members’ Interests). And I do maintain a reasonable number of unpaid interests- Trinity House, the Honourable Artillery Company, Royal Geographical Society and so on. It’s a pretty full-on diary. So I have to admit to a degree of admiration for my colleagues who seem to be able to maintain outside jobs- as doctors, lawyers or business people as well as their political duties. If my modest plate spinning activities are complex, theirs must be positively heroic.
But then, to look at it another way, in addition to their Parliamentary and constituency duties, the very great in politics- PM, Cabinet Ministers, Speaker of the House of Commons - are also running the country. If you want a good job done give it to a busy person; and all MPs are hyper-active workaholics. Not only that, but I do actually think that if we can have farmers, lawyers, business people who are also MPs, then we are bringing some very useful expertise to our discussions. If we were to ban outside jobs, in a knee-jerk reaction to Owen Paterson, the Commons would soon become populated by a gang of life-long political anoraks with no real knowledge of the outside world.
What’s more, while I do not claim to be struggling on an MPs salary it is a great deal less than many people at a similar stage in their careers- head teachers, rural solicitors, senior military people or the like. Not only that but ours’ is also the only public sector profession where there is no salary progression with age and experience. We are paid precisely the same on Day One in Parliament as we are after 30 years. So I do not resent some of my colleagues’ efforts modestly to supplement their Parliamentary wages. I support what is now being proposed- that MPs should not profit from their position by advising companies on Parliamentary or political matters; that the amount earned outside, and the time take to earn it, could perhaps be capped in some way; and reiterating that there most certainly must not be any kind of paid lobbying (which has been illegal since 1685!). But I would be concerned if this turned into some kind of puritanical witch-hunt aimed at eliminating outside interests altogether.
We Parliamentarians like nothing so much as discussing ourselves as we have done over the last couple of weeks. Yet while we fret over whether or not Theresa May should be allowed to earn a lot of money for making speeches (as Trump so memorably remarked- “I would pay a lot of money NOT to have to listen to one”), there are dramatic and important events all around us to which we may not be giving our full attention.
Cop26 (a success, or a bit watered-down?); the very real potential for military incident in Belorussia and Ukraine; the changes to the post-Covid economy (will inflation be allowed to run away?); all of these and so much more have been obliterated from our front pages by juicy stories about MPs’ business interests.
Parliament and politics and the media have become personalised, introverted and downright unpleasant; we are allowing ourselves to slump into the mud-slinging and name-calling which brings our honourable profession and workplace into disrepute; and we risk stoking up the passions which led to the tragic murder of Sir David Amess, only a few weeks ago. We must get back to decent, sensible, intelligent, well ordered discussions about those great events. That is what Parliament is for, and it is what we must now do.