Paul Foot

A question of principle

(15 July 1995)

From Socialist Worker, No.1451, 15 July 1995, p.11.
Copyright © Estate of Paul Foot. Published on MIA with the permission of the Estate. Paul Foot Internet Archive ( 2005.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

FOR NEARLY 30 years Robert Maclennan has been the MP for Caithness and Sutherland in the far north of Scotland.

In 1966, to everyone’s astonishment, he seized for the Labour Party a seat which had always been a Liberal or Tory fiefdom. The idea that they should be represented in parliament by a Labour MP obviously appealed to the increasingly abandoned landless labourers of Caithness, not to mention the new workers at the Dounreay nuclear site at Thurso.

Against the tide Maclennan increased his majority for Labour in 1970 and held the seat in the other three elections of the 1970s.

In 1981, without having the chance to vote about it, the people of Caithness suddenly found themselves represented by another party: the Social Democratic Party. Maclennan had coolly switched to the SDP while remaining in the parliament to which he had been elected for Labour.

In 1983 and 1987 he won the seat for the SDP, of which he later became leader. Under the influence of his lacklustre and backward leadership, the SDP finally evaporated. Unabashed, Maclennan joined yet another party, the Liberal Democrat Party, under whose colours he fought and won the election of 1992.

Thus the great stride forward which had wrested Caithness and Sutherland from its reactionary Liberal tradition turned into a great stride back. Thanks to Maclennan Caithness was Liberal again.

Maclennan is a crushingly boring politician, whose collected speeches would do wonders for an insomniac. In the past, however, he had given the impression of worthiness.

The winds

Now even that rather dubious reputation has been thrown to the winds. As an “elder statesman” Maclennan was entrusted with the Liberal slot on the special committee set up by Tory MPs to protect themselves from the attack on them by Lord Nolan.

Nolan and his commissioners, who were set up by Major to rid the Commons of sleaze, recommended that MPs should declare how much money they get from outside sources: directorships, consultancies and so on.

This modest proposal has the almost unanimous support of the electorate – even Tory voters support it strongly. Indeed most voters – 78 percent in fact – take the obvious view that MPs should not get a penny more than their salary.

Horror of horrors! The massed ranks of Tory MPs, who have got so used to consultancies that one of them recently advertised for one, combined at once to oppose Nolan’s proposal.

Here were Quentin Davies from rural Lincolnshire with at least four plum consultancies, Sir Archie Hamilton, former armed forces minister, with six directorships mostly connected with the armed forces, Sir Geoffrey Johnson-Smith with three directorships and a consultancy. Labour members of the committee unanimously supported disclosure.

A lot hinged on the solitary Liberal member, the former red from Caithness, Robert Maclennan. He voted with the Tories to “postpone” (ie do nothing about) the problem of disclosure.

He is a director of Atlantic Telenetwork and a consultant to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, but thanks to his own sturdy support for the Tories on the committee, no one can know how much he gets from either.

MPs get about £70,000 a year in pay and allowances. They have stupendously long holidays and a generous pension scheme.

Of course we expect the Tories to defend their slush. The vote of Robert Maclennan clears up any doubt as to the principled position of the Liberal Democrats.


Last updated on 12.2.2005