The Politics Of Envy

27/03/2017 12:19

Mr Osborne's portfolio

For lovers of humbug, the comments on George Osborne's appointment to the editorship of the Evening Standard provide a rich vein to mine. Some focus on the confidential knowledge which he gained as Chancellor, Sir Gordon Downey, one time Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, deploring his ability to "use confidential knowledge to influence a wider public through the institutional anonymity of a popular daily". Well, it certainly sounds very impressive but what, if anything, does it mean?

It is normal practice for retired senior politicians to write books, give lectures and take roles in important institutions, and to make large sums of money by doing so. That obviously exploits the knowledge that they have gained in office and, provided that they do not expose confidential information, no one objects to it. Indeed it is very much a part of the system. If they were to be banned from any activity which made use of their contacts and experience, they would have to be paid large pensions to compensate them for their emasculation. It is unlikely that there would be any public enthusiasm for that.

All right then. Is it worse because as editor of the Evening Standard, George Osborne will be able to communicate with the public on a day-to-day basis? Is it perhaps the case that it is all right for ex-ministers to communicate with American hedge funds or those who are prepared to fork out for memoirs, but that direct communication with the public is a "no-no"? There is something wonderfully comic opera in the idea that you are free to communicate provided that not too many people are listening. Gilbert and Sullivan would have loved it. Try a few words yourself set them to music. You and will soon see what I mean. No, that really cannot be the right answer.

The second line of criticism, and many commentators manage to combine the two into a sort of malicious soup, relates not to Mr Osborne's previous job as Chancellor of the Exchequer but to the fact that he is still a serving MP.

"Surely, a conflict of interest?" They say. Well, lots of MPs have links with commercial operations and nobody seems to object to those particularly, provided they are properly disclosed. Actually the editorship of a newspaper probably gives less scope for conflict than most outside appointments, as Mr Osborne's editorial line is likely to coincide with his views as an MP. One could be wrong of course; the need to chase circulation might force him into a savagely pro Brexit line in conflict with his real beliefs, but I suspect that is unlikely.

Let's try again. What about the problem that, taken together with his work for Black Rock, the Northern Powerhouse, his Kissinger Fellowship and his speaking engagements, he will have little time to represent Tatton. Actually, he probably hasn't had much time to do that in the past with his ministerial and political responsibilities. However, whether that is a problem or not is a matter for the electors of that constituency. They have to decide at election time whether the person they have chosen is going to perform as they wish and to assess whether he is too busy elsewhere, too lazy, too stupid, too treacherous or too arrogant to perform his functions to the level they expect. If in the end he disappoints them, they got it wrong. That, however, is their problem; it is nothing to do with the Committee of Standards in Public Life.

The truth is that this is all about envy. We would all love to be paid £650,000 a year working part time for Black Rock. Yes, a Kissinger Fellowship at just over £120,000 a year would be nice too and a couple of hundred thousand extra from the Standard would top things off nicely or, in this case, not quite top them off because there is also £1,000,000 pounds or so in speaking fees. Combine that with a seat in the House (no doubt one day to be translated to a seat in the Lords), and an interest in a leading interior decorator and life doesn't sound too bad, although oddly I expect that Mr Osborne would give most of it away to be Chancellor of the Exchequer still.

It is impossible to see these figures without feeling a twinge of envy but a generous minded public will simply reflect that Mr Osborne has done rather well for himself and move on. A few simply cannot do that and the confused way in which they combine the above objections in their letters and articles speaks to the strength of the resentment which poisons them.

Lord Bew, Chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life has said that this case may mean that they need to look again at the rules on MPs taking second jobs. There will calls for them to be banned. That would not just be a pity. It would be a disaster. One of the weaknesses of British public life is the narrow focus of the Westminster bubble. Politicians work their way up through local politics or trade unions and then become MPs and ministers without sufficient contact with the non-bubble world. That people with outside interests should be MPs is generally a good thing and whether they have sufficient time for all their work is a matter for their employers on one side, and for their constituents on the other Save insofar as there is a conflict of interests, that should be an end of the matter.

The list of politicians with outside earnings is a long and honourable one. Disraeli wrote novels. Churchill was a journalist. Many others, from Maxwell to Goldsmith, have mixed political and business careers. And why should they not? If recent events have taught us anything it is that the public believes that politicians have lost touch. On that basis the more our MPs have backgrounds from outside politics, or other jobs and interests additional to their duties in Parliament, the stronger our democracy will be.

First published in Shaw Sheet.