Illustration by Rachel Macnaghten
Whoever said that money makes the world go round got it wrong. The truth is that money stops the world from going round, immobilises it, disables it: it is a roadblock, not a highway. Money intoxicates, money deludes – sit by the roulette table in a Las Vegas casino and you’ll see what I mean. Something about a pound note or dollar bill unlocks some atavistic proprietarian impulse, an impulse to be the most important ape in the tribe. Thus a false sense of social superiority is created; hence a class system. The root of all evil? Perhaps that’s too simplistic. But one thing you certainly cannot say is that it makes the world go round.
The main form of this immobilisation is corruption. Or, as the British call it, cronyism. To be clear, cronyism is a type (an acutely British type) of corruption but it is rarely seen as one, possibly because of the compulsive need to sanitise the unsanitary. For instance, ‘problems’ become ‘issues’ and verbs are altogether omitted from the political lexicon. No more do we do things; now we sloganise things. It is much the same with cronyism versus corruption.
The pursuit of profit through corruption, or – yes – cronyism, brings countries to their knees, if they are vulnerable enough. Ukraine was bankrupted by corrupt president Viktor Yanukovych, who gave public funds to such enforcers as Paul Manafort, an aid of Donald Trump. This is what happens when you introduce moneyhungry politicians to a country’s political ecosystem and enable them to devour it.
Britain is no stranger to the corrosive influence of money on the operation of government, especially since Thatcher, whose neoliberal monetarist economic policy has shaded all premierships since. After the less-than-radical interim of so-called ‘New Labour’, captained by Blair and Brown, the House-majority Conservative Party had to deal with the hangover of 2008, employing a policy of sharp, sharp cuts to public spending, known as austerity. Prime Minister David Cameron and his lackey, Chancellor George Osbourne, paraded ‘fiscal responsibility’ and financial maturity among the lower classes: spend less, save more, get a better job. Ironic, seeing as it was this very government that abscised the main rate of corporation tax, branding it as more of a pollarding job that will galvanise investment in British businesses, but in fact was discouraged by senior economists. As expected, this level of corporate prioritisation left the poorest among us adrift and necessitous. In the language of plenty, the Tories amplified poverty. In austerity we see clearly with whom the Conservatives lay their allegiance and against whom they turn.
The Corruption Perception Index lists the UK at number 11 in terms of cleanliness: the usual suspects occupy the ‘dirty pile’ of the index – South Sudan, Somalia, Syria. But, as Oliver Bullough noted in his book Moneyland, this index tabulates perception only. In a truly globalised economic climate, one where offshore accountancy is as commonplace as it is unfair, those EuroAmerican ‘clean’ countries find a lot of dirt under their fingernails.
Nowhere has this dispiriting reality been more embarrassingly catalogued than in the recent lobbying scandal of David Cameron.
After he fled Downing Street, Cameron found himself working for the financing firm Greensill Capital (the founder of which was himself a Senior Advisor to the PM under Cameron’s premiership) which specialises in third-party reverse factoring. Greensill went insolvent in March 2021, and Cameron took it upon himself to try and persuade Chancellor Sunak to make an exception to government rules and provide the drowning firm with a bail-out loan for which it was not eligible. In other words, Cameron partook in corruption. Chummy text messages between Cameron and Sunak, in which Cameron bragged about his possible dividend of $60 million if the loan was granted, show the importance of access in modern politics. Anneliese Dodds, then-Shadow Chancellor, raised this point: ‘Rishi Sunak already had questions to answer as to why Greensill was given so much more access to the Treasury than other COVID lenders.’ (Note that this is not Greensill’s first rodeo into dodgy territory. In 2019 Matt Hancock had a private, liquored meeting with Lex Greensill and David Cameron to discuss a new NHS payment scheme. The motivations of the triumvirate are unclear but an ever-growing crony nexus emerges.)
Employment of ex-politicians in the private sector is not exactly newfounded or uncommon: the Guardian reported in 2017 that the number of ministerial incumbents going through the revolving door is increasing. The attraction, to those hired and those hiring, is obvious. Cabinet ministers, new or old, are in the know; they know how government works, they know who to pester and who to avoid, they know the bureaucratic snags and how to skirt over them, they know the people in charge, they know how to get this or that firm a good audience with the people who run the show. For the hired, the impetus is similar, though in a different capacity. It is the paycheque, and the freedom from tabloid scrutiny. The catholicity of the feedback loop between Westminster and the City grows more and more detectable the longer the Tories hold public office. Funny that. One can see here an underlying thematic continuity: money. Money again drives corruption, whether it be drinks with CEOs or text correspondences with senior Cabinet officials. To claim that this is fundamentally dissimilar to the ‘classic’ oligarchical corruption of Russia and Ukraine is to put old wine in a new bottle.
The revolving door issue is all the more pertinent after Dominic Cummings’s forecasting a ‘hard rain’ on the civil service, a civil service that has been deconstructed by the appointment of outsiders, typically of a private-sector background. Cummings’s grim sagework would be one hell of an incentive to jump ship. Such matey, overfamiliar, feet-on-the-couch style of government has been dubbed a ‘chumocracy’ by critics, and the effect of it has been (as you may expect) the piecemeal privatisation of the NHS. Johnson runs a corrupt government, not the least of which has been the consumption of donor funds on personal flat refurbishment.
What’s to be done? The defence Cameron has erected is even more revealing. In response to the scandal, Cameron repeated that he had broken no rules by lobbying for Greensill. True, but shameful. What Cameron did was allowed officially but certainly not morally. The fact that the ‘rules’ of government don’t measure up to even the basest standard of contemporary morality says something about those rules. Antediluvian maybe; but I would say rather that they were written by and for the same people. Specifically, those people who would stand to gain from lax lobbying laws. Rewrite the rules then, because what Cameron did, or rather what he tried to do, ought to be against them. There is precedent for this, bare in mind. After the 1994 Cash-for-Questions affair, the rules were changed; and after the 2009 expenses scandal, the rules, again, were changed.
The Greensill lobbying scandal is symptomatic, not aberrative. There is a long history of corruption, cronyism and sleaze in British politics. And not just from the Conservatives too. In 1997 Mr Bernie Eccleston – Formula One mogul – donated £1 million to the Labour Party in their election campaign. Then the freshly elected prime minister, Blair, announced that tobacco sponsorships at sporting events would be prohibited – all events except Formula One. It doesn’t take a genius to put two and two together. And, in 2007, Blair was investigated for a possible criminal offence: the vending of peerages for political donations during the Cash-for-Honours scandal. (Johnson mimics Blair’s scruples when it comes to lordships: just last December he rejected official advice and made a peer of Tory donor Peter Cruddas.)
As shown, it really isn’t just lobbying. This beast has three heads, according to the Policy Director of Transparency UK Duncan Hames: ‘there are a number of indicators around the relationship between money and politics – lobbying, the revolving door and political donations.’ To tackle all three, Parliament must change the rules to fit with any technological hitches – the text-message format of Cameron’s lobbying liberated it from disclosure – and with axiomatic ethical colouring that so far has been ignored.