Firstly, a declaration of interest.
I am deeply suspicious and cynical of our masters and, most particularly, politicians. I once wrote a piece suggesting that – in a skewed version of Marx’s dictum (Groucho’s of course) regarding club membership – by definition, anyone who wished to become a politician should automatically be barred from becoming one.
When the Daily Telegraph stirringly revealed the scandal of MPs expenses in 2009, with its ‘flipping’ of properties, duck houses, lack of scrutiny of claims etc., for me, the most damning aspect was the fact that they’d all colluded in the wheeze because, fearing that the public wouldn’t wear a straightforward salary hike, instead they’d devised a cosy but corrupt ‘in house’ system to provide better terms for themselves anyway. Successive miscreants, caught with their hands in the proverbial till, queued up to maintain that they’d been told how to ‘cook’ their expense claims.
Subsequently, after a suitable period of self-flagellation and hand-wringing, they then came up with a near-perfect route to kick the problem into the long grass, viz. handing the whole issue of MPs pay to a public body called the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (‘IPSA’). It’s biggest plus – from the politicians’ point of view, given that the public no longer trusted MPs to do anything properly when it came to £5 notes – was that it meant, from now on, MPs wouldn’t be deciding their own pay.
This week, four years later, the great British public is still reeling from the announcement that IPSA has decided that our Parliamentarians should have an 11% increase, they having effectively decreed that the rest of us should receive less than 1%.
This highlights another of my pet theories in action.
Running parallel with the inevitable tendency of those in power to harbour an over-pronounced sense of self-importance is the contrary one of a complete lack of self-awareness.
Only a set of politicians could fail to notice, let alone consider, the potential ramifications of a political decision.
One only has to go back to the famous incident when the then prime minister Tony Blair publicly trailed the concept that petty thieves and thugs might be marched to ‘hole in the wall’ machines and made to pay on-the-spot fines for their misdemeanours.
No doubt it sounded good that day at his early morning meeting with his policy wonks and special advisers (‘spads’ I think they’re called) over the coffee and croissants at Number 10.
But then, of course, as soon as the rest of the world learned of it, the practicalities of the proposal (or lack of them, not least the possibility that most petty criminals might not even have hole-in-the-wall accounts) came to roost … and so Tony’s ‘latest new’ idea was dropped within days, hopefully to be forgotten. (Until now).
Naturally, this week Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband have joined forces to say that they’re opposed to this 11% increase for MPs. But what staggers me is that they failed to think through the possibility that, if you set up an independent body as the sole arbiter of something, it may come up with an answer you don’t like. Or worse, one that maybe you do quite like, but know that the public wouldn’t.
The furore over the scandal of BBC executive pay also has its origins in a similar – and unwarranted – sense of entitlement.
The BBC – or to give it the original name ‘the British Broadcasting Company Ltd’ was founded in 1922 and, over the next thirty years, under its visionary leader Lord Reith, became the British broadcasting ‘voice of record’. Under the guise of apparent scrupulous independent impartiality, it became the standard bearer, and indeed standard-adjudicator, of all things quality and respected as regards broadcasting. It was an impressive achievement, the beneficial effects of which still survive to this day. But in fact it wasn’t quite as difficult a task as it might seem. Until 1955, when ITV came along, paid for – horror of horrors – by commercials, the BBC was the only British broadcaster.
Then came BBC2, colour television, Channel Four, Channel Five, cable and satellite, mobile phones, smart phones, computers and the internet. The BBC, naturally, felt that it was within its remit, and possibly a duty, to compete in all these sectors, perhaps fearing that, if it did not, its ‘golden goose’ of the mandatory television licence fee might be removed.
Thus, when commercial organisations began bidding up the salaries of light entertainment superstars and sports rights, to identify but two, the BBC joined in enthusiastically. For, if ITV won the peak-time viewing audience ratings – as it needed to try to do in order to attract the hard-nosed, no-nonsense advertisers – and the BBC came a poor second, questions might be asked “Why is the BBC even bothering to compete in the commercial world? You don’t need to chase ratings, ergo you don’t need to sign up the big stars and the big sporting occasions … so why don’t you stop doing that?” The BBC’s ever-present concern over the last fifty years, the prime motivation behind its every planning decision and action, has been justifying the retention of the licence fee.
The fact is that – in the 21st Century – the much-bloated BBC should be made to rein itself in. It should be de-coupled from the licence fee and funded instead by the taxpayer on an agreed budget on a five-year cycle, to produce its excellent news and current affairs, the World Service and a limited amount of other ‘public service’ programmes which, by definition, would never be made in the private sector because, although worthy, they aren’t commercially viable.
The BBC attracts the kind of people who – however well-meaning and principled – are primarily risk-averse. They want security and a settled career progression, both of which are practically non-existent in the jungle-law that prevails in the cut-throat world of commercial television where you are only as good as your last programme but at least, while it lasts, the money is very good thank you.
During the squirming-embarrassing appearances of the BBC high command before the Public Accounts Committee earlier this year, to the forefront in defending the extraordinarily-high pay of their senior executives, was the theme “We had to pay that much to attract people of the right quality and/or talent”.
No, they didn’t.
The BBC had merely succumbed to the logic, often put forward by those in the public sector, that they ought to be paid similar to those who ply their trades in the private commercial world.
It wouldn’t surprise me, with some of the deeply-unimpressive BBC executives concerned, that if you’d told them they could only stay at the BBC if they took a 50% pay cut, never mind had a significant pay increase, a majority of them would have accepted. They’re just not suited to the harsh realities of the commercial world, and they know it.
Ironically, of course, many of those in favour of the proposed 11% pay increase for MPs maintain that this sort of rise is vital in order to attract sufficient numbers of ‘people of quality’ to the world of politics.
The flaw in that argument is that the relationship between those who inhabit the House of Commons and ‘quality’ is tenuous, to say the least.
You don’t have to be an outstanding individual to become a politician, you just have to be popular enough to get elected. Or even, perhaps, just popular enough with the relevant party machine which might then parachute you into a ‘safe’ seat, so that you then get elected, irrespective of your quality.
Ordinarily, nobody minds paying for quality – I do it quite often, e.g. when food shopping.
A fundamental problem with MPs – from the outstanding to the half-witted – is that they all get paid the same.