How lucky am I? On a scale of one to 10, I’d say I’m pretty high up there. I live in Suffolk in a house that began life as a manor house, had a tough century or two as a farm house, and got lucky in 1920, when my husband’s cousin restored it to a manorial style. Modest manorial. No moat. No grand rooms.
The cousin who bought Wyken returned from the First World War determined to buy the farming estate he had dreamt of in the trenches. He then farmed at a loss for the next 25 years. Like many country landowners, Frank Heilgers was also an MP, representing Bury St Edmunds for 13 years. Conservative. Unopposed. He died in 1944 in a train crash when travelling up to London from his constituency, which also happened to be his home.
Westminster looms large in my husband’s family tree. John Bright, Quaker, British Radical, Liberal Statesman, apostle of Free Trade and MP for Durham (six years) and Birmingham (30 years) is on the other limb of the tree. His sister, Priscilla Bright, married Duncan McLaren, MP for Edinburgh (1865–81), and father of three sons, all of whom became MPs, including his eldest son Charles. His son, Henry Duncan McLaren, also an MP, was my husband’s grandfather.
Then there’s my husband. MP for Lincoln 1979–97. A marginal seat he won 30 years ago by 600 votes, defeating the sitting MP, Margaret Jackson, soon to be Beckett, who, over the next 18 years, never so much as said ‘Howdy’ when passing him in the Central Lobby. But that’s another story. This one is about my good luck. Because I married an MP in the good old days before the expenses system was concocted as a way of avoiding paying the kind of salary needed to run a second home.
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There but for fortune, I might be in the news for having bought a Robert’s radio for the one-bedroom flat we rented from the cathedral in Lincoln. Or William Morris’s Willow Bough curtains I bought from the Co-op in Lincoln for the sitting room. When our son outgrew his cot that was next to our bed, we put a single bed in the sitting room. The dog slept on the sofa. The MP for Lincoln’s pedigree may have been Tory Grandee, but the flat in the constituency resembled a don’s first rooms. We loved it.
In the olden days, of course, MPs weren’t paid at all, which meant that only men who were financially able could serve their country politically. When salaries began in 1911—£400 a year it was a great step forward for democracy. No one could have predicted that, 100 years on, it would turn into a tawdry mess. There are many things about this debacle that make me cringe. It is a distraction from a war where our troops are dying.
A distraction from unemployment figures that are catastrophic for the people behind the numbers. A distraction from the vast sums still being sucked up by the banks and bankers who are also on the taxpayers’ payroll. But what troubles me most is this: the revelations in the Daily Telegraph show a country deeply divided. Labour and Conservative MPs are jointly rapacious, equally committed to going the whole hog and collecting their expenses as the ersatz salary that it is, but there’s no denying that the Conservatives have a different style of expenditure: paddocks, tennis courts, moats, Agas and gardeners. No matter how you look at it, the list is ‘excessive’ and ‘luxurious’ and there is no health in it.
The expenses drama will pass. MPs will pay back money they should never have taken and, if common sense prevails, a cross-party consensus will agree to a 10% reduction in MPs 646 is a ridiculous number and agree to a 20% pay increase with no expenses (not even those nice first-class train vouchers that shield them from reality). They need to do this now. Greed is a rank and sturdy weed, but so is piety. We need to pull both out at the roots. Democracy needs tending, and, if we forget that, we all forget just how lucky we are.