“Enough of this World’s goods; but not too much of it…” was an old and wise piece of advice. I have no significant outside interests - as the Register of Members’ Interests will confirm – bar a few small fees for completing Ipsos/Mori questionnaires! It must be troublesome (if quite nice) to have so much dosh that you have to mess around with your tax arrangements in the way that Nadhim Zahawi apparently did, and he has paid a heavy political price for the way he did it. PAYE will do for me.
Yet I have had a week of (unpaid) outside interests. Work with the ‘Learned Societies’ to try to find a way they can keep their ancient HQ in Piccadilly’s Burlington House; a morning at the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester learning about their £100 million expansion plans, and the afternoon at Kemble Airfield seeing some of the amazing aeronautical businesses there; political supper club in Yatton Keynell; brunch with the PM in Chequers and a breakfast in No 10 to discuss environmental matters; reception to celebrate the 60 years since the UK was the first country to recognise that brave little democracy , Mongolia; chair and speak at a Parliamentary lunch for 20 generals trying to learn their trade; Burns Supper in the House of Lords; a day in the countryside in South Wiltshire with some MP friends; surgeries in Cricklade and Malmesbury; a grand dinner near Tetbury; these and a dozen other such matters have taken up this last week alongside normal Parliamentary and constituency duties.
It is quite hard to draw any very direct line from any of these varied activities to demonstrate that they have necessarily improved the lives of the people of North Wiltshire or contributed to the National good. Yet I am firmly of the view that in order to be a decent MP with a degree of empathy will all sorts of people, you have to have had a varied background (and widespread interests) yourself. I am proud that after a grammar school upbringing in Glasgow, then at Oxford University, I spent 10 years in business; served in the Reserve Army for 7 of them; have been made redundant, relied upon the welfare state, written books, travelled round the world; have a wide spread of interests- the military, foreign affairs, the environment, Polar Regions (Arctic and Antarctic), all of these things and a thousand more allow me better to understand all kinds of people and their needs, and to express (I hope) a broad and well-rounded series of views in Parliament.
I welcome the fact that we have farmers, doctors, journalists, business-people and all sorts of others in the Commons producing a broadly based expertise and experience for our deliberations; and if some of them (including business people) want to continue their outside interests alongside being backbenchers, then good luck to them. If we are truly to reflect society, we must be (quite) like it; and a huddle of political anoraks holed up in the Palace of Westminster with little interest apart from “who is going up, who down; and who’s going to win the next election?” would be a pretty poor bunch doing a pretty poor job. A House of Commons of 650 political geeks would mean a much poorer democracy.
So let us not use the tax muddle which Zahawi seems to have created, nor the wealth of some of my colleagues, to lead us towards puritanical, tooth-suckingly self-righteous calls to ban outside interests (paid or unpaid.) We need a rounded, experienced, outward looking, professional House of Commons. Outside interests of all kinds help ensure that we get it.