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Notes of the Month


The worst money can buy


From Socialist Review, No. 180, November 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Dash for Gas

An arrogant and greedy Tory government, which feels it has no serious opposition, has produced a level of corruption not known since Lloyd George’s government sold knighthoods and peerages in the years after the First World War.

Daily we receive new stories of corruption and graft centred on the Tory government and its hangers on. Two ministers were – according to Mohammed al Fayed, the owner of Harrods, who says he did it – paid £2,000 each for asking Commons questions about the Harrods takeover.

We can be sure that these two are not isolated examples. Two backbench MPs have been revealed as demanding £1,000 each to ask questions in the House of Commons. There are rumours that one cabinet minister has taken a £500,000 bribe. The whole lobbying system, with private companies whose whole existence is to put pressure on MPs to argue and vote in particular ways, breeds this corruption. When ministers are forced out they deny any wrongdoing.

The accusations go right to the heart of the Tory government over the past 15 years. Margaret Thatcher’s son is supposed to have received £12 million `commission’ for brokering an arms deal between Britain and Saudi Arabia. Jeffrey Archer, close friend of Thatcher and of John Major, bought £80,000 worth of shares in Anglia Television the day after his wife as a director of the company was informed of a takeover which was to raise the share price.

Lady Porter – former leader of the rabidly Thatcherite Westminster council – stands accused of adopting a housing policy which drove the poor, homeless and Labour voters in general out of marginal wards and if possible out of Westminster altogether, while at the same time the council funded the building of luxury flats in the borough to attract Tory voters.

Close links between companies funding the Tory Party and their directors being awarded seats on various government appointed quangos are now commonplace. A bank with close links to the Kuwaiti government has also given very big donations to the Tories.

The principles of the free market have affected every part of government and parliament. These principles are that the Tories and their friends ensure the maximum profits and perks for themselves, while the rest of us can suffer.

Many of the revelations about money for questions came out in the same week that the Tories introduced their own form of workfare – the jobseeker’s allowance – for the unemployed, with pious statements that no one should expect something for nothing. We are told that there is no money for better healthcare or public transport, when astronomical sums are available for government ministers and their hangers on.

A number of accusations are focused on the right wing of the Tory Party, who are most rabid in their pursuit of the fruits of the Thatcher years. Neil Hamilton and Michael Colvin were both opposed to sanctions against apartheid South Africa, and both worked for Strategy Network International, which represented a number of South African companies. The Financial Times reported that ‘a left-right split opened in the cabinet’ over whether industry minister Neil Hamilton should resign. One of his main defenders was right wing pretender for the party leadership Michael Portillo.

The Tories are trying to claim that this corruption only involves a small number of people and that it covers all parties. However, it is clear that the corruption is concentrated overwhelmingly in the party of a government which has bent over backwards to favour big business for 15 years.

It stretches from government right through to MPs’ wives and relatives. A recent newspaper report said that a number of MPs and their wives regularly phone British Airways to ask to be upgraded from economy class to first class. The boards of NHS trusts, local colleges and other quangos are stuffed with Tory supporters. None of these bodies are at all democratically accountable.

Recent revelations demonstrate how unaccountable the whole sham of parliamentary democracy really is. People who vote for MPs have no real control over their behaviour, over what they are paid, or which other businesses they work for while they are an MP. Every government decision is lobbied and campaigned for and against by a series of people whose interest is not in the well being of the majority, but in whether a particular narrow interest holds onto its profit.

There is less and less accountability of even the most remote kind. Control of health, education and many other local services is now directly under the Tories and local business. Privatised industries are run by people whose salaries have multiplied since they were in the public sector. Former Tory ministers responsible for privatisation join the boards of the industries or the banks and financial consultancies which privatised them in the first place.

The disgust which the overwhelming majority of ordinary people feel at all this can find no expression because the corruption is first covered up, then regarded as exceptional and only then subject to (usually secret) investigation.

The solution, according to many MPs, is for parliament to make minor reforms and to hold an investigation into corruption. Who has any faith that things would change? There would be a few cosmetic changes and then everything would carry on as before, because it is the whole system which leads to corruption.

This is the problem that the Labour Party has. Many of its MPs (although not all – some are up to the same thing) are no doubt horrified at the cesspit in which they find themselves working. But they have a problem. They accept the whole parliamentary charade. They mix with the Tories; they address them respectfully in debate. It is only very rarely that there is any sense of real anger in the parliamentary attacks of Labour MPs.

They will do nothing to really rock the boat, because they believe parliament is the only way of changing anything. The most effective opposition to the corruption around Westminster, therefore, is likely to come from those who want a really democratic and accountable system, run from below, by and for working people.

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