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7 February 2022

From the NS archive: Parliament’s decayed

22 December 1989: As the parliamentary decade ends under the eye of the TV cameras, Sarah Benton looks at some of the changes they won't be showing.

By Sarah Benton

“Political time is up for sale,” wrote Sarah Benton, the then deputy editor of this magazine, as she surveyed the parliamentary decade ending in December 1989. Throughout the Eighties the problem of Tory MPs holding second jobs such as directors, advisers and consultants had grown. But this wasn’t because they were more corrupt as individuals, Benton wrote. It was the decade’s politics that had “made commercial interests a more powerful voice than constituents”. Margaret Thatcher believed that the gaining of individual wealth is “economically necessary and morally virtuous”. She had awarded more knighthoods and peerages to industrialists than any prime minister since Lloyd George. Scandals surrounding and revelations about MPs’ financial interests exposed the corruption in the British government, but it was the policies of the time – namely privatisation and deregulation – that allowed it to happen.

Most back-bench Tory MPs have, over their decade of government, enjoyed between three and 20 paid positions with outside companies. Regarded by commerce as the body politic, they happily proffer their insider status as directors, advisers, consultants. Most of the rest are owners of land and property, barristers or members of Lloyd’s.

The MP who claims no outside interests, like Peter Griffiths of Portsmouth North, is a rare creature. True populists (Mr Griffiths is the man who defeated Patrick Gordon Walker in Smethwick in 1964 in a campaign notorious for the racism it evoked) have a cause. The rest, reluctant to be mere cannon fodder for the whips, have to find one. Being an adviser or consultant may provide that; not to mention the pleasure of the income it yields.

During last year’s debate on the Finance Bill, Labour’s Nick Brown named 11 Tory MPs who had moved worrying amendments in committee. “It was our concern that it was companies and not constituencies that were being represented at this stage of the Finance Bill,” he said. Of course, MPs are not trapped in committees all day. The man labelled the brightest of his intake, John Redwood, a previous head of the Prime Minister’s policy unit, was chairman of Norcros, a large international firm, until he became a minister. That ate into his time and fed into his pocket.

Though John Redwood is evidently a rich man, having headed Rothschild’s privatisation unit before becoming an MP (and after advising the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee on nationalisation), he is one of a new breed of professional Tory politicians. Before the 1960s, MPs entered parliament at a later age. Tories who had not inherited wealth had had time to amass it. Today, the new Tory MP is likely to be in his early thirties. He has to make his money as an MP. As Lord Gowrie mourned when resigning his £33,000 post, even a minister’s salary does not pay for the sort of life which a member expects to be his.

Britain’s most sedulous watcher of parliament, Andrew Roth of Parliamentary Profiles, calls it the end of the “squirearchy” in politics – with an added twist provided by this government. “Thatcherism has done a lot to corrupt the breed of politicians,” he says. It has made them “more crudely and aggressively materialistic”. He recounts the story of one lobbyist who approached a Tory MEP and was met with the response, “What’s in it for me?” If this is the voice of parliament in the 1990s, it’s not because individual MPs are more corrupt, but that 1980s politics has made commercial interests a more powerful voice than constituents.

With the social changes there are the new values. Mrs Thatcher has never tired of saying that the gaining of individual wealth is economically necessary (almost a patriotic duty) and morally virtuous. And neither she nor her phalanx of think tanks have ever uttered a word on the proper conduct of public life. From them, we only learn what politicians should not do (inhibit the gaining of private wealth). The civil service is no longer the ideal incarnate of disinterested public service, but the moribund block to the enterprise culture.

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Then there are the powers of patronage. Mrs Thatcher has doled out more knighthoods (82 before the latest round) and peerages (11) to favoured industrialists than any prime minister since Lloyd George. Three quarters of those honoured (do they know the meaning of the word?) had given donations to the Tory party, compared with one third of those honoured by Ted Heath.

The drive by the Scottish Office to fill every public position with placemen has done more than anything to alienate the most middle-class of Scots from the hand which, insists Scottish minister Michael Forsyth, has fed it. (Yes, that’s the same Mr Forsyth whose former PR firm had as a client Pritchard Services, leading hustler for council cleaning contracts.)

Yet are not British back-bench MPs only doing what their East German brothers have done: gaining wealth and social status through their public office? If their constituents object, they are not saying so. Nor is the body that is supposed to watch over them, the Select Committee on Members’ Interests. It has no powerful research team, and with no commanding ideal of how politicians ought to act, what should it be checking?

It has just completed its investigation into the interests of Winchester MP John Browne (who wanted to introduce a bill outlawing press investigation of personal finances). Michael Grylls is next in line. Mr Grylls’s posts include the chairmanship of the Trade and Industry Committee, ten directorships and a relationship with the bombastic lobbyists, Ian Greer Associates, which has excited attention.

Although dismissed by some other consultancies for being all noise and no nous, Ian Greer nonetheless has successfully pressed British Airways’ claims over Nicholas Ridley’s better judgement. He claims to have no MPs on his payroll, but does pay commission if an MP refers business to him. Other MPs, such as Sir Marcus Fox, Keith Speed and John Gorst, set up their own PR firms or consultancies. As each consultancy may have many clients (each passing over a good few thousand pounds a year), the income and duties of an MP with one consultancy may exceed those of an MP with a string of directorships.

But the flow of gold which has caused commerce and MPs to rush into headlong embrace comes, first and foremost, from privatisation and deregulation. These have unlocked such a tumble of contracts and clients and commissions that you have to be a Tory of unusually stem moral fibre to let it all flow past. Rolling back the frontiers of the state has created “a boom in consultancies” that has made the 1980s a “lobbyists’ paradise”, according to Peter Hennessy, author of Whitehall.

In the days of corporatism, private firms looked to the CBI (Confederation of British Industry) to put their general case. Now they want particular access to particular forms of deregulated business – or the protection of their monopoly. Large firms have their own public affairs units which maintain the closest liaison with ministers and civil servants. It is the little ones with, says Peter Hennessy, “their Question Time view of how the system works” who are drawn to back-bench MPs. The civil service constitutes the remote brain of the system; parliament the seductive, but ultimately helpless, body. If firms want political influence, they are wasting their money on MPs; if they merely want to join the Westminster dance, perhaps they are getting what they’re paying for.

We don’t know the full financial gains made through privatisation and deregulation, from the billions paid to advertising firms and stockbrokers, through the millions gained by asset stripping once-public concerns, to the mere thousands which go on commissions for fixing things in one way or another. The intense, and successful, pressure to “liberate” telecommunications enriched the consultancies. A whole new round of the money game has begun as TV franchises go up for auction, following the profitable period of lobbying for the franchises to go to auction. It was the lobbying in the 1950s to open a commercial TV channel which first opened the eyes of commerce and MPs to the possibilities of taking parliament by the hand and leading it towards a licence to print money.

In brief, political time is up for sale. It is no more immune to the drive for wealth and social status than any other area of life. Perhaps less; to be part of the new establishment, your children have to have a more expensive education than state salaries can fund. Is there any evidence that this has actually corrupted public life? The sanguine view is that the civil service, meticulous readers of the Register of Interests and Roth’s briefings, protects public life. They spot the venal MP, and appreciate the time saved by a well-informed lobbyist. At worst, they resent the time our taxes pay for which lobbyists consume.

The less sanguine view was put by Keith McDowell, former deputy director of the CBI: eyebrows had been raised, he said, at the way top civil servants “bounce into lucrative jobs in private industry and the City”. One firm, Public Policy Consultants, bases its reputation on knowing which civil servants to contact on which issue. All serious lobbyists are eager to get these brains on to their staff, as their greatest asset. How many civil servants, contemplating those City salaries, are happy to display to lobbyists what a “first-class mind” can do to be helpful? Can they always resist the desire to show that they are the sort of chap that the right sort of chap wants on his board of directors?

Yet money is not the only source of corruption. The irresistible allure for so many is the desire to be in the heart of things, in the magic circle where real power lies, where only other important people come.

And corruption is also to do with the absence of any governing impulse to be open and democratic – the sort of impulse which is now propelling eastern Europe out of its dark age. Insofar as civil servants do block the scramble for wealth and influence – a scramble which the impending end of Thatcherism will intensify – they do so in silence. The Official Secrets Act means we will never know what improprieties the civil service has saved us from. Judging by the evidence of Sir Peter Gregson on the Rover sweeteners to the Public Accounts Committee, not much. None of our watchdogs alerted us to that particular misuse of public funds before it was leaked.

Last week, Sir Geoffrey Howe warned the Select Committee on Procedure that if committees pressed civil servants on political issues, and if they even hinted in public that they had confidential material, the government “would feel bound to resist giving access” to information and civil servants.

At the end of the day, the institutions only work as effectively as we citizens make them work. And in our current age of cynicism, of disbelief in the power of politics to usher in a millennium of good government, we seem prepared to turn a blind eye.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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