In the eyes of Plato, a portrait painter whose work bore no resemblance to their subject was guilty of misrepresenting “the nature of gods and heroes.” Oliver Cromwell, in a similar vein, insisted that artists portray him “warts and all.”
Unlike Plato, few would argue David Cameron’s status as either a god or a hero. Indeed, the artist who created Cameron’s first official portrait in 2009 alluded to the “deliberately murky-coloured background from which Cameron is emerging” in his work. The point is that Plato and Cromwell both clearly felt artistic portrayals affect, rather than reflect, the prevailing public wisdom – creating and shaping perceptions of the character and nature of the body politic.
It also seems that Plato’s concern, that the negative portrayal of politics would instigate a mass decline in popular opinion of politics, was proven correct. What he may not have ventured was that politicians would be so willing to bend and break to the unfortunate narrative of politicians as corrupt and unscrupulous.
Nick Clegg’s condemnation of those seeking higher pay for MPs as “living on a different planet” can be explained by an unwillingness to face up and argue against negative opinions of politics, and has been sustained by little else other than short-sighted self-survival. It is not, as Clegg claimed, “potty” for MPs to receive more than the £65,738 they currently receive.
What is difficult to understand is those such as the ‘Angry Young Man’ rent-a-quote Owen Jones, who argue MPs pay should be slashed. A YouGov poll found 60% of the population are in agreement. Jones points towards the salaries of jobs such as the “hospital nurses, lorry drivers, ticket inspectors and parking attendants”, comparisons that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority report also cited when published last week.
It may be an unfashionable take given trust in our parliament fell to new depths in 2012, with less than a quarter of people tending to trust the UK parliament to make important decisions, but politics does a lot of very important things – and therefore so do MPs. The 650 or so people that decide where our hospitals should be built, what should be taught in schools, whether we go to war and how much money we should pay in tax make very important decisions indeed. Certainly more important than the £158,000 paid to Anthony O’Sullivan for running Caerphilly council, or the 1,000 head teachers in the UK earning over £100,000 a year.
The irony is that as the reputation of those engaged in politics reaches an ever lower ebb, MPs have never before worked longer hours, or harder for their constituents. The hours necessary to act as an effective representative in parliament- scrutinising the work of the government and the laws it creates- while also acting as a glorified social worker for thousands of constituents, are long enough that one in three MPs say they have considered quitting because of the pressure on their families.
Despite this, people have little knowledge of the day-to-day work of MPs, a vacuum filled by narratives of political incompetency that have grown in ferocity, speed and vacuousness since Sally Bercow learnt how to hashtag. Whereas New Labour politicians such as Peter Mandelson felt it within their power to shift and alter public opinion and media coverage, and believed in their ability to ‘create the truth’, politicians in 2012 have never been more fearful and cowed by the opinions of the Twitterati. The truth that MPs earn peanuts compared to their international counterparts – with members of Congress receiving the equivalent of £105,000, and Japanese MPs receiving the equivalent in Yen of up to £215,000 – is an unfortunate one that must be masked by a vigorous, public verbal lambasting for anyone who says so.
Such information is viewed by those in power as impossible for the British public to digest, when they are fed an unbalanced diet of politics-bashing that would give Gillian McKeith’s face another turn for the worse. Politicians are accused by some of being as popular as McKeith and her brand of pseudo-nutritionism, or as bland as her range of organic shelled hemp seeds. Yet just as you are what you eat, you get what you pay for.
Though Plato once said “the greatest wealth is to live content with little”, so who’s counting?
Alan Wager is a recent graduate of the University of Nottingham’s School of Politics & IR. He is hoping to pursue a PhD with the School’s Centre for British Politics from September. This piece originally appeared on The Huffington Post blog.