Revolving corruption

For years, Private Eye magazine has been banging the drum about the Westminster ‘Revolving door’ of ex-ministers and civil servants taking up posts in private industry that rely on their knowledge and contacts within government. This engenders conflicts of interest, with firms that deal with the government implicitly being able to offer the inducement of a high-paying job down the line to any officials that they deal with. From the point of view of capitalist rivals, this is a threat, and something that they would want to prevent.

But, it doesn’t even need to be so naked a form of corruption, it is enough that politicians know that if they present themselves as sound, a remunerative non-executive directorship could be found to see out their days with minimal effort. The rewards for loyalty to capital are there.

Boris Johnson, of course, is providing us with a great example of this sort of reward for service. At the time of writing he is estimated to have earned £3 million over and above his MP’s salary, largely through speaking engagements. Johnson considered his Prime Ministerial salary (about £160,000) as insufficient; but then, he had been earning in excess of £200,000 per annum as a columnist for the Daily Telegraph. He has always benefitted well from being a mouth-piece of the rich and powerful.

In office he managed to contrive to be the recipient of the largesse of others. Tales filtered out about him receiving thousands of pounds worth of donated takeaway dinners and help with redecorating the Number 10 flat (via a donation to the Conservative Party). He almost makes it seem that his main qualification for high office was his capacity to bend rules and accept money from other people. Even now, we are hearing that he got help from the man he appointed as Chairman of the BBC to get an £800,000 loan.

To set the scale of this, it’s worth noting that over in Ireland, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern lost his job because some business friends gave him a €25,000 loan to help him out with his divorce. That led to a full-scale inquiry, and ultimately saw his party thrown out of office. The behaviour of Boris Johnson makes him look like a rank amateur.

Even then, his behaviour isn’t new. He enjoyed his time at Chequers, the country house of the Prime Minister that was given to the nation in 1917 because people who weren’t themselves country gentlemen were becoming Prime Minister, and it couldn’t be done for them not to have the outward style appropriate to their station. When the son of a Scottish crofter, Ramsay MacDonald, became Prime Minister, the biscuit millionaire Alexander Grant (who MacDonald made a Baronet), gave him the use of a Daimler (and the interest on some shares for its upkeep and running cost). He felt that it was unseemly for a Prime Minister not to have transport of the appropriate style. At his death, MacDonald was worth £25,000 – which, according to online calculators is the equivalent of £2 million today.

More recently, Tony Blair has been able to transform himself into a multi-millionaire after leaving the political stage. According to newspaper reports, he found work with JP Morgan Chase and Zurich Financial Services (two financial behemoths). He also advises governments around the world. On top of which, he has cannily invested in property. By way of contrast, Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher were only worth half a million each at their deaths. Jim Callaghan did well for himself, with a wealth at death of about £2 million.

It’s not just those at the very top, take the example of Anna Turley, the voted-out Labour MP for Redcar. She has found work as a consultant for the Betting and Gaming Commission, which involves writing articles about why honest working-class folk don’t like gambling restrictions. It’s fair enough: she lost her job and had to find work, and it’ll keep the wolf from the door until the next election when she might get returned to Parliament once more – it allows her to stay in the game.

Likewise, David Miliband, when he left politics, managed to find a berth at the International Rescue charity, worth about $300,000 a year. Whilst this is at the extreme end, other politicians have been able to move from their political roles and into the charity sector, which also keeps them (sort of) in the game, interacting with government and lobbying. It’s not for nothing that when the Tories brought in an anti-lobbying act, they targeted charities heavily, perceiving them to be part of the wider Labour establishment.

One of the chief means by which Johnson has cashed in is through speaking fees. Here he has followed such luminaries as Hilary Clinton and Joe Biden, who can command hundreds of thousands of dollars per speech. Whilst it can be argued that such fees represent some value to corporate executives who book such speeches for their events (and compares, say, with the actual market cost of booking an entertainer or a celebrity) it’s hard to avoid such fees looking corrupt: an inflated price to be given for an essentially valueless service. Again, to be clear, there does not have to be an explicit quid pro quo, simply being admitted to the circuit is a sign of past good behaviour.

Nothing can be done against this sort of thing: short of freezing former politicians in ice. They love to bring it up, and paint the other side as sleazy, yet they all know that the rewards are there (even before we get onto the need to agitate for donations to run their offices and campaigns). The point is, it isn’t personal moral turpitude, these are the effects of a widely unequal society, where those with personal wealth can dispense it to buy loyalty, they will. Regulation will fail, because the incentive is always there to find creative ways around it. We don’t need to throw the scoundrels out, we need to throw the scoundrel system out.


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