2 September 2021
Cash for Access
A part of the system.
By John Watson
Some things never seem to go away. When the Shaw Sheet suspended publication for the summer break, we hoped that we had escaped having to deal with the boring subject of “cash for access” which was then all over the political pages of the press. Alas, the optimism was ill founded. It was still there lurking in Saturdays edition of The Times; it is true that the context had changed. This time the story was about contributors to charities sponsored by Prince Charles getting the opportunity to hobnob with him at Dumfries House. That is rather different from the contributors to the Conservative party being given access to the Prime Minister but the answer is still the same. Unless there is more to it than straight access there is nothing wrong with it at all.
I am not going to strain readers’ patience by talking much about the charities. Most charitable donors expect something in return, if only a name at the back of a theatre program or the opportunity to talk to management about how their money is being spent. No doubt a dinner at Dumfries House is a particularly sparkling occasion but inviting donors to dine with the Prince is merely a grander version of the recognition which charities up and down the country give to those who help them achieve their objectives.
More interesting, though I have to admit barely so, is the question of political access. Make a sufficiently large donation to the Tory Party and you will get the opportunity to mix with the Prime Minister and others and, no doubt, to explain to them your sapient theories for how the country should be run. What, exactly, is wrong with that?
I do not know whether Panorama has made a programme on this particular subject but if they did so they would give the impression that there was plenty wrong with it. There would be plenty of chat about corruption. Their reporter, no doubt a Dan, an Ed or a Ben, would wander around in a dirty white macintosh putting his microphone up people’s noses hissing “access” and then looking significantly at the camera as they drove off in irritation. No doubt the BBC would spice it up with references to “dark money” and “tax avoidance” and there would of course be references to old boys’ networks and unmentionable things done with the heads of pigs at Oxford dinners. What there wouldn’t be is a serious comment on the place of funding and influence in British politics, something far too dull for the investigative journalists. A subject for the foot soldiers really, something for the grubby hacks of Shaw Sheet. So here, ladies and gentlemen, we are.
If we take the two elements of “cash for access” in the reverse order, we should begin with the question of whether it is a good thing that the people should have access to politicians at all. Should they perhaps be a sort of priesthood making abstract decisions on the basis of advice tendered by civil servants without any public input? Certainly there is an argument for that and some countries might be better for being led by technicians who are not swayed from their idea of public good by popular opinion. But that isn’t our system. In the UK a Member of Parliament represents his or her constituents and even though that does not mean slavishly following their views (oddly if you go back to the time of Peel, the two University members were supposed to reflect the views of the universities they represented, but that was exceptional) it would be nonsense to suggest that it was wrong to take those views into account. Any system under which politicians are elected must as a practical matter involve a communication of views from the electors.
So if we put a big tick beside “access in principle”, to whom should it be afforded? A good starting place would seem to be the political party by which the MP was selected. We do not have primaries here in the way they do in the States but nonetheless politicians do have important supporters on whom they rely and they would be foolish not to discuss their policies with them. Suppose you were a Labour MP and had been selected as the Labour candidate because of support from a particular Trade Union which particularly approved of your views on industry. Should you not keep in regular touch with them to ensure that their concerns were being taken into account? Of course you should. What, then, if that union, delighted with your performance in the House, makes contributions to your election expenses or helps to fund the local party? Does that mean that you must cease to provide them with access to you? Of course not. Nor is it the case that any political party which receives contributions should be debarred from political discussions with those who have made them.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that politicians should allow themselves to be bribed or that bribery becomes more acceptable because the money flows to the party rather than to the man or woman concerned. Altering a decision in recognition of the receipt of money is corrupt. Listening to those who provide funding is not and that distinction applies whether the money comes from a trade union or a hedge fund manager.
The difficulty of course is a practical one. In a world of informal contacts it can be hard to know exactly what it is you are looking at. It is for these reasons that we need transparency, registers of interests and contributions and the like. Sometimes they work and sometimes they do not but one of the more encouraging aspects of David Cameron’s lobbying in the Greensill affair is that it failed. He had access and tried to sell his product more aggressively than one might think appropriate. “Oohs and Ahhhs” from The Guardian readers. Still, in the end it failed to persuade and he was shown the door. Leaving aside the question as to whether the intensity of his lobbying was unseemly, that is the way in which the system ought to work. He had access. The officials listened but they were not swayed.
Cover page image: Colin Watts (Unsplash)