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Thursday, April 5, 2012

The stubborn stench of money politics


LONDON — The co-treasurer of the British Conservative Party, Peter Cruddas, a wealthy self-made businessman, made some revealing and highly embarrassing comments recently to journalists from The Sunday Times posing as potential donors to the Tories.

He suggested that donors who wanted to be in the "Premier League," to use soccer terminology, should contribute at least a quarter of a million pounds (over ¥32 million) to the party's coffers. He also indicated that donors in the "Premier League" could expect to be invited to dinner with the prime minister and his wife Samantha at Number 10 Downing Street, the prime minister's official residence. Their views and suggestions could also be passed on to the policy committee at Number 10.

The journalists claimed to represent foreign donors from whom political parties in Britain are legally precluded from receiving money.

Cruddas advised his visitors that to make their donations legally acceptable they should channel them through a British registered company — he was advising them how to get round the law.

The prime minister reacted angrily to the newspaper's revelations and Cruddas was required to resign his party post immediately. After some hesitation the names of donors who had been entertained privately at Number 10 were revealed, but it was made clear that the costs of the hospitality had not been met from public funds. The Sunday Times later revealed that donors have also been entertained at the prime minister's country residence as well as at Number 10. There may be other embarrassing revelations to come.

These arrangements do not smell good but there is no indication that the Conservative Party have in fact contravened the law.

The Labour Party has responded by calling for a public inquiry, but are inhibited from making too much of this embarrassing episode by the fact that the Labour Party receive the bulk of its funding from the trade unions. The unions demonstrated their influence over the party by voting for Ed Miliband as leader of the party in succession to Gordon Brown, rather than his more charismatic brother David, the former foreign secretary. While it held the government reins, the Labour Party had its own scandal over allegations that cash donations opened the way to honors in Britain's traditional awards system, including knighthoods and peerages.

Nor can the Liberal Democrats be too critical. They are coalition partners with the Conservatives in the present government and know that one of their wealthy donors was a fraudster,

One result of this scandal has been the decision to bring forward interparty talks about the future funding of political parties. But these are likely to be contentious and no early solution is in sight.

In the autumn of last year the chairman of the Independent Committee on Standards in Public Life suggested that individual donations to political parties should be capped at £10,000 (¥1.35 million) and that trade union members, whose dues are used to fund the Labour Party unless they "opt out," would in the future have to "opt in" to what is termed the political levy. The Conservatives wanted individual donations to be capped at a higher figure and the Labour Party disliked the proposed arrangements for the trade unions.

An alternative would in theory be for political parties to be funded by the taxpayer. But, apart from the difficulty of agreeing on a formula about how this should be done, politicians of all parties recognize that at a time of austerity and cuts in government expenditure public funding of political parties would be highly unpopular with the electorate. As was shown in a recent British by-election in the Yorkshire city of Bradford, the British electorate are already much disenchanted with politicians of every color.

The problem could be mitigated by more stringent limits on spending by political parties particularly in general elections, but this would be difficult to police and would not on its own solve the problem of how to prevent donations seeming to buy political influence.

Another useful step would be to decrease further the number of seats in the House of Commons. The government is already planning some reduction in the number of members of Parliament, but even after this reduction Britain will have more members of Parliament than Japan despite having half the population as Japan. Moreover electoral costs will inevitably increase if, as proposed, the House of Lords is turned into a largely elected senate.

There is no justification for complacency about the possibility that influence may be bought through political donations. But the media, which is always seeking to uncover the next scandal, have not so far produced evidence of corruption in central government. Britain remains one of the least corrupt societies.

Money politics is an issue for all democratic countries. The huge sums required to field and support a U.S. presidential candidate dwarfs anything seen in Britain. Considering the sums involved it is hardly surprising that the winner has to give his supporters something in return, not least in the form of official appointments including those of U.S. ambassadors to foreign countries.

Money politics is very much also an issue in Japan. The costs of standing and winning a seat in the Diet or a gubernatorial election at the prefectural level are huge. The close relations that exist between politicians and businessmen are underpinned by cozy relations between bureaucrats and businesses, which frequently provide positions for former officials. Disillusionment over such toadying has surely been a major factor in the Japanese electorate's jaundiced view of today's politicians.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain's ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.


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