Corrupt Burke and ‘Incorruptible’ Robespierre

Unlike our loudmouthed media, I’m not unduly bothered about MPs’ second jobs. It’s their first jobs that give me sleepless nights (or would, if sleeping pills weren’t available).

“Yes, Burke is an extraordinary man. His stream of mind is perpetual” Dr Johnson

Still, the word ‘corruption’ is reverberating through Westminster air. People are shocked that our MPs like to augment their salaries with outside income, and they aren’t always particular about its source.

Any lack of scruples is lamentable, as are real conflicts of interest, but the desire to moonlight is understandable. British MPs make just under £82,000 a year, equal to $111,000 US (a US congressman gets $174,000). Considering the expensive, two-home life they are called upon to lead, that sum isn’t as princely as it may sound to some of us.

The desire to supplement it is consistent with human nature. And, if we follow Socrates’s advice –  know thyself – perhaps we’ll find that holding that aspiration against our parliamentarians smacks of hypocrisy.

Few of us, I suspect, would refuse to accept thousands of pounds for merely introducing an ambitious chap, even one talking funny, to some of our colleagues. We may want to hold our representatives to more stringent standards of probity than we hold ourselves, but that’s presuming too much on human goodness.

Yet every time an MP of one party is found to be making a bit too much on the side, the other party whips up a storm of moral indignation. The current storm is only now beginning to abate, with Parliament passing a largely meaningless law after much bilateral mud-slinging and horse-trading.

The new law says that second jobs should “be within reasonable limits and should not prevent them [MPs] from fully carrying out their range of duties”.

The wording strikes me as rather imprecise, leaving room for many profitable loopholes. What limits are reasonable? Is the proposed weekly limit of 10-20 hours an MP will be allowed to spend on outside work reasonable or unreasonable?

What if, for the sake of argument, he spends a mere five hours a week trying to push through a bigger defence budget that would benefit his client Vickers? Or a wider vaccination programme that would benefit his client Pfizer? Isn’t that a greater conflict of interest than another MP spending 30 hours a week writing potboilers or composing word puzzles for a fee?

Yes, some of our MPs may indeed be corrupt, as the word is usually understood. But I think it’s rather misunderstood, with an important distinction lost along the way. The distinction is between what I call peripheral and fundamental corruption.

The former is an MP using his position to help himself to a few bob or a few women on the side. Though we may regard such peccadilloes as objectionable or sleazy, they may only jeopardise his own soul, not his country’s.

Fundamental corruption, on the other hand, afflicts the whole political class (if not everyone in it). It’s reducing their day jobs to the sole task of maintaining and increasing their own power. It’s bono publico not just playing second fiddle to bono privato, but not having a chair in the orchestra at all.

It’s debauching the country’s history, morality and founding principles, prostituting her whole civilisation and, as a side effect, destroying her economy by mollifying the thoroughly dumbed-down masses clutching ballot papers in their fists.

It is one Tory PM signing away his country’s sovereignty with a flourish of his pen, another listing his maniacal support for legal homomarriage as his greatest achievement, yet another planning to beggar Britain for the sake of a subversive and unscientific swindle fronted by a hysterical girl with learning difficulties.

And let’s not forget aspiring Labour candidates undertaking to convert Britain from mock-democratic socialism to fully fledged communism. One wishes they took bribes instead.

The comparison in the title illustrates the distinction between peripheral and fundamental corruption. Edmund Burke, one of the greatest parliamentarians of the 18th century, and arguably the greatest political thinker ever, was, by our exacting moral standards, as corrupt as they come. He had no independent means to support his large estate in Beaconsfield and had to hustle for every penny he could get.

It’s useful to remember that in those unsophisticated times sitting in Parliament was generally seen as selfless service, not a lucrative career. MPs weren’t paid (that only changed in 1911), and those without inherited wealth tended to seek careers in business, not politics. Burke was different, and he accepted money for the kind of outside services that today would have his name splattered all over the newspapers’ front pages.

At the same time, Burke acquired renown as a resolute leader and a wise legislator, who served his country with distinction – even if small portions of its treasury stuck to his hands. That reputation didn’t outlive him, but his writings, especially Reflections on the Revolution in France, immortalised Burke’s name.

Writing immediately after the 1789 revolution, before the regicidal Great Terror, Burke predicted it, nailing to the wall the very notion of a revolutionary upheaval. Unfortunately, he thought, wrongly in my view, that the American Revolution was different (“a revolution not made but prevented”). Yet his Reflections remains the standard, and I’d suggest greatest, text of political philosophy, the acme of political wisdom.

Robespierre, on the other hand, acquired the soubriquet of ‘Incorruptible’ when still a provincial solicitor in his native Arras. When he became one of the leaders of the revolution Burke tore to shreds so expertly, Robespierre still didn’t besmirch his reputation with backhanders, conflicts of interest or unauthorised hanky-panky.

He did, however, go down in history as one of its bloodiest tyrants who lit a straight path to evil for his 20th century emulators. While Burke was corrupt peripherally, Robespierre was corrupt fundamentally.

(As an aside, perhaps the greatest Victorian parliamentarian, Disraeli, might have been even more corrupt than Burke. At least, Burke actually bought his estate, while Disraeli received his courtesy of some Tory grandees as a way of giving him more political gravitas. Curiously, while Burke’s estate was in Beaconsfield, Disraeli’s was close to High Wycombe miles away, and yet his title was the Earl of Beaconsfield.)

Oh if only our MPs had one tenth of Burke’s political integrity, sagacity and talent for statesmanship. If only they limited themselves to taking the odd bribe or the odd woman – without doing to the country what they do to their paramours.  

5 thoughts on “Corrupt Burke and ‘Incorruptible’ Robespierre”

  1. I fear all democracies are corrupt. As you have pointed out many times, it is the system itself, which is why it rarely elevates anyone worthy. There has been talk of term limits for congressmen as far back as I can remember, but nothing ever comes of it. Our president is limited to two terms, but the corrupt law-makers, once in office, are rarely voted out and far outstay their welcome.

    Since before I was old enough to vote I have thought a limit of two terms seems reasonable (if for the president, why not for other offices?). I have also thought that salary and “benefits” should never be a reason to go into politics. Remove both. Pay to be commensurate with the job held prior to holding office, with travel and other incurred expenses paid as well. The job temporarily left behind should be available again at the end of term.

    Congressmen are not above us, they are our (public) servants. There is no need for private clubs, private healthcare (for life!) and such. Imagine a current member driving his car from California to Washington D.C. The original members (and president) rode horses, in winter, from their home state to their office. (Picture the “leader of the free world” astride his horse, head and shoulders covered with snow, while waiting aboard a hand-drawn ferry to cross the Potomac river.) While all were human and not above some level of corruption, they did not “run” for office, they “stood” as nominated by someone else and generally seemed to understand “service”.

    Ah, well. Progress.

  2. Well you can throw the Biden clan in the fundamental category. If only the media were curious about son Hunter’s laptop, or his daughter’s diary with their chilling insights to a truly reprehensible creature.

  3. I can well imagine that Burke did not have to engage with a hunt and snipe press and tabloid journalism that sought the slightest mistake or weakness or perceived mistake or weakness. Politicians of yore would not fare so well today?

  4. Another point wrt Burke—he got his political start courtesy of the infamous ‘rotten boroughs’ (Wendover, 1765–74). That a ‘rotten borough’ gave a start to someone regarded as one of our greatest parliamentarians suggests they had their merits—perhaps allocate a dozen or so seats to be won by public auction? Outside of MPs able to buy a seat themselves, I’d rather a few MPs openly represented, say, British Aerospace and Pfizer than ministers dish out government contracts to be later rewarded with non-executive directorships.

    wrt MP salaries, they’re on over 2½ times UK median, which should be enough for anyone—but it’s little more than pocket money given their *extremely* generous expenses.

    For 646 years (longer, if counting Parliament’s antecedents, the Saxon Witan and Moot), Westminster’s only salaried MPs were Crown Ministers. Introducing salaries:
    • turned a patriotic service into a mere job and get-rich quick scheme
    • removed the need for talent at least sufficient to maintain themselves
    • turned Crown’s subjects into Parliament’s cash-cows
    And we had better MPs unpaid than ever since—who now compares to such as Mill and Burke, Pitt (Younger), Palmerston and Salisbury?

    (Although Crown ministers received remuneration (and generous too—the Ministerial Salaries factsheet from the HoC Information Office records the First Lord of the Treasury (PM) receiving £5k in 1830, which the BoE’s inflation calculator says is equivalent to over £½m today), there were far fewer than in today’s ever-growing governmental leviathan, and had to be MPs first so barrier to entry remained.)

    Whenever I air notion of returning to those unsalaried days, the first objection is usually to being ruled by the rich, an idea anathema in the socialist West. However, while insisting it is better to be ruled by a man of means with ability and integrity than a working man with neither, it is possible we had at least as many ‘men of the people’ with unsalaried MPs as we do now. Browsing the MP biographies on the History of Parliament website turns up many an MP far from the ‘idle rich’ they are oft accused of being, from former Sergeant Major and Radical MP William Cobbett to MPs who had very interesting second jobs such as Admiral Thomas Cochrane (inspiration for C.S. Forester’s Hornblower) who led daring expeditions against Buonaparte’s forces in the Med while representing Westminster (1807–18) and an Irishman of no great wealth who represented in turn the constituencies of Rye, Mitchell, then Newport (Isle of Wight) from 1806 to 1809, during which period he participated in the Danish campaign before being placed in command of the Peninsular expedition in 1808, his Commons career only ending with his elevation to the Lords: Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington.

    And disappointing how many self-identified ‘Right’ complain about MPs having second jobs, preferring they beaver away daily, legislating and regulating every aspect of our existence. The role of MP *should* be p/t, outside of emergencies. Like Plato’s ‘Ship of State’—the government should be a captain ensuring a steady course, not breathing down everyone’s necks and turning the ship upside down and inside out every 5 minutes.

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