I was queuing for a chicken balti pie during half time at the Hawthorns at the weekend when a couple of Albion fans approached me;
‘Alright, mate?’ they said;’ ‘we were just saying how much we appreciate your blog, though it;s true what they say at IPPR, you do go on about yourself a bit too much. We are a trifle concerned that you have done so little on cultural theory recently. Is this because you don’t feel it has any intrinsic relevance to the fundamental societal questions arising from the economic crisis?’
At least I think that's what they said. After watching West Brom for 90 minutes I fell into a deep torpor and required a combination of electric shocks and hypnotism to be brought around, so my recollections are a bit fuzzy.
Unlike West Brom’s current team I try to satsify my fans, so here is a cultural theory analysis of the disastrous saga of MPs’ salaries and pensions, opened up again by the tale of Tony McNulty claiming for his parents’ house.
Thinking of the system of remuneration as a public policy problem. the four cultural theory perspectives might come at it this way:
The egalitarian perspective: MPs should be paid no more than the average wage. Only people who are strongly principled will then choose a career in politics, and the public will respect their representatives as having the right values and motives.
The individualist perspective: MPs should be paid well to ensure public office attracts talented people. If individual MPs choose to donate their salaries to Party or community activity, that’s up to them. If voters think an MP is being greedy they can show their displeasure at the next election.
The hierarchical perspective: We need to balance the need for talented people to come into politics and government with the need for the political establishment to have legitimacy in the eyes of the people.
This explains the mess we are in. The present system - a modest basic salary but lots of scope for MPs creatively to add to it with various allowances - is a classic clumsy solution.
The problem comes with paradigm four: fatalism. As I have suggested before, in cultural theory each way of viewing the world has a benign/engaged and a malign/disengaged form. So, for example, individualism can be creative and brave but also selfish and irresponsible. The dichotomy for fatalism is between a benign indifference (‘I don’t really care what happens so I’m happy to let other people decide’) and cynicism (‘those in power will always screw the little man’). Which is where the mass media come in. Engaged as they are in a battle to prove that politicians are even less principled than newspaper owners and editors, they seek to exploit the problem of MPs’ pay.
No doubt the present system could be better designed and enforced (and Tony McNulty does look like he stretched the rules to breaking point) but would any radically different, neater, system work? We could have MPs on £110,000k a year with no allowances and constantly subject to the critique that they are an out-of-touch, privileged elite. Or we could have MPs on average wages which would stop many talented people from entering politics and, probably, encourage other forms of abuse.
Fundamentally, it’s not the system of MPs’ pay and allowances that creates the problem, nor even the way MPs work the system; it is the nature of the problem itself. How do we pay politicians in the public interest? This would be a hard problem to solve in the best of circumstances but it is nigh on impossible in the face of media determined to prove that all politicians are second rate money grubbers.
Fabian Wallace-Stephens (Foresight Lead)
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