The politics of persuasion gone wrong

Lobbying is an important part of democracy - but where does the line of acceptable behaviour lie?

Lobbying is a fundamental part of democracy.  Everyone has the right to try and persuade a government of the justness of their cause and the need for particular pieces of legislation; but there are ways and means of doing this, and the testimony of News Corp’s representatives at the Leveson inquiry illustrates just how those ways and means can easily be abused.

The sight of James Murdoch squirming and suffering in front of the inquiry on 24 April no doubt delighted his critics.  The evidence that he, and others high up in News Corp, have let seep out about the extent of their links with the British government – a cosy Christmas lunch here, a nice ride through the English countryside there – have left many feeling very uncomfortable about the power and influence News Corp has, for a very long time, apparently wielded in the UK.  Heads may well roll as a result.

Attempts by companies to influence the policy process are not, of course, anything new.  And neither is it unique to the UK.  It was in Germany, for example, that the Flick consortium openly and brazenly claimed that they simply “cultivated the political landscape” by bankrolling all major parties (whilst concurrently persuading them to change tax laws in their favour) throughout the 1970s.  The role that big business plays in funding US politics is also nothing more than a statement of the obvious.

Whilst Murdoch’s tentacles may well have stretched too far in to the inner sanctum of British politics, it is not always easy to be clear on where it’s fair, appropriate and democratically legitimate, and where the line of acceptability is.  It is for that reason that the UK has some of the most well developed sets of rules, regulations and procedures on lobbying in the world.  Lobbyists, and the firms they work for, are faced with a myriad of dictats outlining what they can and cannot do, with whom they can and cannot speak, where, when and under what conditions they can say or do anything.  And the media – very much including the Murdoch owned part of it – love nothing more than coming down on miscreants who break these rules like a tonne of bricks.

Recently, the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) has added more weaponry to the self-proclaimed guardians of our democracy’s cause.  Ministers (as Jeremy Hunt is no doubt rapidly learning) should know that the public could theoretically end up seeing, reading or listening to more of their everyday business than ever before. Those who complain that this constrains the workings of government miss the point entirely; if government has been influenced by an outside source, if decisions have been taken based on the evidence (or indeed interests) of particular groups, then the wider world certainly has a right to know.  Hiding the business of politics in, say, private email accounts (as Michael Gove appears to have done) illustrates nothing more than a (perhaps deliberate) misunderstanding of how democracy really should work.  There are, with good reason, restrictions on FOI, of course – and there is always a case to be made for reviewing and revising such things.

But the point that public servants – and those engaging with them – need to remember is not that they need to cultivate friends to help them.  This is, like it or loathe it, true in all walks of life.  Rather, it is something that you could call the Daily Mail test; are you happy for your lobbying to be reported in public?  Are you confident that you have abided by the laws, rules, regulations and codes that shape political life?  Would you be happy reading about how your decision (or your attempt to influence a decision) was discussed in the Daily Mail?  If the answer is "yes", then you have nothing to worry about.  If, as James Murdoch and his associates are discovering, you are unhappy at having to discuss the details of how, when and under what circumstances you lobbied government, then that alone should tell you something.

Dr Dan Hough is Reader in Politics at the University of Sussex and Director of the Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption
 

A protester wearing a Rupert Murdoch mask stands outside the High Court as James Murdoch appears before the Leveson Inquiry. Photograph: Getty Images

Dr Dan Hough is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex and Director of the Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt