Peter Geoghegan’ book Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics* is worth reading for anyone interested in politics in the UK. It discusses in detail the state of funding of political parties today – primarily the Conservatives – and reveals an alarming picture of widespread abuse of the system and the inadequacy of the system that is supposed to keep a check on it. It shows substantial funding coming from overseas, mainly America, and the tangled methods to hide the sources from scrutiny.
Some of the sources of money and the circuitous route it follows are almost comical. For example, during the Brexit campaign, posters with DUP appeared in the UK mainland. The DUP were exempt from revealing its sources of funding because of the threat to their (the funders) lives by terrorists. This was used by the Constitutional Research Council to funnel £435,000 into the DUP. So who are the CRC? The CRC is an unincorporated association and this means details of who they are and how they are funded are not published. It turns out that the CRC is run by someone called Richard Cook from a private house in Glasgow. Cook runs DDR Recycling. There follows several pages of the activities of this company involving law suits, alleged illegal shipments and unpaid bills. Geoghegan says the story of this man and his firm reads like an ‘airport thriller’. He never revealed however where the money came from.
Another surprise is the role played by Liam Fox in promoting trade links with the US via the ‘Atlantic Bridge’. They have been described as a ‘byword for lobbying scandal leaving a trail of dark money and influence peddling’ and were active both in Washington and London. Fox played a key role in promoting links between libertarians, neo-conservatives and Tea Party enthusiasts. Links are described between Atlantic Bridge and the Kochs, Philip Morris tobacco, NRA and Exxon/Mobil. Fox has always been a keen believer in close links with the USA yet it seems clear the UK will be a junior party in any future relationship. Since one of the battle cries of the Brexit campaign was ‘take back control’ it seems odd that we do that and then cede much of it across the Atlantic.
The so-called ‘Institute’ of Economic Affairs features on many pages as an influential lobbying organisation. It has been influential in setting policy agendas often based on flimsy research, has links to 31 MPs and has argued for the privatisation of the NHS. Crucially, its funding is secret although suspicions surround the influence of American money. Its opinions are sometimes sought by mainstream media and they appear from time to time on the Today programme on the BBC but are seldom asked ‘who funds you?’
The ERG features as you would expect which became a party within a party and was behind the defenestration of Theresa May as PM and Boris Johnson becoming her replacement. Their funding is also opaque. Indeed, throughout the book, various shady organisations and lobby groups appear and yet who funds them is either opaque or secret.
There is nothing inherently wrong with lobbying. No doubt people and organisations have the right to speak to elected representatives and ministers. The problem is now the scale of it and its secrecy. American funded organisations, with strong anti-government and neo-liberal agendas and with a desire to deregulate, are pouring millions into a variety of think tanks and lobby organisations with a view to influencing policy. They have been hugely successful and Brexit itself may well be their crowning glory. If we are to have lobbyists, their funding should be known – particularly overseas funding – and meetings should be minuted.
In our Democracy Café sessions, the issue of democracy has frequently appeared as you might expect. We have debated this and that form and which of them might give better results. Readers of this book might conclude that what form it takes is largely irrelevant. What matters is the influence wielded behind the scenes, the ability to set agendas especially as so much of our media is compliant, and the ability to ‘frame’ debates or in other words, the ‘dead cat’ argument. The wealthy can pay £50,000 to dine with the prime minister. The housing minister sat next to a developer and rushed back to overrule the inspectors in what was alleged to be an example of ‘cash for favours’.
A big part of the book is taken up with the row concerning digital media, Cambridge Analytica and AggregateIQ. This involved the use of illegally acquired personal data from tens of millions of Facebook clients to facilitate political campaigning.
Overall, the scale of the lobbying, the money involved and the fact it is way outside the traditions of the way politics is supposed to be carried in this country is both depressing and shocking. Few however seem concerned. The occasional fine is too small to be regarded as little more than the cost of doing business. Politicians are unlikely to give adequate powers to the Electoral Commission to enable it to properly police the system.
It is ironic that just down the road from where I am typing this was the rottenest rotten borough of Old Sarum. No one lived there but it had two MPs. Landowners were able to appoint whom they wanted prior to reform in 1832. We joke about it now but in a way we have a truly rotten system today that serves no one except possibly some American and UK corporations. All the time we have a defective, corrupt and secretive system, we will get the politics and politicians we deserve.
A recommended read.
Democracy For Sale. Dark Money and Dirty Politics. Peter Geoghegan, Apollo Books, 2020