As I See It: Terry Murden
One of the first rules of PR is not to make yourself the story. A second is that, if you do, make sure you come out smelling of roses.
On both counts Ruth Davidson’s PR career has got off to a bad start, unless you consider that other piece of PR wisdom, that all publicity is good publicity.
None of this sounds too persuasive as the former Scottish Conservative Party leader finds herself having to explain her reasons for taking a second job and accepting an eye-watering pay package for the part-time appointment with Tulchan Communications.
There is plenty to find questionable about Ms Davidson’s motives, though holding a second job is not one of them. She appears to have been carefully managing her exit from frontline politics just as the Scottish Tory revival for which she is credited is about to implode. Her “second job” – at least until such time as she does quit politics – looks like more of a career job, or what she has called a “second act”.
Whatever reasons or excuses she finds, this has been red meat to Scottish Labour. Neil Findlay MSP is bringing a bill to parliament to stop members of the parliament having other earnings.
However, a blanket ban does not help improve politics; it can erode it. For a start it reduces the pool of people considering standing for election, such as those who work for, or own family businesses. Should they really be expected to resign from their own enterprises in order to pursue a second role as a public servant?
What about those who earn large salaries, perhaps ten times that of an MSP, should they also be expected to give up their lucrative positions to seek election?
Many holding senior roles in business hold numerous roles, including posts with other businesses. Some also hold jobs with charities or as advisers to employment-related public services. Representing the community as an elected member of a parliament or local authority should not be denied them.
Politicians are often accused of living in a “bubble”. Having individuals in parliament who have outside interests would be good for politics. It keeps them grounded, in touch with how their policies impact those they serve. Local councillors are part-time and no one questions their other earnings.
A poll taken before the Scottish parliament was established showed a healthy interest among business people sitting as MSPs, a figure that fell sharply if it meant they had to resign their day job. This has robbed the parliament of talent and an injection of ideas and wisdom that may have enriched it.
There is clearly some discomfort over Ruth Davidson taking her £2,000 a day PR bounty on top of her £63,000-plus MSP salary. Had she been appointed to a job in a different industry – as a health worker, teaching assistant, firefighter – would there have been such an outcry?
The point here is that it is not so much an issue of having a second job, but what type of job, though even those listed above can create conflicts of interest. This is where a clear application of the rules on potential conflicts has to be applied: declaring an interest, non-participation in sensitive debates. If there is any case for change, it must be to ensure the guidelines are effective and fit for purpose, but it should not mean an outright ban on second jobs.
We have been here before with attempts to ban second jobs. Former Labour leader Ed Miliband tried in 2015 to halt paid directorships and consultancies. Opposition included MPs in his own party.
Many MPs, MSPs and councillors sit as directors of companies even though they have an influence over tax, planning and other matters that may bring some benefit to those organisations. Some write columns for media organisations. Others have worked as solicitors, barristers, farmers, and one as a GP alongside their parliamentary jobs.
Tory MP Sir Paul Beresford, who works as a dental surgeon, said his local constituency officers “wanted people who had more strings to their bow, rather than people who knew nothing about life.”
Until recently Ms Davidson’s only ambition was to become the first Tory First Minister for Scotland and in Westminster there was talk of her one day walking into Downing Street. This latter suggestion may have been the product of fanciful thinking, but it shows how quickly someone’s star can fall. In Ruth Davidson’s case, she has also learned something about life.