22 JULY 1972, Page 6

A particularly awkward customer

Hugh Macpherson

Mr Willie Hamilton, the West Fife Labour member, is viewed by most Parliamentarians, and particularly by Government ministers, as a particularly awkward customer. There is good reason for this viewpoint and over recent years he has usually been in the midst of some controversy or other. His views on the Monarchy, for example, have produced that rarest of all Parliamentary spectacles, a monocle dropping from an astonished eye, and had Mr St. John Stevas waving Erskine May at the Speaker, like Dr Billy Graham in full cry at Earls Court. Naturally enough such a newsworthy activity has given him a national reputation as a republican, but that is really only the tip of the iceberg. Probably no other backbencher devotes himself so completely to parliamentary activity and over the last couple of years he has conducted personal campaigns on such diverse topics as equal rights for women, the control of private detectives, the development of North Sea Oil, the declaration of members' interests, the abolition of the House of Lords, better conditions for nurses, and the whole sorry business of the way in which the honours system is manipulated. The innocent observer might well imagine that all this activity would make Mr Hamilton a popular figure with his colleagues, but that would be far from the truth. Like any other mismanaged gentleman's club, Westminster is rife with petty jealousies and the West Fife member is often regarded, on his awn side as well as on the Government benches, as a busybody who constantly rocks the boat. Worse still, he grabs the television interviews that they find so elusive. He also has a weekly column in the Scottish Sunday Mail which has a massive circulation in Scotland. This, and his appearances on television, makes him just about the best known backbench MP in Scotland and the only one with a national reputation. Just to rub salt into the wounds, he is also an Englishman in a Scottish constituency.

What he does prove, beyond doubt, is the fact that a backbencher is most effective in influencing the decision-making process when he is a full-time Member of the House. Good arguments are advanced that outside interests widen a member's view of the world, and, as is become more clear, they keep the bank manager happy, too. It is said that a man speaks with authority, say on the shipbuilding industry, when he is actively engaged in management or, for that matter, employed by industry in an advisory capacity as a former trade union officer. But how objective can any MP be, even after he has declared his interest, when he is actively concerned with his bread-earning activities?

When Willie Hamilton's methods of working are examined they show three characteristics which make him just about the most feared backbencher on the political scene. First of all he works far harder than most other members. Admittedly he has the ' advantage ' of living alone (although for many years he nursed an ailing wife) but on several occasions he has sought, when Parliamentary business petered out on a Friday, to raise an adjournment debate. This is every MP's right but one that is seldom exercised since most have departed for their constituencis on a Friday afternoon, and few have speeches already prepared for such an eventuality.

The second characteristic which the Fife member has is the ability to use the communications media. One of the reasons for this is that he is good at it — both as a writer and a television performer. Much of the criticisms directed at him by colleagues come from people who are not good at what is now an essential part of the politician's equipment. By the process of natural selection the day will come soon when members who are not good at communicating will not have the right qualifications for the job, and will make a career in the civil service or some other place where it is a virtue to be tight-lipped. This will become more obvious when the cathode tube Canutes who have opposed the televising of Parliament are finally defeated and the televising of important committees, as well as of the Chamber, become available. Quite apart from that, Mr Hamilton keeps more lines of communication open to the press than any other MP. He is always willing to show what he has done and produce any documents he can reasonably show—then leave it to the judgement of the journalist as to whether it is used or not.

Finally Mr Hamilton has no outside interest to declare. Of course he makes a very substantial living from radio, television and journalism and has a book on the stocks (inevitably about the Royal Family) which opens up the prospect of making him decidedly more comfortable. These, however, are obvious for all who care to read what he writes and he has always declared his willingness to put his earnings on a register of interests. It certainly would be a lengthy entry for, as one whimsical highland MP remarked, when the Fife member fell on the Poulson bankruptcy proceedings like a wolf on the fold: "He'll make so much money out of this issue alone that he will have to declare a special interest every time 'he speaks on it ".

The trouble with Mr Hamilton's views about the role of a backbencher and his business interest is not that they go too far but that they do not go far enough. An obvious solution to the problem of part-time MPs is to pay them a really substantial salary, say E10,000 a year, plus a special children's allowance for the more fecund chaps. They could be given funds for a secretary and provided With a researcher in a comfortable office suite. Then all outside interests would be banned.

There would, of course, be grievous side effects, such as the nation being deprived of the television plays of Mr Maurice Edelman; the splendid ringing tones of Mr Faulds would disappear from the commercials; and companies would have to struggle along' without the excellent advice of former ministers. There would be nothing to stop members investing their capital, but highly reputable bodies such as the Educational Institute of Scotland, who normally have an MP retained in each of the political parties (at one point they had Mr George Thomson on their books), would have to get by on their high repute.

The position would be similar to that of a government minister who is not allowed to practise as a doctor, a lawyer, or a PR man. Far from this proving an inhibition to members as they earnestly sought to expand their horizons, it would be of great assistance — for a substantial travelling allowance could be paid for approved trips to other countries during the recess. At the moment, such jaunts are one of the carrots kept beside the sticks in the Whips' offices. As far as visits to industry, and other essential fact-finding missions, are concerned then members could be given free travelling facilities.

On the question of fees for television or journalism the position of members would be exactly the same as that of ministers and the cheques could be sent to charities.

Should anyone breach this simple code — there would, of course, be a register of interests — then he would be in exactly the same position as any minister of the Crown who did the same. The Speaker could then don his cocked hat and do his worst to them. The main reason why Mr Hamilton is called a busybody is the simple one that he is busy. If there were even a hundred MPs with the same kind of Parliamentary energy then the place would be transformed into something nearer a genuine check on the Executive.