During my illustrious career as one of Her Majesty’s ministers, an incident occurred that senior public servants still talk about over lunch at the Canberra Club in hushed tones and with a sharp drawing-in of breath. What happened was that one of the leading mandarins announced, as if he were Archimedes having just discovered a new truth, that I was the worst minister he had ever had the misfortune to work with. This revelation had come about as the result of some piece of apostasy of which I had been guilty, such as why the government was always wasting money on things the people did not want, why it employed so many public servants who did not do anything or why its so-called vision was never equalled by achievement.
Apparently, I also knew too much; I asked too many questions; and I read too many books. It was this last quality that made me a marked man, for if there is one thing the public service cannot stand in a minister, it is being well-read and hence too clever to be fooled. After all, public servants love a minister who would sign his own death warrant if placed in front of him, without even reading it.
I was thinking of this the other day, while reflecting on the criticism of MPs over their expenses and in particular the abuse aimed at some of the more erudite ones for buying books with their electorate allowance; I was thinking just how right the criticism was. When you think about it, it is a very dangerous trend for MPs to have access to books and more so to encourage them by paying for the books they want to buy. Why, if that sort of practice takes hold, they might read more and learn something about the great heroes of the past, the noble political and military figures who stood up for principles and did not bend to every passing fad or whim. If they read more, they might also learn some history, about what binds nations together and helps them become prosperous and defeat their enemies; they might learn the great lesson of Mrs Thatcher that ‘in all the great movements of history, very few people would have rallied to a flag that had inscribed on it: “I stand for consensus”.’ They might learn something about the human condition from the great works of literature and the human dramas of Shakespeare and they would certainly learn more about politics and government from the brilliant novels of Trollope than they would from an hour of whinging and sneering from the lynch-mob of a Q&A audience.
They might even do something to restore the sad loss of humour, satire and irony in politics if they read S.J. Perelman or J.P. Donleavy. They might read political biographies and learn how great politicians of the past did great things for their people. They might learn why institutions like marriage, the Church, the Crown and the law exist and have been building blocks for successful peoples down the ages and it might even encourage them to do more to defend those institutions rather than jumping on bandwagons to undermine them at every turn.
In other words, if they read more books, they would be better members of parliament and be better armed with knowledge, wit and charm. Just as importantly, they would be better prepared, especially if they are Ministers, to prevent themselves being duchessed by public servants. So you can see the danger in MPs spending our money on books. It would make them better MPs and certainly better informed. If I had my way, I would double their book allowance and make it compulsory for them to buy and read one book a month at the public expense and build up a library. The only beneficiaries of this reform would be the people.
Also, if there is one thing worse than reading a book, it is writing one, as it shows that some politicians like Mr Abbott are actually thinking about issues and ideas and, by promoting their books, are committing themselves to actual policies and thus strengthening the role of the MP. The danger, of course, is that instead of being automatons relying on handouts, bromides written by think tanks, executive summaries from focus groups and politically correct drivel from the Age and the ABC, they would be provoking themselves, their colleagues and the reading public to think for themselves. So I would make the promotional tours of author-statesmen not only a legitimate expense but a compulsory one. But clearly you cannot have MPs with free thinking practices running lose around the parliament and making real decisions on policy.
It is the same with travel. If MPs spent more of their time and our money on travel, they might learn more about other countries, why the USA is so fundamentally prosperous and powerful, the Chinese so entrepreneurial, how the Israelis survive although surrounded, or how a country with no resources like Singapore can be so rich. Even if they are travelling at home to weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs, they might meet some normal people and get a better picture of what people really want and need. They might even learn to stand up to public servants. Message to all MPs: spend more on books and travel. Please. In the national interest.
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