Never work for a liberal boss
. . . on MPs’ wages, Sunday newspapers and being too soft on oldies
''Why the hell should I take this any longer for £64,000 a year?" an unnamed MP asks the Observer rhetorically. By "this", he or she means the lack of respect and frequent abuse that, following the expenses scandal, has replaced the fawning flattery to which MPs are accustomed. So upset are MPs that, the Observer predicts, some 200 will not stand at the next election. Poor dears.
But I am afraid all this whining deepens the hole into which MPs have dug themselves. They do not seem to understand that even Observer readers will mostly regard £64,000 as a handsome annual wage, particularly when combined with generous pensions. The median national wage is around £25,000 (no expenses) and, even with an unwaged partner, no additional income and two dependent children, an MP will be better off than 78 per cent of the population. If the partner were a working teacher with six years' experience, the family would have a higher income than 93 per cent of households; just 30 hours weekly on the minimum wage would move it into the top 14 per cent.
MPs do not have a clue how most of the country lives. This is because they rub shoulders with a well-paid metropolitan coterie of PRs, lobbyists, lawyers, financiers, consultants, civil servants, broadcasters and journalists. Almost every member of the Commons is at least partially complicit in the development of a society where the few are so much better off than the many. Instead of trying to put this right, MPs strive to pull themselves up into the elite.
One of the few who can be exempted from such strictures is Ed Miliband, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary. As regular readers will know, I believe his modest personal demeanour and even more modest expenses qualify him to make a principled ministerial resignation that would inspire admiration and secure him a place in the history books. Now the Mail on Sunday reports that he has discussed joining those who plan to quit the Commons at the next election. I fear Miliband has misunderstood: I do not wish him to leave politics, merely to leave this discredited government and raise his standard on the back benches. I do wish he would pay attention.
If the Guardian management truly intends to close the Observer, it has taken leave of its senses. It makes no economic sense to publish a national paper six days a week, but not the seventh. (The Financial Times, with its specialist audience, is an exception.) It would make more sense for the Guardian to stop publishing on Mondays, when its sales are far below those of the Observer.
I suspect the Guardian is playing a little game. There will be prolonged hand-wringing, implausible offers of "rescue", more pompous letters like that in the Sunday Times from A C Grayling, Dylan Jones and other serial signers, and much free publicity for the Observer's "special place" in national life. Then, to universal rejoicing, the paper won't be closed but the number of pages and sections will be cut drastically, along with the staff. This will probably happen in December. As the father of the late critic Philip Hope-Wallace advised: "Never work for a liberal employer, dear boy, they'll sack you on Christmas Eve."
Since I passed 60, I have been entitled to free prescriptions, winter fuel allowances and free off-peak bus travel. If I hang on long enough, I shall qualify for a free TV licence and lower council tax. I shall naturally get a state pension from 65 and, if I continue earning, will not have to pay National Insurance.
Unlike most MPs, I know I am better off than the majority of those with children to support; indeed, poverty is now more common among working families than among pensioners. Moreover, we middle-class oldies tend to live longer than the workers. So these benefits, though defensible on grounds of social solidarity (and administrative cost), don't do much for social justice.
Indeed, like post-18 education before student fees, their effect is regressive. I am, therefore, sympathetic to suggestions that free bus travel, costing £1bn annually, should be reconsidered and at least limited to the genuinely poor. The green arguments strike me as weak. If ministers want to encourage bus travel, they should subsidise it for everybody (preferably not through private companies) rather than for just one group that might otherwise stay at home.
The trouble is that once a benefit for pensioners is introduced, it is almost impossible to withdraw, so numerous are the beneficiaries and so sentimental are the British about old age. Free nationwide bus travel was introduced only in 2008 (previously, we oldies could travel free only locally) but is now regarded as though it were a right enshrined in Magna Carta. The Daily Mail is beside itself with rage at the prospect of the "hard-working middle classes" (as opposed, presumably, to idle, good-for-nothing workers) losing this perk. That is surely sufficient reason to get rid of it.
For years, I have argued that the cosy and uncompetitive nature of county cricket explains why England often crumble in Tests, as they did at Leeds during the fourth and crucial match in this summer's series against Australia. This so irks a man called Stephen Chalke, who writes nostalgic (and, it should be said, very good) biographies of retired county players, that he has instructed his publishers to ban me from receiving future copies of his books. Judging by a leaked dossier he prepared for the Aussies, Justin Langer, the former Australian batsman, now Somerset captain, shares my views. "They [England players] like being friendly and 'matey' because it makes them feel comfortable," he writes. "Take them out of their comfort zone and they don't like it for a second." These comments are supported not just by me, but more importantly by Michael Vaughan, the most successful England captain of recent times.
Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005
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