Corrupt through and through
Politicians are not the only people in power looking to make a quick buck, reckons Paul Demarty
In the unlikely event that there was anyone left in Britain who believed that the political class is not riddled with avaricious, grasping cynics, Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind have offered a timely reminder. No, ‘Politicians on the make’ is hardly the most surprising story of the century, but there are neat symmetries to the Straw-Rifkind case that make it an exemplary case study in the corruption of machine politics.
Straw and Rifkind, after all, come from remarkably similar backgrounds - both scions of the middle class, born within two months of each other, both educated at non-elite private schools and both studying law (and qualifying for the bar) at good, non-Oxbridge universities. It was in their student days that their paths radically diverged, with Straw becoming an ‘official communist’ fellow traveller, and then the first leftwing president of the National Union of Students in its post-war history, taking the top job from Labour-right cold warrior types.
By the mid-1970s, however, both had begun their professional political careers. Rifkind was one of a small handful of MPs to serve as cabinet minister throughout Margaret Thatcher’s entire reign as prime minister. Straw, meanwhile, slowly cultivated a reputation as a safe pair of hands: a near-apolitical ‘fixer’ at the top of the Labour Party. Finally, when this scandal swept them up, both were nearing the end of their careers in parliament (Straw was not seeking re-election in his Blackburn seat; Rifkind was seeking one more term, although he has now put paid to that).
They were gulled by a Daily Telegraph/Channel 4 investigation, which set up a fake Chinese company, and approached a shortlist of 12 MPs - selected not at random, but on the basis of the commons register of members’ interests as likely marks. Of the 12, six replied, but only Straw and Rifkind were interested enough to sit in front of a hidden camera.
If this all sounds a little familiar, it is because it is a little familiar. Hilariously, the lead journalist on the project, Antony Barnett, has played a role in more or less the exact same sting operation three times now, his previous two scoops having book-ended the New Labour era. In 1998 he caught Derek Draper offering access to the upper echelons of the Blair government; and in 2010 he found a slew of MPs - including Labour ex-ministers Stephen Byers and Geoff Hoon - only too keen to lend an ear to his fake lobbying firm.
An Observer op-ed by Barnett (March 1) wonders why politicians are so easy to hook with this kind of thing. “It’s the money, stupid,” he suggests: but even the greedy are able to smell a con most of the time. We suggest a wider explanation: the purchase of access is so very common that a cold-call from a Chinese company with no apparent history at all does not ring any alarm bells, even to careerists as seasoned as these two.
‘In it for themselves’
We are so far left at the level of the obvious: the notion, recited in every pub in the land, that politicians are corrupt and only in it for themselves. It is hardly a straightforwardly positive thing that this view is so widespread: there is a thin line between cynicism about politicians and cynicism about politics tout court, and people drifting towards the latter condition tend to become vulnerable to the machinations of rightwing demagogues far more than they become open to leftwing ideas. The rise of the UK Independence Party is surely testament to that.
The danger lies in the appearance that this is a matter of MPs being individually corrupt, or a view of Westminster as such being an institution that generates corruption. In this context, the Daily Mail can appear to be the voice of popular common sense, and Nigel Farage an insurgent outsider. Instead, we must return politicians to their place in the broader apparatus of ruling class power.
Of most immediate importance here is the fact that senior politicians often find it a very short journey from retirement from politics to lucrative jobs in the private sector. The (relatively) modest sums an MP will be happy to declare in the register of interests pales in comparison to the riches available later on as a ‘private citizen’; thus the most attractive bribes are those that come due after scrutiny is lifted.
It is not so much that Rifkind and Straw were on the make; in practice, they were hoping to ‘hit the ground running’, so far as their lucrative post-parliamentary careers were concerned. Straw, in particular, will have been looking hungrily at the example of Tony Blair, who rakes in millions offering his ‘services’, whatever they are, to dictators and robber barons.
Influence among the existing crop of Westminster MPs is one thing that Straw and Rifkind can market to mysterious Chinese companies; but both have a little something extra in common. They are former foreign ministers, and thus will have connections in the diplomatic service. (Given the eye-watering sums exchanged in the arms trade, ex-defence ministers are a popular type to have on the payroll as well.) Straw claims to have made things happen as regards EU sanctions against other countries; at £5,000 a day, his input would be cheap at twice the price for the right buyer.
Rifkind, meanwhile, chaired the Commons intelligence and security committee until his little mishap. The irony here is delicious: in this capacity, among a multitude of interventions in craven support of the secret state, he was happy to bang the chauvinist drum against the Chinese firm, Huawei, which was contracted to perform maintenance work on the British telecommunications network. It should be overseen by GCHQ, he said. He seems to have seen nothing untoward in another ‘Chinese’ company offering to pay the chair of the ISC £5,000 a day to offer a sympathetic ear - provided, of course, said chair was Malcolm Rifkind.
The direct bribe - or the mundane conflict of interest - is only one means whereby the political caste is disciplined by the capitalist class. Another is the restriction of political choices, of which two methods bear mention here. The first is the encroachment of the judiciary on matters of policy: a process by which the political class outsources its choices to an ‘independent’ force.
The trouble is that the judiciary is ‘independent’ only from direct tutelage of the political parties of the state. It is, however, ‘independently’ corrupt. The legal system straightforwardly rewards those with the money to throw at lawyers. By a divine coincidence, both Straw and Rifkind are barristers, whose ruling creed is that they should be ‘cabs for hire’. Life may have taken them elsewhere, but at least the training has come in handy.
The second method is through the capitalist media. The media’s job is to express in a form attractive to the middle class the political choices of capital. Since there are always politicians keen to get their snouts in the trough, there are always opportunities to embarrass them; certainly the last major exposé of this kind - involving Hoon and Byers - was part of a sustained and brutal campaign by the press to get a Tory victory at the last election.
Exactly what the agenda is here is unclear (given Rifkind’s petulant, pompous response to the sting, it has probably hurt the Tories more than Labour). We note merely the irony in, of all papers, The Daily Telegraph catching Straw and Rifkind - its own propriety has been questioned thoroughly in recent weeks, in connection with its reluctance to run stories embarrassing to valuable advertisers.
All these corrupt apparatuses live in a happy symbiosis: the corruption of each is the condition for the corruption of all. The wide distribution of corrupt relations allows a complete inversion of reality to occur at the level of ideology, whereby each can be said to be somehow holding the others to account.
Forgetting our two heroes for a moment, the example par excellence of this phenomenon is the phone-hacking scandal, which resulted ultimately in the judiciary making recommendations to the legislature whereby they would between them ‘clean up’ the press. Yet the hacking scandal could only be as explosive as it was because all the institutions of the ruling class establishment had spent the previous three years obstructing the course of The Guardian’s investigation.
For all these reasons, the left must move beyond gleefully trumpeting every passing scandal to afflict some grasping creature of the Westminster village. Overcoming corruption means overcoming the whole ossified structure that props up the rule of a declining class - and posing a serious democratic alternative.