No privacy and no power – there’s no way I’d be an MP

On the day of her well-deserved downfall last week, the MP Julie Kirkbride published an article attempting to explain herself and her expenses. It reminded me of Cherie Blair’s unfortunate comment to the cameras, when tearfully apologising for the episode of the Bristol flats and the conman, saying she had too many mumsy balls in the air to get everything right. Kirkbride, according to her own account, has a vast number of mumsy balls in the air, which explains her high-maintenance requirements, and she is now worried about the millions of working mothers who, like her, might aspire to political office. “What effect,” she asks, “will stories like mine have on mothers who aspire to be MPs?” A very good question. I am sorry to say that some cynics around me have suggested her story is likely to draw mothers into parliament in droves – most of us had not the slightest idea until now that there were such rich pickings for MPs. And we women can count for the time being on tremendous discrimination in our favour. Although it is not likely that a woman MP will any longer be able to get away with such flamboyant expenses claims as Kirkbride’s, all the reforming proposals discussed so far suggest that the Commons is likely to continue to be a nice little earner for a working mother. However, and less cynically, Kirkbride’s question reminded me of one I’ve been asking myself for 20 years – do I want to stand for parliament? Many people have encouraged me to try, including readers; I will add myself to the list of columnists who make this boast. Did I – do I – want to follow in the footsteps of Margaret Thatcher and Betty Boothroyd? There are so many things in public life that I would like to see done and undone. My work has given me countless opportunities to learn and think about such things. But my answer is always, regretfully, no. The first and unfailing reason has to do with privacy, and Kirkbride’s story very much strengthens this reason. It has always been true that MPs must accept a high risk of the loss of privacy. Their private lives are regularly exposed for public entertainment, not necessarily in the public interest. I have the same low tabloid tastes as anyone else and have loved scurrilous stories about honourable members in dishonourable dramas. But it isn’t right to break into people’s private lives without good reason. I’ve always hated the idea of giving up my privacy so much that I’ve had to put aside any political ambitions. It is not that I have many secrets or am particularly consumed with guilt and shame. In fact I rather wish my life had been more outrageous. But everybody has secrets, and not just her own but also the secrets of those close to her – father, mother, cousins, siblings, husband – and secrets that might cause pain. Everybody is entitled to keep secrets within the law until she or he stands for public office. Traditionally in this country there has been some, if not much, respect for the private lives of politicians: now, after the expenses scandal, I suspect there will not. While our frenzied interest in lavatory seats, moats, moles and dirty videos throughout this scandal has been entirely justified, I am afraid it is creating an almost total contempt for privacy that would deter me from standing. The Rev Joanna Jepson, an antiabortion campaigner, demanded last week that the Department of Health reveal information about details of certain late-term abortions, citing the expenses scandal as a justification for this extraordinary breach of privacy. This, I am afraid, will be the first of many justifications to make anything and everything public, for the inspection of the people. We are about to see the deliberate abandonment of privacy in a tragic overreaction to the current scandal. What sensible, sensitive woman, with a couple of innocent secrets, would provoke the interest of the angry masses by contesting a seat? However, even if I weren’t troubled by the loss of privacy, I’ve become increasingly convinced that there is little point in standing for parliament, woman or man, unless one had a good chance of becoming a senior minister – perhaps not even then. Having heard all the fascinating snippets about how MPs spend their time in their constituencies, I am beginning to think they are wasting most of it. What I think an MP should most importantly do – what I would like to do – is to help change the law so that citizens get better government and a great deal less of it. It would mean trying to return to the people freedom and power taken from them, without leaving the needy in need. To do that would mean having a broad and deep understanding of all kinds of complex matters – disability, unemployment, education, health. It means struggling against great opposition to understand the mindsets, prejudices and covert intentions of the various establishments that are actually in charge of these things and how they work. I know as a journalist that this takes years. It is a full-time job in itself and this kind of commitment is necessary to scrutinise legislation, sit on select committees and propose radical reform. MPs simply do not have the time to do it, even if they had the will, the ability and the power. Nor do ministers – for a different reason: they rarely stay in the post for long enough to have any understanding of their subject or ministry. MPs are consumed with parish-pump stuff, helping constituents with local and personal concerns, which other people could and should be doing. Of course constituents ought to bring their concerns to their MPs, but the MP should get involved only when there is some genuine political issue, some serious wrong or something of national interest. Sorting out a squabble with neighbours or getting involved in local ethnic minority disputes is not proper work for MPs. There is also the inbuilt conflict of interest for MPs, between what constituents want (a rescue for the car industry, say) and the national interest. Even if all this were miraculously solved and I, the aspiring Margaret or Betty, were in parliament, there would still be little point in bothering, or in neglecting my children as ferociously as women MPs must. The truth is that the great majority of legislation is not decided in Westminster, anyway. It’s decided in Brussels. Now there’s a thought. And it would be a much nicer little earner, too, with no questions asked.