What is life without liberty?

I find the idea of payment for MPs complicated, but it’s something that will keep rearing its head. My initial reaction to pay-rises always tends to be rather high sounding, mentioning “these straitened times”, “out of touch with the common man” and so on, but it’s actually an issue that rewards digging a bit. As usual, there’s a historical perspective to take in too.

Control over payment for members of parliament has recently moved to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, a body set up (under Brown’s Labour government) in the wake of expenses scandals that vied for coverage alongside the financial meltdown in 2008/9. They have just published their recommendation for parliamentary remunerations, suggesting an increase of of £7000pa alongside a series of other changes to pensions, expenses claims and resettlement payments – calculated together (rather than as a headline of “MP PAY RISE SCANDAL!” (warning, link to Daily Mail) this comes at no extra cost to the public purse. Despite this, it’s been angrily rejected by the three main party leaders, given the pay rise cap for other public sector workers.

The principle is that payment should be sufficient for a man to attend to his duties and not suffer any detriment for doing so. It was one of the six aims of the 1838 People’s Charter, which sought “Payment of Members, thus enabling an honest trades-man, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency; when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the country,” and was finally enacted in the Parliament Act of 1911. Prior to this, national politics was the preserve of the independently wealthy or those with another source of income, which goes a long way to explaining the traditional make-up of the parliamentary groupings when they coalesced into parties in the mid nineteenth century. If you were a landowner or of aristocratic stock, you would likely err towards the Tory/Conservative party; if your wealth was from industry then you would err towards Whig/Liberal politics. If you were a worker wishing to represent your fellows then you would have had to rely on the extremely limited funds of trades unions, hence the virtual absence of any labour-based parliamentary party before the twentieth century.

Over time it seems that the principle of payment so that one could be an MP without vested interests has moved towards the bankers’ bonuses principle, that a good salary has to be available to attract those brightest and best-equipped to be public servants. It’s the same logic the City of London uses to justify paying exorbitant bonuses to high-flying bankers, because it stops them swanning off elsewhere. Whether that’s a legitimate argument or not isn’t really my point here, just that payment for MPs is a lot more complicated than it first appears.

Payment of members makes up a cohesive suite of demands that the Chartists put to government, culminating in the ultimately doomed Kennington Common meeting of 1848. Chartism was particularly strong around the Black Country and has been extensively documented, without any trace of bias (ahem) by George Barnsby. The Chartist march of 14th March 1842 was one of the largest gatherings of its type in the Black Country – the procession moved from Bilston to Wolverhampton to welcome Feargus O’Connor and was just one show of a large scale movement in the region. Chartists.net gives a brief history of the movement in the region, and a roll-call of some its heroes, with charming detail. At the first Walsall NCA, those present included Joseph Craddock, snaffle maker of Wolverhampton Lane; Thos Palmer, saddler of Hill Street; and Richard Hunt, spur-box maker of Baycroft Street, reflecting the towns traditional saddlery industry. The meeting was disrupted by a contingent of anti-corn law protesters.

Dudley became the regional centre for Chartism, particular Gibraltar House, home of Samuel Cook‘s drapery. Born in Trowbridge, apprenticed in Poole and bankrupted in Liverpool, Cook established his draper’s shop in 1819, displaying radical posters in the windows and acting as “the radical conscience of middle-class Dudley.” Elsewhere, Peterborough-born Edwin Scholey was Walsall’s resident dissident, opening his home to sell republican, secular and radical literature – and coffee. One of the most interesting developments in the region was at Great Dodsford, near Bromsgrove, which was bought by O’Connor’s National Land Company for the Chartists’ co-operative land ownership scheme. I don’t know much about the village, and haven’t been, so I’ll leave you with this paper on the subject.

Great Dodsford in 1889. Note the land layout typical of this sort of settlement.
Great Dodsford in 1889. Note the land layout typical of this sort of settlement.

Of the six demands of the People’s Charter, only the call for annual elections hasn’t been met (and I’m not sure that would be a good idea anyway). At least some working men were permitted the vote in 1867, although it wasn’t until 1918 that universal manhood suffrage was achieved – that’s after the Great War mind, when many of those that marched to their fates weren’t even allowed to vote. Secret voting was approved in 1872 and payment for MPs was finally introduced in 1911. So, they got there, but not without a lot of antagonism, disappointment and acrimony. The Black Country isn’t known for its reactionary politics like some other regions; but it certainly played its part in this episode.

3 thoughts on “What is life without liberty?

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