Money launderers, political corruption, minor celebrities and our antidotes
Eddie Ford comments on the furore around Tessa Jowell and George Galloway's reinvention as a radio host
As we go to press, magistrates in Milan are still deciding if they have enough evidence to indict Silvio Berlusconi and David Mills - the hot-shot corporate lawyer currently married to culture secretary Tessa Jowell. But whether Berlusconi and Mills are formally charged with corruption or not - and despite the fact Jowell has been cleared of breaching ministerial code by Sir Gus O'Donnell, the cabinet secretary - the whole murky business has lifted the veil on a world of big money, shady deals, corrupt shipping magnates and mafia go-betweens.
Naturally, the exact details of this affair are complex, involving a labyrinthian paper trail of questionable payments and backhanders. However, when boiled down to the basics, the story is relatively clear. Mills is an Oxford-educated barrister whose lucrative area of expertise is offshore tax-avoidance schemes, and is director of Carnelutti Mackenzie Mills Corporate Services - which handles the legal affairs of several offshore companies, including those owned or controlled by Berlusconi. Accordingly, Mills was soon up to his neck in Berlusconi's financial-political wheeling-and-dealing - some of which, of course, entailed doing business with the mafia. Inevitably, Mills himself - knowingly or unknowingly - became drawn into the dark world of the mob and political corruption, and all those seeking to 'minimise' the wealth they have to hand over to il Fisco (the taxman).
So, as has been finally revealed over the last few weeks, Mills arranged for a certain Marcello Dell'Utri to be appointed to the board of Publitalia International Limited (later renamed Publieurope), a London-registered media advertising agency which Mills had set up in 1985. This agency was part of the 'mother' company, Publitalia - one of the main pillars of the Berlusconi empire - and Mills acted as company secretary of Publitalia International up to 1997, while Dell'Utri remained as a director until 1995 (though Publieurope was wound up two weeks ago, its most recent 2004 accounts showed that it was making an annual profit of more than £2 million).
Dell'Utri, widely known as Berlusconi's braccio destra (right hand), was subsequently convicted in 2004 of concorso in associazione mafiosa (aiding and abetting the mafia). Dell'Utri had links to the mafia going back decades and in 1993 he met with the Cosa Nostra's 'governing board' - the Cupola - to successfully solicit its vote-gathering powers on behalf of Berlusconi's Forza Italia.
Mills has since admitted that he had made no checks on Dell'Utri's background - but claims he had no knowledge of his mafia connections. Rather, Mills says, he agreed to Dell'Utri's appointment at the "request" of one his Italian clients - that client being none other than the company Fininvest, of which Berlusconi is by far the largest shareholder. It is worth recalling here that according to the Forbes magazine, Berlusconi in 2005 had personal assets worth $12 billion - making him the world's 25th richest person. Somebody worth being friendly with, you might say.
Subsequently, it has been alleged that either in 1999 or 2000 Mills received £350,000 in 'hush money' - or a bribe - from Berlusconi, anxious for Mills to keep mum about all these shenanigans. Mills initially signed a statement in 2004 saying that he had indeed received the cash - but it was only a 'professional' payment for turning "some very tricky corners" (or "favourable evidence") in his testimony to an Italian court. However, a few months later, Mills withdrew that statement and said the money came instead from a Neapolitan ship-owner, Diego Attanasio - now appealing against a sentence for corruption, and who of course was one of Mills's clients in his capacity as director of CMM Corporate Services.
With his Italian windfall, Mills paid off the (fifth) mortgage that he and Tessa Jowell had raised just weeks before on their second home in north London. Jowell, of course, is implicated in her husband's dodgy business practices by virtue of the fact - if nothing else - that she is a co-signatory to the mortgage documents. Somewhat unconvincingly, Jowell claims that Mills dealt with all the family finances and she knew nothing about the £350,000 'gift' which miraculously wiped the mortgage slate clean. We are meant to believe that she never asked about it, and that it never became an object of discussion around the breakfast table. An astonishing lack of curiosity, most would think. After all, we are hardly talking about petty cash or something found down the back of a sofa. Maybe she was just too busy to ask, we are meant to presume.
Of course, the whole thing stinks to high heaven - of big lies and corruption. Perhaps more to the point, the Berlusconi-Mills-Jowell scandal provides us with an insight into the sort of circles that New Labour grandees - and their associates - move in. A world far removed from the one inhabited by ordinary people, engaged in a constant struggle to meet the monthly mortgage and pay essential bills. Or, to quote the only words Socialist Worker has to say on the matter, "Few readers of this paper will be pondering the pros and cons of taking out a fifth mortgage on their house. Fewer still will have received a cheque for £350,000 and not bothered to ascertain whether it was a gift from an Italian businessman or payment for work done on his behalf. That is the world that Tessa Jowell lives in. But it isn't just her. She works, after all, for a prime minister who finds it perfectly acceptable to holiday at the villa of Silvio Berlusconi" (March 11).
Naturally, one can only but wholeheartedly agree with the above sentiments. However, I am obliged to ask my SWP comrades the following question. If they are so outraged by the "world" that the likes of Tessa Jowell and Tony Blair live in - with its privileges and greasy networks - then how come the comrades refuse any longer to uphold the basic socialist demand - put into practive by the 1871 Paris Commune and Lenin's Soviet Russia - that all elected represenatives be fully accountable and take only an average skilled worker's wage.
Such measures would not prevent corruption, careerism and the temptations that come with office. But they are powerful weapons in the battle to exert control over MPs, MEPs, MSPs, councillors, trade union officials, etc. And yet in order to promote the Respect popular front party the SWP leadership finds itself completely betraying that principle and, not surprisingly, furiously turning on the CPGB because we refuse to abandon our principles.
SWP policy and practice in Respect is not dictated by the cut and thrust of debate and majority votes. In Respect it has a commanding majority. No, SWP policy and practice is dictated by the craven desire to keep the right wing on board: in this case not the 'muslim' activists; rather middle class celebrities such as Yvonne Ridley and George Galloway.
Yvonne Ridley once served as a high-profile reporter for the Daily Express and was famously captured and held for 10 days by the Taliban in Afghanistan in September 2001. She became a muslim convert in August 2003. Nowadays she does not drink alcohol, prays five times a day and visits a mosque every Friday. Ridley lauds muslim 'sisterhood' over western feminism and in general places islam over rival concepts, whether they be nationality or class. She was a senior editor in Al-Jazeera's newly launched English website and lived in Doha, Qatar. Sacked in November 2003 by her boss, Abdulaziz Ibrahim Al-Mahmoud, whom she had bitterly criticised for shopping at Marks and Spencer during a trip to London, she successfully sued for unfair dismissal. Now she is political editor of the Islam Channel and presents Agenda, its current affairs show.
Against such a background it is hardly surprising that Ridley finds even the suggestion of living on an average skilled worker's wage "silly". Nor could she survive even on a Westminster MP's "meagre" wage of £57,485 - in fact, she reckoned she needed more - much more: "Give me three or four times as much" (Weekly Worker July 1 2004). As for her daughter, Daisy, she goes to an exclusive boarding school - St Annes, in the Lake District. Fees are up to £16,380 per annum.
Ironically, Respect's policy on education - perhaps another "shibboleth" to be formally junked - demands a "system that is not dependent on the ability to pay, that is comprehensive and gives an equal chance in life to every child, no matter how wealthy or poor their parents, from nursery to university" (Founding declaration).
Of course, George Galloway has exhibited exactly the same desire to avoid accountability - especially when it comes to finance. He publicly stated that he needs a "minimum" of £150,000, if he is "to function properly as a leading figure in a part of the British political system".
We also saw him unilaterally waltz into the Celebrity big brother house - without even bothering to consult Respect. Obviously, for Galloway, this excursion was essentially undertaken with a view to embarking on a well remunerated media career. In other words, Celebrity big brother - like the Respect project itself - was just another vehicle for his own personal ambition.
And now Galloway has actually become a 'radio personality', hosting his own phone-in on Talk Sport every Saturday and Sunday evening. I suppose he cleared that with the Respect leadership, didn't he?
Communist history, and our theory, teaches us that those who get elected to represent us - whether in parliament, local government or whatever - always tend to be pulled to the right. They can all too easily get dazzled, and flattered, by the new, hifalutin circles they find themselves in. Corruption, personal or political, frequently follows. We have witnessed this repeatedly.
Hence, in December 1889 Engels noted in a letter to Friedrich Sorge: "The most repulsive thing here [in England] is the bourgeois 'respectability', which has grown deep into the bones of the workers ... Even Tom Mann, whom I regard as the best of the lot, is fond of mentioning that he will be lunching with the lord mayor" (quoted in VI Lenin's Imperialism and the split in socialism - see www.marxmail.org/quotes/vladimir_lenin.htm).
This is why communists call for 'organised mistrust' of our MPs, councillors and officials - journalists and media celebrities, even - and stand by the principles of transparency, accountability and recallability.