Shuffle closer, dear reader, and prepare to benefit from the wisdom of my experience. We all understand experience, don’t we? Experience is the product of what you’ve done in your past. Paths trodden, people met, hurdles leapt and trials passed. But wait! Experience is also the now. You can buy an experience to experience today!
Of course, there has always been more than one meaning of the word “experience”. This isn’t etymologically unusual. A “lift” is both an elevator and a boost – similar, but not the same. There are countless examples. What has happened in recent days is a worrying confusion between the two meanings of experience and, remarkably, it’s arisen in that bastion of clear thinking and straight talking, the House of Commons.
David Cameron, in defence of our MPs (struggling by on £67,000 a year, paid through taxation) having second jobs, said that limiting people to a single role would rob the House of vital experience. Sir Peter Tapsell went so far as to suggest that banning the experience brought about by second jobs would lead to a House of Commons filled with “obsessive crackpots” or “those who are unemployable elsewhere”.
I’m all in favour of MPs having experience. If they’ve done something other than work in politics, it certainly would help them to understand the country better. Before they commit to serving the public as an elected representative on nearly triple the average salary, experience of something else would be very useful. They can then apply this experience to the challenges they face in their new role.
But working for another organisation at the same time as you’re doing one very important job is a quite different thing. Newly retiring Sir Malcolm Rifkind is on the board of Alliance Medical, earning £60,000 a year for attending 10 meetings. Alliance Medical recently won a contract from the government to provide scanning services in the NHS. Its bid was £7m more than the public NHS provider’s bid. But it won. I’m in no way suggesting Sir Malcolm could possibly have influenced this process, although as a paid advisor to Alliance, he must have been jolly pleased with the outcome. He’s paid to be happy about this. What about his constituents, who pay his £67,000 MP salary? Is it good for them? Or is this situation, which the PM labels “experience”, a waste of money and a clear and obvious conflict of interest? Never mind. Experience is a good thing, you see! That hugely valuable trait we should be delighted to find in our MPs.
And here is where the word “experience” trips us up. Rifkind is having an experience at Alliance Medical – it’s happening right now. How the experience he’s going through at Alliance might inform his work as an MP is rightly troubling. The concurrency of this experience makes it entirely different to potentially beneficial experience born of past work. One day, he may look back on this time and consider himself wiser for the experience. At the moment, it just plain stinks.
And our deeply worried friend Sir Peter himself isn’t bringing “experience” in the traditional sense of having faced challenges that would help him to empathise with his constituents’ travails. It transpires he’s having an experience too, although he forgot to mention it at the time. The undoubtedly joyful experience of earning £30,000 a year advising a Japanese bank for 10 hours each month.
So while we might welcome MPs with experience, we should be very wary of any who are having a well-paid experience right now. And particularly of those who deliberately confuse the two.