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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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.