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Mandelson’s lizard, in bed with Michael Douglas, and sponsoring the Tube

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

As I write, the Bilderberg Group is holding its annual conference in Watford, which must be a shock after St Moritz, Switzerland, in 2011. As always, it meets behind closed doors and everything said is strictly off the record. The 140-odd participants, drawn exclusively from North America and Europe, are mostly top politicians, bankers and business people. The only journalists are from respectable, pro-capitalist organs such as the Financial Times and the Economist.

The combination of power and secrecy makes Bilderberg everybody’s favourite conspiracy. The right accuses it of plotting world communism and the left damns it for plotting anti-democratic global capitalist domination. Browsing the list of this year’s participants (one of the few things that the group publishes about itself), I was excited to discover “Peter Mandelson . . . Chairman, Lizard International”. I then realised I had misread “Lazard”. Sorry about that, Peter.

Why do these conspirators or lizards or whatever they are bother with an annual conference? Take Lord (John) Kerr. A former British ambassador to Washington and UK permanent representative at the European Union, he was the Foreign Office permanent undersecretary from 1997 until 2002. Since then, he has held directorships at Royal Dutch Shell, Rio Tinto, the Scottish American Investment Trust and Scottish Power. The likes of him and Mandelson don’t need to meet to plot world domination with top executives at Barclays, Microsoft, Amazon, Google and HSBC. They already run the world.

Revolving door

The Bilderberg Group and the latest lobbying scandals are both symptoms of what was described in early 2010 as the “far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money”. That was David Cameron, then in opposition. If he was ever serious about reform, he isn’t now. Otherwise, his proposals for legislation, hastily drafted after the press made allegations that MPs and peers were willing to accept money from lobbying companies, wouldn’t conflate control of lobbyists with the quite different issue of union funding of Labour.

The problem goes far wider. Politicians, leading public servants and business and finance executives now have attitudes and interests in common. We are moving closer to having a constantly revolving door between government and the private sector, as the US does. The latest example is Dave Hartnett, the former head of HM Revenue & Customs, who is now a consultant for Deloitte, auditor for Vodafone, one of the companies he was criticised for allegedly letting off from paying a large chunk of its taxes.

Over the past decade, numerous other ministers and officials have taken their “expertise” to the private sector – for instance, Charles Clarke and Jacqui Smith, both former home secretaries, became consultants for KPMG. What worries me is not only that the status and contacts of ex-Whitehall figures may win favours for their new employers but also that, while supposedly working for us, ministers and civil servants have an eye on future prospects. No wonder every government finds more services to privatise in the name of efficiency and also finds itself paralysed when it comes to corporate tax avoidance.

So here is a modest proposal: if ministers or civil servants take paid jobs in the private sector after leaving office, they should forfeit their gold-plated public-sector pensions.

What’s in a name?

Conservatives in the London Assembly propose that stations and even entire lines on the London Tube should be sponsored and renamed. So we would travel on the Vodafone Central Line to Heineken Holborn, transferring to the Tesco Piccadilly Line for Knightsbridge Home of Harrods. Do not laugh. University professorships are named after sponsors – Oxford has a Rupert Murdoch Professor of Language and Communication – and a chain of schools after a carpet-seller. Why not Tube lines? Or motorways, GPs’ surgeries and police stations?

Full disclosure

I wondered how the Daily Mail would cope with the Guardian’s revelation that Michael Douglas believes he got throat cancer from cunnilingus. But it pluckily gritted its teeth and reported the story fully, while referring to “oral sex” rather than the more specific term. The episode left scars, however. “Do we really have to know about the stars’ most intimate health issues?” asked Jan Moir the next day on the Mail’s comment page. To which the answer is: no, not when they involve sexual practices unfamiliar (one trusts) to the Mail’s Middle England readers.

Follow the leader

As “a valued subscriber” to the Times, I received a message from John Witherow explaining why he has moved the leading articles from page two to 26. I suppose that, as the poor man is a mere “acting editor” (thanks to an unexpected dispute between Murdoch and the hitherto deferential “independent directors” of the Times), this is the only change he is allowed to make.

He explains that the Times is “different from Britain’s other newspapers” because it has “opinions from across the political spectrum”. Really? Its main “left-wing” columnists are my old friend David Aaronovitch, a faithful Blairite; Philip Collins, a former Blair speechwriter; and Oliver Kamm, a fanatical Blairite neocon. It depends what you mean by “the political spectrum”.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 10 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, G0