Why the British system is so easily gamed by reckless opportunists

The David Cameron lobbying scandal is just one example of the revolving door in Westminster between private capital and public office.

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David Cameron actively lobbied cabinet ministers and civil servants for cheap government loans for Greensill Capital, the financial services company that collapsed last month. Cameron’s frantic lobbying was met with cooperation from Rishi Sunak, and a friendly drink with Matt Hancock. In 2011, Greensill, a firm set up to specialise in supply-chain financing, was brought in to advise the Cameron administration on controlling the cost of government contracts. Its billionaire owner, Lex Greensill, was given a Downing Street email address and landline. It now transpires that a senior civil servant, who became a Greensill director, started working for the company while still employed by the government. All of this is perhaps less surprising than that Boris Johnson’s administration is conducting an inquiry (however limited) into the matter.

This is hardly a government averse to being lobbied, taking cash for influence, or handing out rich contracts to political allies. Before Covid, it faced numerous accusations of electoral manipulation, lies, dark money and pork barrelling. Last December, an investigative report by the New York Times found that of £16bn spent by the government on Covid contracts, at least half went to firms that were either politically connected to the governing party, or had no prior experience in the area they were bidding on. The government also declined competitive tendering, according to the National Audit Office, for around £10.5bn worth of contracts

The list of Tory-linked firms and investors awarded public contracts, or lobbied for by civil servants and ministers is staggering. The indifference to private sector rent-seeking, exposed by a cross-party inquiry during the free school meals fiasco, is a logical corollary of such corruption. Even the policy of resisting a circuit-breaker lockdown back in the summer was linked to advice given by a Tory billionaire-bankrolled scientist. The lobbying inquiry mandated by Johnson has a deliberately narrow remit, so as to avoid these swamps.

[see also: How the Greensill scandal has become more dangerous for the Conservatives]

Cameron’s lobbying scandal is, moreover, just one example of the revolving door that exists in Westminster between private capital and public office. In 2018, over 200 former ministers and civil servants took up advisory and lobbying roles with private companies. Retiring prime ministers, especially since the Thatcher era, are expected to milk the corporate teat. Thatcher herself became a “geopolitical consultant” for the tobacco firm Philip Morris. John Major went on to work for Credit Suisse. Tony Blair found work with JP Morgan, Zurich Financial Services, and the dictatorship of Kazakhstan. No longer is Downing Street a route to pasture in the House of Lords – it is a gateway to the corporate creamery.

This is just one of the ways in which class power works in British politics. There is, of course, a venerable tradition of money buying influence: “cash for questions”, “cash for access”, and “cash for honours” all name scandals in which political donations allegedly secured favours. However, it isn’t all about the donors. Corporate ties between politicians and businessmen overlap with similar networks developed through elite schools, clubs and universities. When Cameron was in office, the networks of class power that congealed around him were known as the “Chipping Norton” set. They included chief police officers, former spin doctors such as Peter Mandelson, and journalists such as Robert Peston and News UK chief executive Rebekah Brooks, whose newspapers faced allegations at the Leveson Inquiry of systematically bribing public officials and police chiefs. New Labour, likewise, had its cronyism scandals.

It is a popular leftist pastime to deride the Etonian Tory, the Bullingdon Club boor and the “old boys club’”. But it would be a mistake to confuse what is happening today with what used to be called “the establishment”. If there was an automatic relationship between elite schools, corporate boardrooms, civil service and government, lobbyists and activist donors would almost be redundant. As the author Aeron Davis persuasively argues, it is precisely the breakdown of that class formation that has permitted interlocking cadres of “reckless opportunists” to take power. Government continues to be dominated by elite schools and universities, but that is far less true of business than it used to be. These energetic chancers, of which the ever-slippery Cameron is an exemplar, have none of the ideologies of duty and service that characterised the old establishment.

[see also: David Cameron and the great sell-out]

The new corruption also reveals something about the state of British democracy. Historically, corruption has been most flagrant in periods when mass democracy was at its weakest. The “Old Corruption” that dominated government in the 19th century was a function of the continued dominance of the aristocracy. The exclusion of the working class and women from the franchise allowed landowners to retain power through “rotten boroughs”. In recent decades, a different pattern has emerged. As the political scientist Peter Mair documented in 2006, the trend since the 1990s has been towards public withdrawal from participation in the state, and the withdrawal of state elites from accountability to the public. 

This is the product of a decades-long neoliberal reformation of politics and global capitalism. The constraints on democratic capacity, using outsourcing, quangos and market-like mechanisms for provision, were matched by a drive to bring businessmen and privileged corporations into government. Think of the way in which Thatcher hired a Sainsbury's boss, Roy Griffiths, to reform the NHS in 1983. Or, likewise, how firms such as Serco routinely land contracts to manage public sector provision. The new political class that emerged in this context, particularly given the defeats of organised labour, is dominated by professionalised cadres linked to preferred media outlets and corporations.

This transformation also wrought a much broader cultural change. Its values of dog-eat-dog competition, and the soaring inequality and the culture of sadism toward losers which sharply raised the costs of failure, incentivised a culture of cheating. Corporations were in the vanguard here. The global wave of vicious corporate cheating by major firms to evade taxes, health and safety regulations, climate law and workers’ rights, followed the pattern of cut-throat, union-busting class warfare, exemplified by Amazon’s ruthless war on its own workforce

The British political system is so easily gamed by reckless opportunists, lobbyists and flows of dark money, because its degeneration has been decades in the making. The danger inherent in this is not simply an ineffectual government perpetuating a sequence of socially damaging elite debacles: Iraq, austerity and the pandemic response. It is that the more such confidence men thrive in politics, the more they will gear the system to benefit people like them – and the less chance we have of retaining more than a semblance of democracy. 

[see also: Madoff and me: How I lost my father to the world’s biggest Ponzi scheme]

Richard Seymour is a writer, broadcaster and activist. His latest book is The Twittering Machine (Indigo Press)

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