Lord Hannan of Kingsclere was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Institute for Free Trade.
Surely the real story is that 90 per cent of MPs want to stay. Despite the long hours and the loss of privacy; despite forfeiting the presumption of innocence; despite the universally recognised convention that MPs may be insulted, traduced and defamed, but may never retaliate in kind; despite being subjected to different rules from everyone else (but not in the way usually supposed); despite all these things, around 580 of the 650 are prepared to carry on.
Most commentators approach this question the other way around, asking why more MPs than usual are stepping down. Applying Occam’s razor, I’d say there is a pretty obvious explanation.
MPs used to get a lump sum if they lost their seats in an election, but not if they chose to stand down. Recently, this payment has been drastically reduced, meaning that MPs who expect to be defeated have far less financial incentive to endure the humiliation. This might explain why there are proportionately more Conservative (43) and SNP (six) retirements than Labour (13).
As I say, the more interesting question is why people still queue to do the job.
The explanation usually offered in comment threads – “duh, the money” – doesn’t stack up. Suppose you were a solicitor elected to Parliament in your early thirties. You would probably see your salary fall a bit, though your pension might marginally improve. Far more seriously, though, your salary would then flatline, rather than rising year by year until you made partner. When we factor in forfeited future earnings, most MPs are opting to be a lot worse off.
If not the remuneration, what attracts them? Unfashionable though it is to say so, most are driven by wanting to get things done. We use different words for this impulse. In people we agree with, we call it “principle” or “service”; in those on the other side, we call it “ideology” or “dogma”. But, call it what we will, it’s what pushes most politicians into public life.
It’s why you find MPs in the voting lobbies when they’d rather be at their children’s nativity plays. It’s why they take on constituency cases without any expectation of thanks. It’s why they suffer slights and calumnies, slings and arrows, without complaining (other than to each other when, believe me, they can moan like nobody’s business).
But what if their desire to get things done is frustrated? What if MPs suffer all the stresses only to find that they are powerless in the face of the quangocracy? That, surely, is the most unkindest cut of all.
Here, it seems to me, is a better explanation for why some MPs give up. As long as you feel you are making a difference, you can put up with a lot. You don’t mind your university contemporaries earning more than you. You don’t mind the long commutes. You might even be able to justify the strain on your marriage.
But if you have to put up with these things while watching the country being misgoverned by its standing bureaucracies, you become dispirited.
What, then, might we do to attract a higher calibre of MP? Most of my suggestions will be hugely unpopular, but here goes.
First, re-establish the principle that only the voters should determine the make-up of the House of Commons. Scrap IPSA, the Privileges Committee, and the rest of the post-Nolan regulatory infrastructure, and make MPs subject to the most powerful external regulator of all, the electorate.
Second, encourage MPs to have outside interests. Return to the days when sittings began in the afternoons, so that MPs could carry on with whatever jobs they had before they were elected. Pay them less, by all means. But at least try to have citizen-legislators instead of state employees.
Third, in order to free up MPs’ time, devolve power to local authorities. Parliament should determine issues that cannot be handled closer to the people, such as defence, migration, and elements of taxation. MPs are not there to provide a queue-jumping service for pushy constituents.
Fourth, while MPs should cede power to town halls, they should recover it from bureaucracies. One of the biggest disappointments of the past three years has been the way in which competences taken back from the EU have been passed directly to national regulators.
If you want a measure of how supine MPs are before our quangos, consider the issue of PEPs, highlighted by Nigel Farage. Almost every MP will have suffered some nonsense at the hands of banks – a child not allowed to open an account, say. If there is one thing they all agree on, it is ending this absurdity. Yet they have not been able to do it, such is their position vis-à-vis the administrative state.
Fifth, and I mean this quite seriously, expect better of MPs. Human beings respond to expectations. If you start from the presumption that most parliamentarians are crooks, you will end up with a lower calibre of representative than if you assume that that most are patriots. Obviously, you will get good and bad people wither way; but the quality will be improved, other things being equal, if you hold MPs to a higher standard.
One final observation. If you disagree with all this, if you think that the fundamental problem is that MPs are venal, partisan and self-serving, why not have a go yourself? In The Republic (Book 1, 346–347), Plato argues that that, if honourable and intelligent men will not to serve in government, they end up being ruled by sly and stupid men: “The chief penalty is to be governed by someone worse than yourself”.
If you value your free time, your family, and your independence too much to go into the grubby business of politics, then pause to consider the sacrifice being made by those who decide differently. Simply acknowledging that they are doing something difficult will, in itself, tend to make them behave better. It won’t solve everything; but it’s a start.