Bribe me by all means, but it won’t make any difference
To a degree that I find downright insulting, I have never been the object of any attempt at bribery or corruption. In the course of a five-year political career, I have been offered not so much as the sniff of a directorship; no one has come close to suggesting that I might like to fly my family to the World Cup or a shopping trip to Dubai.
Mohamed Fayed has never sent me a hamper. As I look around at the items I have been sent in the post, I see a device for squeezing slugs, a pot of mustard and a baseball cap from Liverpool. And that is about it. It is a scandal. In a way that I find positively hurtful, big business seems to think it can rub along without me. I do not appear to figure on the flow-charts of influence.
OK, I was once invited for a day’s clay pigeon shooting by the tobacco lobby, and I once overheard my secretary being offered some tickets for Wimbledon; but on neither occasion was I able to go.
I am all set, in principle, to go to Glyndebourne, or Ascot, or wherever it is that these corporate types take you for a good Lafite-fuelled corporate schmoozing. The next time someone has tickets for the rugby, I say, count me in! – provided it is understood that as an exercise in buying “influence” any such invitation to me is a complete and utter waste of time.
It is not just that I am sea-green incorruptible, though of course I am. The real trouble is that I would have to declare every detail of any such gift or freebie in the Register of Members’ Interests, and having publicly declared my embarrassment, I would then feel morally obliged to be either studiously neutral or indeed positively nasty towards whatever cause had shown me kindness.
I am sure that most MPs feel the same; and I am sure that is why Britain is so pathetically un-corrupt in comparison with so many other countries. I do not mean that we are perfect: far from it. We still have an extraordinary honours system, by which you can buy a peerage by giving money to political parties, and it is obviously possible to buy influence. One thinks of Bernie Ecclestone, or Paul Drayson, who not only secured a peerage but also an important contract for his firm, PowderJect.
We certainly have a thriving lobbying industry, and a booming trade in corporate hospitality, expected to be worth more than £1 billion this year. This weekend, across Britain, hundreds of thousands of pheasants will thud lifeless to the earth, then to be shovelled into Katyn-style graves, and all in the name of corporate entertainment.
When the new Wembley stadium is complete, it is expected to receive a million spectators a year, of whom 150,000 will be there as corporate guests. But most of the time, in my experience, the victims of the British lobbying industry are not the British electorate, nor the British taxpayer, nor even British government officials. The real dupes, by and large, are the clients, the superstitious dolts in corporate Britain, who believe the lobbyist witch doctors and their tales of “influence”.
I mention all this partly because of the amazing case of Jack Abramoff, of Washington, the man who appeared in our papers yesterday in a belted mac and a Capone-like trilby. Mr Abramoff is one of Washington’s leading lobbyists, and among his crimes is ripping off a group of Red Indians (as I am probably no longer allowed to call them) and using the cash to fly himself and some of his Republican buddies for a golfing freebie at St Andrews, Scotland.
It was a classic piece of lobbyist’s hocus-pocus. The Native Americans needed him to represent their gambling interests, and Mr Abramoff was happy to oblige. In fact, he became known as “Casino Jack” for his skill in persuading Native Americans that he was indispensable to their cause, and prising millions from their reservations. It now turns out to have been a con. Mr Abramoff grossly overcharged them, and he must now pay the money back.
Washington is convulsed with anxiety/glee about the links between Mr Abramoff and other senior Republicans, and whether any of his bungs got as far as the White House; but that is not the point. The point is that he was not only suborning the politicians; he was deceiving the business interests he represented.
Businessmen long for certainty; they long to know what the decision-makers are thinking, so that they can plan ahead. They yearn to be in the loop, to have the drop on things. It is the genius of the lobbyists and the consultants to understand this need, and to satisfy it in the most imaginative way.
The reality is that government decisions are often taken in a way that is shambolically unpredictable, but the lobbyist pretends otherwise. He whispers that he can get his client an introduction to so-and-so. He produces organograms of power. He rustles up members of the governing party, or civil servants, or journalists, and persuades them to come to watch the football or the rugby. And nine times out of 10, since this is England, the freebie-takers will do absolutely nothing to requite the favour they have received; but the lobbyist knows that doesn’t really matter. The client sees the beaming, drunken faces of these important folk; the client is satisfied, and the client believes just about anything the lobbyist tells him.
It is vital, for instance, to make much of “access” to committees in Parliament, or the European Parliament – and that is why there is this hoo-hah about whether or not the Tories should belong to the European People’s Party Group in Strasbourg. You may think it mattered not a damn whether the Tories were in or out of this assembly of mainly federalist parties; and you would be right. The problem is that the lobbyists have persuaded their clients that they are very lucky to have “access” to this EPP group; and if the Tories pull out, the lobbyists will cease to be able to make that particular bogus claim.
That is causing ructions. Would the Tory MEPs lose any real influence, as opposed to the fictitious influence imputed to them by the lobbyists? I doubt it. So many of the lobbyists’ claims turn out to be fraudulent; and that is why Britain is less corrupt than you might think.