Guarding the chicken coop
James Turley looks at the unfolding Liam Fox scandal
"This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence - economic, political, even spiritual - is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the federal government”, Dwight Eisenhower famously told he American public in his final address as president in 1960 - a speech widely quoted by liberals and paleo-conservatives alike. “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
Plus ça change ... The British government, which may not exactly be lurching from crisis to crisis, but is certainly suffering from a series of public embarrassments, has stumbled into yet another scandal. This time, at the centre of the affray is Liam Fox, a particularly oleaginous and smug Tory who heads the ministry of defence under David Cameron.
A whole series of questions have been raised about Fox’s relationship to one Adam Werritty. The two men are clearly enough close friends, but in the schmooze-happy world of the British establishment, friendships rarely remain strictly private affairs; it appears that Werritty has benefited consistently over the years from his old pal’s Westminster base.
The two ran a ‘charity’, Atlantic Bridge, which was in reality (as the name suggests) a think-tank of distinctly Atlanticist leanings, out of Fox’s parliamentary office (that is, in some measure at the taxpayer’s expense). Werritty, furthermore, managed to hook up with his old friend on no less than 18 occasions when Fox was engaged in ministerial business overseas; in particular, he appears to have set up a meeting with private equity bigwig Harvey Boulter, with the aim of selling voice-recognition technology to the MoD.
In a detail widely seized upon by Fox’s critics - who grow more legion by the day - Werritty’s business cards even proclaimed him a special advisor to the defence secretary. Boulter seems to have been stung by Westminster lobbyists for £10,000 a month to get hold of Fox via Werritty. It is difficult to dispel the image of these two well-spoken hucksters, using the positions they have amassed between them to grab an ever bigger piece of the pie.
Of course, as scams go, theirs is actually quite pathetically naive. It is difficult to see how Fox expected nobody to notice the fact that he was apparently joined at the hip to somebody who always seems to have an eye on his percentage; taxpayers’ contributions to Atlantic Bridge overheads are a matter of public record, and it would not be hard for any committed individual to spot those 18 foreign meetings (along with another 22 at the MoD) since Fox assumed office. Yet the possibility of being found out does not appear even to have entered Fox’s head.
This is, in fact, emblematic of the psychology of people at the top of society. In truth, it is even more typical of low-level municipal politics, which - since Thatcher and subsequent premiers hollowed out local government - increasingly exists as a playground for political careerists and a bottomless money-pit for developers and contractors (something which the cuts have apparently done nothing to change).
Along with the decay of local political power, however, has gone the decay of the local press and local community activism; in short, corrupt councillors can get away with being in developers’ pockets more easily than secretaries of state attempting the same scams with the same favour-currying methods in the full glare of the public eye. Trotsky once described the Soviet Union as a trade union that had taken power - Liam Fox is a corrupt councillor who has been handed a ministerial portfolio (his career is now likely to go the same way as the Soviet bureaucracy).
In fairness to him, that portfolio is the one most given to large-scale corruption. Eisenhower was right; the military-industrial complex does exist, and it has tended towards hypertrophy in America. Defence spending may have fallen as a proportion of GDP over the last half-century in Britain, but the bureaucratic institutional forms of the Pentagon have become universalised among those imperialist powers with any serious armed forces of their own.
The result is a bewildering array of state agencies, contractors and corporations intricately knitted together - precisely a complex - rooted in society at a point where it is answerable to nobody. Corruption is not even nominally an exception, but how it works. There is the famous, if apocryphal, story of the screwdriver requisitioned by a US army unit that ended up costing the American taxpayer thousands of dollars; it is repeated across the world in a myriad of forms.
In this respect, it is not at all remarkable that a grubby individual like Liam Fox should be involved in these activities. It is not even the first time the military-industrial complex has got this government into difficulties; upon the outbreak of the Arab revolts earlier this year, David Cameron infamously set off on a jaunt around the region, accompanied by a legion of British arms firms, to tool up the various regimes then engaged in violently repressing their own populations.
What is more remarkable is the hypocrisy of the Labour Party in its attacks on Fox. It was a Labour government, remember, that canned a Serious Fraud Office investigation into dodgy deals between the Saudi monarchy and BAe Systems - a case relating to tens of millions of pounds in backhanders and dodgy deals. Indeed, it was a Labour government which spent the last seven years selling weapons to Muammar al-Gaddafi, during the erstwhile Libyan despot’s brief emergence from the cold.
Labour is quite happy to administrate this enormously corrupt set-up when it is in power. Indeed, it launched Britain into two disastrous wars at least partly spurred on by the immense economic power of the defence industry, and the backdoor economic stimulus that imperialist war perversely engenders in the invading countries. If Ed Miliband imagines it is possible to have a fine and noble mission in Afghanistan without the grubby and ignoble corruption that procures the weapons with which to blow up luckless civilians, then he is frankly an idiot. If he imagines he can get some cheap political capital by hypocritically hammering Fox for crimes relatively innocuous by the standards of his job, alas, he is probably on to something.
The other factor which must be examined is the matter of parliamentary lobbyists. These people have multiplied enormously over the last few decades, and in fact wield considerable influence over politics as a whole. Again, the paradigmatic example comes from the dog-days of the last Labour government, when Blairite mediocrity Stephen Byers was caught on camera describing himself as a ‘cab for hire’.
Werritty seems to have set himself up as an intermediary between lobbyists and Fox (lobbying is a practice given in its very nature to the proliferation of middlemen). It is one particular variation of a general practice whereby big capital incrementally buys off bourgeois politicians - also visible in the last few weeks is the large-scale sponsorship of events at party conferences by major companies.
The Liam Fox affair highlights once again this fundamental fact - corruption, whether direct or institutionalised, is the basic means of ensuring capitalist control over society. Capitalism is often thought - even by some on the left - to be in some measure democratic. In fact, it has an interest in ensuring adequate representation of capital, relative to its magnitude.
The ‘old-fashioned’ way is the direct bribe; now that this is no longer possible, networks of lobbyists and establishment favour-currying, along with a judiciary which tends to make decisions benefiting big legal spenders, accomplish the same trick a little less reliably. The role of the so-called ‘free press’ in this process has already been adequately highlighted in the News of the World affair.
The Liam Fox scandal may drag on, as an inquiry digs into his links with Werritty and the latter’s links with all manner of ambitious businessmen; these connections may or may not be technically the wrong side of the law. We can be quite sure that if - more likely, when - he is forced from office, the corruption will continue. Only working class democracy can seriously challenge this self-perpetuating stitch-up.