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19 January 2022

From the NS archive: The salary of the prime minister

22 June 1929: The poor man of Downing Street.

By New Statesman

For the New Statesman to call for an increase to the salary of the prime minister might seem an unusual position for it to take. In this editorial, however, the writer suggests that the relatively paltry prime ministerial remuneration reflected poorly on the nation. The PM was expected to pay for all entertaining related to his position and to keep 10 Downing Street in good order from his salary. However, he was paid less than the lord layor of London, the attorney general and our ambassadors in Washington, DC and Paris. “At the very least we can afford to give him in addition to his ordinary salary £10,000 a year (free, of course, of income-tax) for entertainment expenses,” believes the writer. Unless the incumbent were an independently rich man, the PM was unable to offer “that social and political hospitality which a Prime Minister should be able to offer”, and foreign dignitaries would “have to be asked to tea (as it were) instead of to dinner”.

The question of the Prime Minister’s salary is one of real public urgency. It is a question which the new Government will naturally be rather shy of tackling, but upon which nevertheless is it necessary to speak very plainly. It ought to have been dealt with by the last Government, as has been strongly suggested in these columns on several occasions during the past four years. But nothing has been done. The present position is altogether absurd. Everybody knows this. Everybody knows, that is to say, that an income of £5,000 a year – which when income-tax and super-tax have been deducted is not much more than £3,500 – is utterly inadequate for the proper upkeep under present conditions of such a house as the Prime Minister’s official residence at No 10 Downing Street. It is hardly more than enough to pay for bare living expenses and the wages and food of the necessarily large staff of male and female servants.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, if he occupies No 11 Downing Street, is not in a much better case. He has less entertaining to do, and by strict economy may just contrive to keep his expenditure inside his income; but to do that he must be as careful and grudging about his household budget as he very properly is about the national budget. But as for the Prime Minister next door, he cannot possibly make both ends meet unless he has considerable private means or a private sustenation fund. Mr Baldwin is a rich man and so was Mr Bonar Law. But out of the last seven English Prime Ministers at least three have required private financial assistance – which is not only obviously undesirable from every point of view, but is derogatory of the dignity of what is the greatest office and position in the world. (For a British Prime Minister, by virtue of our constitution and of our Parliamentary system, holds in his own hands more power even than a President of the United States, and of course infinitely more than a French or German President or Premier.)

The Prime Minister’s salary was fixed in days when £5,000 a year placed the recipient, even if he had not private means, on a temporary level with the richest men in the country. Today, lacking private subventions it is actually insufficient to pay for even that almost compulsory minimum of entertainment which it is the duty of the head of the Government to offer. The Attorney-General gets well over £20,000 nowadays, and the Solicitor-General about £16,000; the British Ambassador in Paris about £8,000 or £10,000, and the Ambassador in Washington £18,000. The Lord Mayor of London gets £10,000 for entertainment expenses. Yet the tax-free income of the Prime Minister is only about £8,500, out of which he has to pay all the costs of keeping up a great London house!

Such a position is obviously absurd. The Prime Minister of England ought never to have to think about money in connection with the duties of travel and hospitality which he is called upon to perform. The very minimum annual sum upon which the Prime Minister can be expected to entertain as he should and often must entertain at 10 Downing Street is about £15,000 a year. He ought really to have £20,000 a year at his disposal; and his next-door neighbour at No 11 ought to have not less than £10,000. As things stand, the President of the Board of Trade has exactly the same salary as the Prime Minister. The one, has no need to entertain, can probably save something against a rainy day if he chooses to do so. The other is bound either to get heavily into debt or else to neglect some of the most important duties and responsibilities appertaining to his position.

Something must be done about this and ought to be done at once. The Prime Minister should at the very least be the most highly paid servant of the Crown. If he had even the salary and expenses allowance of the the British Ambassador in Washington he would be able to do his duty without borrowing and without impoverishing himself. At the very least we can afford to give him in addition to his ordinary salary £10,000 a year (free, of course, of income-tax) for entertainment expenses. In present circumstances no man who has not large private means can possibly afford to live at 10 Downing Street and offer that social and political hospitality which a Prime Minister should be able to offer.

Such a position is obviously anomalous, indeed worse than anomalous because it means that the Prime Minister cannot even receive foreign guests in the manner in which they are entitled to expect to be received. They have to be asked to tea (as it were) instead of to dinner. That is not an exaggerated statement of the case. It is quite literally true. And it implies a degree of humiliation which affects England no less than it affects her Prime Minister. We can afford to pay our Prime Minister properly. Why do we not do it?

The answer to that question of course is that ministers always hesitate to discuss the problem or to propose any increase in their own emoluments. Their habitual modesty in this respect may in some respects be worthy of admiration but it is not sense. The Prime Minister ought to have £20,00o a year at his disposal for the “proper execution of his duties”. The proposal should of course have come from Mr Baldwin, because he could have brought it forward without incurring the suspicion of seeking anything for himself. It was suggested to him. But he lacked either the time or the generosity to deal with the matter. Now it must be dealt with by the new Government regardless of the sneers which such a proposition might arouse. In point of fact we do not believe there would be any sneers, either in the House of Commons or in the press. The necessity is so very plain. At any rate, we cannot imagine that any reasonable proposal on this subject be would be opposed either by the Liberals or by the Conservatives. It would, however, be a very graceful act on the part either of Mr Baldwin or of Mr Lloyd George if one of them would take the initiative in the matter and would propose that the Prime Minister of England should in future, apart from private sustenation funds, be supplied with adequate means to support worthily the greatest office in the world.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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