Political lobbying: it's a contact sport

<em>New Statesman Scotland</em>

At a party at this year's Edinburgh Festival, a celebrated Scottish rugby international of the 1970s was asked what he was doing nowadays. "Merchant banking," was the breezy reply. However, when the scoring system was changed from three points for a try to four, this man was confused. "Oh, it doesn't matter if you are a bit hazy on the numbers side. Merchant banking's just like rugby, really. A contact sport."

Last weekend's revelations in the Observer that executives from Beattie Media, a lobbying and public relations firm, had been allegedly boasting of their contacts in both the Scottish executive and the Westminster cabinet has produced a rash of indignation and Lady Bracknell-like shrieks of outrage from the Scottish press. Ideals debased, the new politics tainted, reputations tarnished, and much in that vein. And yet if lobbying is anything (and it is unlikely to be as much as its practitioners claim), it is about contacts. A lobbying and public relations company whose executives know no one of any importance or influence would be laughable. Since lobbyists have historically followed political power wherever it goes, no one should be surprised at a rapid growth in the number of meeters and greeters around the new Scottish Parliament.

In order to secure its story, the Observer organised a sting where two executives from Beattie Media met someone posing as a businessman considering setting up in Scotland. At the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh on 31 August, Alex Barr and Kevin Reid met this man and went on, allegedly, to list their successes on behalf of their clients. These included arranging an opportunity for interested parties to meet and lobby the then Scottish sports minister, Sam Galbraith, for cash to be spent on football training, and also helping to persuade Lord (Gus) Macdonald to allow Federal Express to use Prestwick airport. The Observer further claimed that Kevin Reid talked about his close relationship with the Secretary of State for Scotland, John Reid. "I know the secretary of state very, very well, because he's my father."

The question that occurred to some was: is this a sensible choice of profession for the son of a cabinet minister? Leaving aside important issues of timing and family dynamics, the answer has to be "why not?" Politicians, and particularly those in opposition and/or those who have lost their seats, regularly pile into these companies to earn much-needed cash by bringing with them their contacts. Against that background, it is difficult to see why John Reid should feel compelled to advise his children to seek employment which has no direct connection with politics.

Despite the tut-tutting and pursed thinking ("The very idea!"), it is not the existence of lobbying firms that is the issue, even though there is a higher possibility of close links in a small country such as Scotland; it is how they behave.

Their methods and their strategies are what matter. Herein lie the seeds of the sort of corruption that finally overwhelmed John Major's government and left the impression of Tory benches littered with brown envelopes.

While it is always difficult to prevent determined wrong-doing, the announcement that there is to be an urgent investigation into this affair is welcome. The Scottish Parliament is young and it is not too late to change its tone. And it is reassuring to hear Donald Dewar taking a tough line from the outset. Dewar's own reputation for the occasional air of professorial unworldliness will also help here and, whatever opinion the electorate may have formed of his general performance, his probity is beyond question. Dewar is trusted.

While the First Minister and the Scottish Parliament's Standards Committee can regulate what their ministers and members do and don't do when confronted by a lobbyist (most politicians can, in any case, detect a piece of special pleading the second it walks in the door), they cannot remove lobbying from politics in Scotland. All they can try to do is to remove the odour of impropriety and also help push the process out into the public domain.

Often the most effective sort of lobbying is achieved in a more public manner, but it is what happens in private that concerns Donald Dewar. And while certain broad-brush measures of accountability and openness seem possible, it will be extremely difficult to control or even detect the ebb and flow of influence as it washes over issues important to those willing to pay lobbyists to act on their behalf. No matter how the rules change, this will remain a contact sport.

Alistair Moffat