Dominic Sandbrook: Paying British MPs Has Proved an Utter Failure

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Dominic Sandbrook is a freelance writer on history and current affairs. His most recent book is State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970-1974 (Allen Lane). He is the regular columnist for BBC History Magazine.]

Since the New Year always brings with it a spate of interest in anniversaries, perhaps we can start 2011 with one likely to raise a scowl in the vast majority of readers. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the introduction of payment for Members of Parliament, seen at the time as a great reforming measure, but now one indelibly associated with the expenses scandal that has left the reputation of the Commons so badly tarnished.

Between then and now, of course, yawns a great cultural and social gulf. Payment was only introduced after the House of Lords had banned the trade unions from supporting Labour MPs, many of whom were far too poor to serve in parliament for nothing. And at the time, the Liberal chancellor, David Lloyd George, was adamant that payment was merely a means to better parliamentary representation, not a step towards professional politicians. “It is not a remuneration, it is not a recompense, it is not even a salary,” he insisted. “It is just an allowance.”

However, there is more to the story than meets the eye. Payment was not quite the novelty we now assume: between the 13th and 17th centuries, local authorities often paid their MPs a token wage, and Great Yarmouth even rewarded its representatives with fish. The poet Andrew Marvell, who served as MP for Hull, was one of the last to receive payment, and consequently felt obliged to write long letters to the city corporation on the major issues of the day. And although payment had largely died out by Walpole’s day, reformers of all kinds soon revived the idea. The Chartists, for example, argued in 1838 that MPs should be paid £500 a year, with their attendance records published after each parliament – though their scheme did not, it has to be said, run to moats and duck houses....

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