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03 July 1997 1997

Sleaze Merchants

On the publication of Sir Gordon Downey's report, James Heartfield explains what is at issue in the 'Cash for Questions' scandal

Parliamentary commissioner for standards Sir Gordon Downey said today that there was 'compelling' evidence that former trade minister Neil Hamilton accepted cash from businessman Mohammed Al Fayed in return for lobbying on his behalf.

'The way in which these payments were received and concealed fell well below the standards expected of Members of Parliament', he said.

Sir Downey is right in this respect. Members of Parliament are anxious that their cosy relationship with big business puts them in disrepute. Clearly being exposed in the newspapers falls well below the standards of receipt and concealment of payments expected of Members of Parliament.

In fact Neil Hamilton has been made the sacrificial lamb in a ceremony designed to cleanse the reputation of the British establishment. Downey has clearly widened the remit of his investigation from 'cash for questions' in to general lobbying activities. But Neil Hamilton is no more guilty of lobbying for business than anyone else in the House of Commons.

Margaret Thatcher established the principle that the role of government is to 'bat for British industry'. Every major party is now agreed that the role of parliament is to support big business. In the run-up to the election Gordon Brown (now New Labour's Chancellor of the Exchequer) prostrated himself before the City of London. Yesterday he demonstrated his support for business by threatening to take away young people's dole money unless they accept his new slave labour scheme.

Members of all parties and all governments do favours for their friends. The only difference is that in New Labour's case that means David Puttnam's friends in the film industry, or millionaire Jennie Page, paid 500 000 to organise the building of the Millennium Dome. And New Labour are just as interested in their own personal advancement as anybody else.

As for fat cat Sir Gordon Downey, he works a four-day week for 72 000 a year. In 1994 he got a 110 000 golden handshake after working for less than a year as chairman of the Personal Investment Authority.

The sleaze merchants in the press, like Peter Preston and Alan Rusbridger at the Guardian, manufactured the 'cash for questions' scandal. The relationship that existed between Ian Greer Associates (a lobby firm) and Tory MPs was wholly unexceptional by parliament's standards - parsimonious by those of the press. But Rusbridger fluffed up 'cash for questions' as a way of attacking the Tories' conduct without attacking their policies, which had, after all, been adopted wholesale by Labour.

The effect of the Downey enquiry is to relegitimise a British establishment that has lost the support of the public. Their fascination with sleaze was a symptom of the way that politicians have failed to win public confidence in recent years. By throwing out a few supposedly 'rotten apples' they hope that the reputation of the system can be restored. But that is not likely to happen, because the problem of political legitimacy was never one of a few rotten apples.

The real problem with the sleaze bandwagon is that once it starts rolling it does not stop. Instead the politics of corruption hand power to those who define what is and is not corrupt. So far New Labour has used the 'corruption' charge to smear its only Muslim MP and left-winger Bob Wareing. But they should look out. The people who get more power are precisely the 'sleaze merchants' who are riding the sleaze bandwagon: the unelected parliamentary ommissioner for standards, the unelected editor of MI5's house newspaper Alan Rusbridger, the apolitical technocrats like Jennie Page and so on. The one thing that you can be sure of is that the Sleaze Merchants will not be sharing any of that power with the rest of us.

James Heartfield will be speaking at the 'The legalisation of everyday life' dayschool on 29th July 1997 at the University of London Union, London W1. Further details are available from:

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