What are politicians allowed to do after politics?

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 15 January 2016 in Comment

Richard Baker's decision to suddenly quit as an MSP raises questions about what we expect from politicians

Probably the most unusual job I’ve ever had was working as a professional ghost.

It was on one of Edinburgh’s ghost tours. My job was to wait until a group of tourists came round an Edinburgh close and then jump out and scare them, dressed as a skeleton or a dead monk. My job title was ‘jumper-ooter’.

The training was pretty low-key. On your first ‘jump out’, a more experienced member of staff came along with you. If it looked like you were going to get stage fright and freeze, they would physically push you into the path of the group. I don’t know if this ever actually happened but their presence was certainly motivational.

Sketch: The strange case of Jeremy Corbyn's cabinet

Lesley Brennan sworn in as MSP

It was a weird job, but sometimes I think my current job, reporting on Scottish politics, is weirder. It certainly seems to take a special sort to want to become a politician.

This week, we learned that Richard Baker, list MSP for North East Scotland, doesn’t want to do it anymore. Actually, he announced months ago he wouldn’t stand again following his failed attempts at a Westminster seat and then for his party’s deputy leadership. But last week, he decided to quit altogether, with immediate effect, less than four months before the election, to go and work for Age Scotland.

In doing so, he will miss out on a £58,000 payment, given to departing MSPs to help adjust to a life outside politics.

The decision raised eyebrows. Why not wait four months, like many of his colleagues? Surely a third-sector employer would understand he has a term to serve? The obvious answer is that the organisation wanted him in place for the election.

Given concerns over the ‘revolving door’ between government and high-level jobs requiring influence, it’s easy to see why some would be uneasy with the decision.

Of course, some will argue he can do whatever he wants. Baker already told us he would stand down, he’s just doing it slightly sooner. If we want politicians to be more like us (whatever that is) we should treat them like normal employees.

The Scottish Parliament was even designed with this in mind, moving away from the impossible working hours of Westminster in the hope a wider pool of representatives might emerge.

The free movement of Labour (no pun intended) demands anyone has the right to move jobs. We shouldn’t complain when politicians act like normal people and move when a better job comes up.

But it’s not so clear cut. Imagine David Cameron announced tomorrow he was quitting as PM, with immediate effect, to go work for an investment bank. People would be outraged.

Now Richard Baker is not David Cameron, and Age Scotland is not an investment bank, but there must be a line somewhere.

The truth is, no one seems to have a very good idea of what politicians are meant to do after power. And as elected representatives get younger the question becomes more pressing.

Clearly there’s a difference between a former politician trading off the skills developed while in office – even if there’s an irony in Jim Murphy going to work in conflict resolution – and trading off the privileges that office brings. In this context, knowledge is not the same as power: you can trade off one but not the other. Power is a loan, not a gift, and people get upset if politicians try and sell it.

Of course, none of this really explains why Richard Baker quit as he did. Maybe he learned the one thing that any good jumper-ooter knows: it’s better to jump before you’re pushed. Whatever the answer, he certainly retained the element of surprise.


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