By Paul Seaward - 23rd November 2009
As Westminster scrambles to agree on lasting and equitable reform of expenses, Paul Seaward writes for The House Magazine about the origins of MPs' remuneration.
Paying for politicians has been a touchy subject since the Middle Ages.
From the earliest recognisable Parliaments, constituencies were expected to pay an allowance to the men they sent up to represent them.
At the close of each Parliament, the royal bureaucracy would issue Members with a document ordering the local authorities to pay up.
The first of these documents, known as writs de expensis, are known from 1258. In 1327 the amount was fixed at four shillings per day for county Members, and two shillings per day for borough Members, plus an allowance for travelling time.
The sums involved could mount up, especially for constituencies a long way from London or as economic difficulties made it genuinely hard to raise the money.
Parliamentary wages became a regular cause of litigation between those who had been elected and those who represented them. Many boroughs would bargain with their representatives for lower wages. In the 16th century Great Yarmouth was paying part of the wages of its members in fish.
Powerful and ambitious men offered to take on the role without payment, and the practice of paying wages began to decay. In counties it had almost died out by the end of the 16th century; in cities and boroughs it was to all intents and purposes defunct by the end of the 17th.
The typical Member of Parliament by the 17th century was a member of the local gentry, often with aristocratic connections, who lived off the rents he received from his land, and had plenty of leisure to spend time on politics in London.
There were reasons to regret the loss of the close link between the politician and his constituents.
The poet and satirist, Andrew Marvell, who as Member for Hull in the 1660s and 1670s was one of the last to receive wages, felt obliged to write long letters to the city's mayor and corporation describing parliamentary business, and his progress in pursuing matters of interest to them.
The naval bureaucrat and diarist Samuel Pepys, dining in 1668 with a group of businessmen and lawyers, agreed that the old system had meant that MPs "understood their business and would attend it, and they could expect an account from"; but that since its decline, Parliament had "become a company of men unable to give account for the interest of the place they serve for".
By the 1690s, demand for places in Parliament was so high that instead of paying their Members, many people in towns were receiving money or gifts from them, as bribes for votes.
Within a century of Marvell's death, people were talking about reviving the system of payment. It was partly a reaction to the way governments built up support within Parliament by distributing jobs, pensions and government contracts among MPs and their associates.
Paid by government, rather than by their constituents, Members were unlikely to take their constituents' interests as seriously as they should.
The reformer Major Cartwright in 1777 called for the reinstatement of parliamentary wages, and radicals included it as part of their package of reforms to make politics cleaner and more representative.
In their 'Six points' of 1838, the Chartists demanded that MPs should receive an annual salary of £500; at the end of every Parliament details of their rate of attendance would be published.
More mainstream reformers, though, were suspicious of paid Members, and thought that only politicians with independent incomes would be truly uncorrupt. John Stuart Mill dismissed the idea in 1861 because "the business of a Member of Parliament would therefore become an occupation in itself; carried on, like other professions, with a view chiefly to its pecuniary returns, and under the demoralising influences of an occupation essentially precarious".
"It would become an object of desire to adventurers of a low class."
Gladstone argued that it was unnecessary because so many were willing to serve without payment.
After the third Reform Act of 1884, however, the number of Members without independent means or a profession rose steadily. CS Parnell's Irish party provided a basic salary for 44 of its members in 1886-90. Some working class MPs received a salary from their Unions, and after 1904 the Labour Representation Committee began to support its Members with an annual salary of £200.
The payment of Members had been adopted by the National Liberal Federation of 1891. In 1893 the Liberal government finally announced its conversion to the idea and promised to legislate in due course. "In due course" turned out to be years.
Only after the Osborne Judgement of 1909 – a decision in the House of Lords against trades unions' use of the political levy which rendered their support from Members illegal – was anything finally done about it. But it remained highly controversial.
In 1911, introducing his motion for an annual payment of £400, the chancellor, David Lloyd George, chose not to describe the payments as salary: "It is purely an allowance to enable us to open the door to great and honourable public service."
The scheme's opponents regarded it as an insidious corruption of Parliament.
One complained about the "violation of the principle of gratuitous public service". Payment, wrote another, "attracts the very worst class that a country can be governed by – the caucus-fed professional politicians. Log-rolling and corruption are the inevitable corollary".
The real impact was less lurid. A Conservative MP wrote in 1925 that "we have not yet produced a race of 'professional politicians', partly because the payment is so small, but chiefly because the idea is so abhorrent to our people".
At first covering office and travel costs, as well as living expenses, and eroded in value by wartime inflation, the sum was barely adequate.
After the Second World War, though, the idea that Members of Parliament might treat politics as a full-time job seemed more acceptable, and the pressure for a more appropriate salary grew stronger.
The 1964 Lawrence committee initiated a series of increases in the scope and variety of allowances, and the Top Salaries Review Body report of 1971 recognised that a Member's job could be full-time, and ought to be paid on that basis. With the 1971 report, the modern history of MPs' pay begins.
Paul Seaward is director of the History of Parliament Trust.
This article first appeared in this week's edition of The House Magazine, which is now available.
A longer version of this article will appear in Political Quarterly in January