In his brilliant autobiography, The Time of My Life, Denis Healey described his experience of fighting in the Second World War. He went on to worry about the lack of experience of the wider world on the part of career politicians. He expressed concern that if our politicians had not had experience of work, business or armed/public service, their perspective on the world would be not only limited, but dangerous. Put briefly: if you haven’t experienced the reality of war (on the battlefield), you will be more ready to declare war.
I was reminded of this when I heard on the radio a suggestion (by Tony Benn, admittedly) that MPs’ terms of office should be limited to, say, two or three parliaments. The current problems, he suggested, were partly attributable to career politicians being out of touch and losing their perspective of how life is for those they are there to serve. They lack credibility among the population because they lack experience of the world most of us inhabit. (I am generalising to make the point.)
Of course, the same could be said of bishops. I am grateful in retrospect that I worked for as many years as I studied before being ordained. (During those working years – which included jobs in Germany and France – I also had a civilian involvement in several wars.) Having been ordained, I served in parochial ministry for thirteen years in four very different contexts before becoming an archdeacon and then, later, bishop. I cannot look at the world (or the church) other than through a lens shaped by my earlier experiences. Most clergy are now in this same position, having worked before being ordained. So, I take Healey’s point.
Surely MPs should have experienced more than Oxford and Westminster. I don’t know how this can be made to work, but wouldn’t it be helpful all round if MPs had to have worked for, say, five years before being eligible for election to Parliament? Should a limit on service be enforced, with provision made for exceptional people to be able to make a wider contribution thereafter? This would require a re-think of the whole parliamentary ‘package’ – including the role and constitution of the second chamber – and would demand that MPs were better paid and more highly regarded for the work they do.
This also means that the electorate should consider what sort of person they wish to elect to public office and what experience they think that person should bring to bear on their service. Questions of the worldview (and how it has been shaped) of MPs is rarely addressed directly; we rarely dig deep enough to expose the veins of philosophical assumptions underlying their political views and priorities because to do so would appear ‘academic’ or arcane.
Maybe it is time to start digging.