‘The rules there are different’
A recording recently surfaced of some of Matteo Salvini’s aides apparently soliciting Russian money last year through a dodgy oil deal. Prosecutors are now investigating whether they broke Italian electoral law. The interior minister, characteristically, is trying to shrug it off. There were similar petrol scandals in Italy in the 1970s and 1980s, but the most striking point of comparison is the vast web of corruption uncovered in the Tangentopoli scandal of the early 1990s. The Lega Nord, then under the leadership of Umberto Bossi, benefited as an insurgent anti-corruption party. Its deputies waved nooses as they castigated the political establishment; Bossi himself was later revealed to be an embezzler of titanic proportions.
Tangentopoli is sometimes regarded as the moment at which an already weary Italian public lost all faith in the old political order: the dripfeed of revelations and the wave of trials that followed tore through an already frayed fede pubblica. It marked the end of the old mass parties, and the rise of the highly mediatised, individual-centred and weakly cohered parties that followed. Bettino Craxi, one of Tangentopoli’s chief beneficiaries, pioneered this form of politics; Berlusconi brought it to perfection.
Not everyone had equal tenancy in Bribesville. The PCI had just dissolved in a great wave of historical grief for the collapse of communism. It was by no means innocent, but its corruption was dwarfed by the Socialists’ mania for self-enrichment. Enrico Berlinguer (in Perry Anderson’s words, the PCI’s ‘last real leader’) articulated a form of left-wing austerity – anti-consumerist, high-minded, self-sufficient – against the general drift of postwar Italian culture. ‘‘The moral question,’ he said in 1981, ‘is at the centre of Italy’s problems.’
When Britain’s insular political class thinks of Italy, it is usually as a byword for instability or venality – an unwarranted form of self-congratulation. Britain had no Tangentopoli: its forms of corruption are more sedate and domestic, and, if not always entirely legal, usually occupy a grey zone of establishment omertà. The expenses scandal a decade ago, though it dethroned a speaker and put a handful of MPs and peers in prison, had little effect other than to confirm public cynicism that behind politicians’ paeans to public service lurks a far stronger instinct to feather their own nests – or clean their own moats.
A fuller account of legal and semi-legal corruption in British politics would encompass the hidden power of lobbyists in Westminster, the revolving door between politics and big business, and Tangentopoli-on-Thames – the House of Lords. David Cameron once said that lobbying would be the cause of a Westminster scandal far larger than 2009’s eruption, but the political access of private sector lobbyists – for tobacco, the arms industry, petroleum – has never quite caught the public imagination in the way it should. Untracked and unrecorded, powerful sectoral interests enjoy greater access to MPs and government than many of their constituents. In the US, there are at least campaigns against and arguments over Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that opened the floodgates for electoral cash; in Britain, there’s hardly any public conversation about the lobbyist viper at the heart of government.
Boris Johnson’s new Cabinet, stacked with the beneficiaries of lobbyist largesse, ought to blow that conversation wide open. The new home secretary, Priti Patel, worked at the lobbying firm Weber Shandwick before entering Parliament; she recently netted £5000 a month working for a US firm that supplies the Ministry of Defence, and £45,000 a year putting the skills and connections she acquired at DfID at the disposal of an accountancy firm that targets developing nations.
The Institute for Economic Affairs, a hard-right thinktank known to have taken money from oil and tobacco companies, defends corporate lobbyists across broadcast media. Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, worked closely with the IEA as part of the ‘Free Enterprise Group’, launching his book at their offices in 2009, and crediting them with ‘waging the war of ideas’ behind Britannia Unchained, the 2012 jeremiad against workers’ rights that unites many now around the Cabinet table.
Lobbying is legal, invisible and scantily regulated. A register of lobbyists was set up under Cameron, but the in-house lobbyists used by many firms don’t need to sign up. Meetings are recorded only if a consultant lobbyist is meeting with a minister or a permanent secretary in person, on behalf of a third party: a well-timed coffee with a special adviser, or a prodding phone call, won’t trouble its pages. The register’s entries are accordingly sparse.
The outflow of ex-politicians, especially ministers, to well-paid jobs lobbying or consulting in fields they’ve helped (or failed) to regulate is well known. Between 2015 and 2017, having lost her seat, Esther McVey worked as an adviser for the Floreat Group, a company servicing the needs of ‘ultra-high net worth individuals’, while also consulting for a lobbying firm, Hume Brophy, which boasts of its ability to shape legislation and promote specific policies for its clients. She returns as housing minister.
The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, which approves and advises high-ranking civil servants and former ministers on their transition to the private sector, shrugged its shoulders at McVey’s appointment, merely reminding her of her statutory obligations. It’s hard to see the body as more than a toothless rubber-stamping exercise; Labour’s Jon Trickett recently called it ‘not fit for purpose’.
For many politicians, though, the red benches of the Lords are the real prize. Jack Straw, secretly filmed proffering his services in the 2016 ‘cash for access’ scandal, reassured his benefactor that ‘the rules there are different … plenty of people have commercial interests there.’ Occasionally defended as a collection of Britain’s ‘great and good’, the Lords is above all a gathering of the wealthy. A peerage itself is worth much more than its £300 per diem, as it opens the door to well-rewarded non-executive directorships. And while most peers are reasonably good at declaring their paid or private interests, it doesn’t prevent them from shaping the law towards those interests. Economists at Oxford have found a strong correlation between large private donations to political parties and elevation to the Lords, even though selling peerages is illegal.
Berlinguer’s historic concern over the ‘moral question’ is invoked today, if at all, in a species of sloganeering anti-politics, where corruption is understood as the politician’s default. But Berlinguer emphatically believed that profound political change could be achieved within the democratic system; his tone was anger at the degradation of politics, not cynicism at its very possibility. Glancing at the spivs around the Cabinet table, it’s hard not to pine for some of that chilly rectitude.