MPs pay: the never ending controversy

Today’s blogpost is from a guest blogger, Edward Hicks, PhD candidate at St Anne’s College, Oxford who joined us over the summer as an intern. He takes a look at an issue that has been controversial over many years, and is again in the news: MPs’ pay…

Yesterday, it was revealed that parliamentary watchdog Ipsa is set to recommend an 11% pay rise for MPs, to come in after the 2015 election. The ongoing furore over MPs’ pay is nothing new. Just over a century ago debates on whether or not MPs should be paid focussed on similar issues: the cost of politics amid financial difficulties; whether MPs should vote themselves taxpayers money; if professional politicians were desirable; whether payment would lead to MPs being drawn from a wider range of backgrounds and even controversy around trade union support of MPs.

MPs had been paid in medieval and Tudor times: indeed Dunwich in 1463 paid one of its MPs in herrings. It was perceived as an inconvenience needing recompense. But as the prestige of being an MP grew, so payment became purposeless. Moreover the late 18th century advent of the ethos of aristocratic public duty epitomised by Pitt the Younger reinforced the aversion to payment that persisted into the Victorian era.

The campaigns for wider Parliamentary reform re-ignited calls for MPs to be paid. In 1780 the Westminster Reform Association suggested paying MPs and in 1830 the Marquis of Blandford proposed restoring payment of MPs at £2 a day (£125.19 in today’s money) for borough MPs and £4 for county MPs. The radical tradition, begun by the Levellers of advocating paying MPs was resurrected by the Chartists who included it as one of the six points of the People’s Charter. However the Parliamentary debates on Chartist petitions focussed on universal manhood suffrage or annual Parliaments.

The main reason advanced for introducing payment was, as Thomas Attwood said in 1839, to have ‘that class of men introduced into the House, men of that station and character which would enable them to be competent representatives of the wants and wishes of the Commons of England.’ This concern grew as the franchise expanded after 1867. In 1870 Peter Taylor, Liberal MP for Leicester, proposed restoring the payment of MPs. Alongside the importance of helping working men into Parliament, he emphasised the historical precedent of payment; its near universality in other countries’ legislatures; how it would put MPs on a par with other professions and with ministers who were already paid. These arguments remained the staple justifications through a series of debates up to 1911.

Surprisingly, mid-Victorian liberals/radicals ranging from utilitarian John Stuart Mill to High Churchman William Gladstone opposed payment. In Mill’s case it flowed from his fear of the tyranny of the majority and the promotion of demagoguery. He worried that paying MPs would undermine their independence. In 1870 Gladstone argued that paying MPs would be insufficient to increase working class representation because the mainly working class electorate preferred wealthier candidates.

There was comparatively little explicit social snobbery in the debates, although Viscount Bury did claim that paying MPs would mean a:

class of representatives would be introduced who would not be drawn from the highest, best-educated, and best-cultivated class of the community, but from the ranks below that class.

Some of the opposition resonates with contemporary concerns about professional politicians and the cost to the taxpayer. Other arguments reflected self-confidence in the superiority of the British Parliament, mingled with criticism of corrupt foreign, particularly American, politics. In 1904 Ian Malcolm, MP for Stowmarket in Suffolk, declared:

He had paid a certain amount of attention to the Parliaments of Europe and he did not think that the House of Commons had anything to learn from them. The Mother of Parliaments was in the proud position of having taught them everything, and he should be extremely sorry to see in the House of Commons the scenes which he had seen in almost every Parliament in Europe.

There were also concerns that paying MPs would destroy the tradition of unpaid public service, and that the amounts discussed were really too small to have an effect.

Further enfranchisement in 1884 seemingly reconciled Gladstone to payment, which he cautiously endorsed in 1888. The issue became decidedly partisan, predominantly supported by Liberal MPs (as official government policy from 1893), and opposed by Conservatives. Meanwhile Irish Home Rule MPs were provided with basic salaries by their supporters. Trade unions replicated this by subsidising MPs in the 1890s and 1900s, culminating in the Labour Representation Committee begun in 1904. To opponents this showed that compulsory payment was unnecessary; to supporters it exposed the underlying unfairness of non-payment. As today, supporters argued that the increased workload for MPs, thanks to increased legislation and greater interaction with constituents’ necessitated reform.

In line with other Parliamentary reforms it was party politics which settled the matter. The Osborne Judgment, a judicial ruling which banned political contributions by trade unions, infuriated the Labour party. The Liberal government of Asquith, lacking a Parliamentary majority after 1910, decided to placate Labour anger by introducing the payment of members in 1911 (ministers had hitherto pleaded lack of money to avoid reform). Yet reform was instituted cautiously. MPs would only be paid only £400. Lloyd George argued this was equal to a junior clerk in the civil service. He even called the payment ‘not even a salary. It is just an allowance’. The difficulty that distinction poses is still being grappled with over a century later.


For more on the Levellers, see Philip Baker‘s blogs on The Agreements of the PeopleRecording speech at the Putney Debates, and Dr Stephen Roberts‘ on Col. Thomas Rainborowe.

For more on the Chartists, Dr James Owen of the Victorian Commons on ‘The People’s Charter and the Victorian Commons

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