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Gareth Jenkins

Rotten barrel

(December 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 181, December 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Corruption at Westminster is widely claimed to be an aberration by a few rotten apples. Gareth Jenkins explains its systematic and historical basis

‘This country has an international reputation for the integrity and honour of its public institutions,’ said John Major last month. This was despite the resignation of two ministers accused of taking cash in return for asking questions, and the publicity around hotel bills at the Paris Ritz.

Parliamentary representatives should serve the interests of those who elect them. They should neither line their pockets by abusing their position nor act on behalf of private interests. No MP should be in effect the MP for Harrods or for Blue Circle. And who would disagree? Accountability is the lifeblood of any democratic process and MPs should be as accountable as possible. The more restrictions on MPs being able to ‘supplement’ their income by being part time dentists or by becoming ‘advisers’ to lobbying companies the better.

However, parliament is not the democratic centre of our society as Tory and Labour politicians constantly tell us. The Tories have an obvious interest in the parliamentary myth as a way of diverting our attention from the reality. They represent not us but the people in the unelected part of the state machine (judges, top cops, army chiefs) and in company boardrooms (accountable only to shareholders), who take all the crucial decisions affecting our lives.

Labour on the other hand is in a different position. The judges, top cops, army chiefs and company bosses profoundly distrust the Labour Party because of the class gulf between themselves and the vast mass of people who vote for Labour. Labour can court representatives of the ruling class on the prawn cocktail circuit as much as it likes – it never has the class identity with them that the Tories enjoy. But because Labour sees no other avenue for change except operating through parliament, Labour too has to invite us to trust in its basic soundness.

This blunts its attack on corruption. Just as it makes concessions to the market in order to make it acceptable to the economic priorities of the boss class, so too it makes concessions to the deception that parliament has real control over the bosses or that it can ever be the servant of the mass of the working population.

Yet corruption has always played a part in the ‘Mother of Parliaments’. Parliament emerged historically as the instrument of the capitalist class. That may have enabled it to play a heroic part in the struggle against aristocratic and feudal reaction, culminating in the English Revolution of the mid-17th century. But with the emerging capitalists more or less firmly in the saddle thereafter, it has never departed from its role as the servant of that class.

The long history of corruption from that day to this is not an aberration but an expression of this role as different sections of the ruling class have jockeyed for influence with MPs and governments to advance their interests.

Sometimes this involved the most naked forms of corruption. In the 18th century MPs were little more than paid lackeys of the landowners, now thoroughly imbued with the new commercial ethic. Contracts, titles and favours went with the job. Robert Walpole, the Whig prime minister in the first half of the century, regularly used Treasury coffers to pay for support for his government.

Politics was literally the business of a few who could buy votes as they chose. What the vast majority wanted could be safely ignored as there was little sense that parliament represented anything except the interests of the men of property.

That began to change with the growth of radicalism, especially in the first half of the 19th century. Democracy became a force that could not be ignored when it became tied to the mass working class movement of Chartism. The ruling class was forced to concede inroads into what had hitherto been its exclusive debating forum – parliament. Our rulers didn’t like the fact that they were more open to public scrutiny. But there was a certain advantage for them. If they could persuade the mass of the population to see parliament as the one and only place for ‘politics’, then the fact that politics happened elsewhere – in the private debates among judges, generals, chief constables and the captains of industry – could be glossed over.

But to make parliament credibly appear to reflect the interests of society as a whole, the obvious corruption would have to be swept out of view. No more could the election of MPs be secured by bribery or coercion, a relatively frequent occurrence as the novels of Dickens and Trollope show. In the 1870s and 1880s, with the newly enfranchised masses needing to have their respect for parliament confirmed, the Liberal statesman William Gladstone brought in the secret ballot and limited electoral spending.

The myth of MPs’ public accountability dates from this period of reform. When Labour entered the scene a little later the myth was confirmed rather than challenged. Yet in reality the corruption continued. Even Gladstone, the reform minded prime minister, sold honours in exchange for cash to fill party coffers, a habit taken up vigorously by his successors, Liberal and Tory alike.

Initially the whole process was fairly discreet. But by 1922 the scandal became open. For the previous six years Lloyd George, the Liberal prime minister, had been promising peerages to his cronies – without even bothering to get royal clearance. One baronetcy went to a convicted wartime food racketeer and another was offered to a South African diamond merchant found guilty of serious fraud. The war had been fought for profit and parliament was full of hard faced men who had done well out of it. The scandal could not be toughed out, however, because this was also the period of heightened class antagonism. There had to be an attempt to rehabilitate parliament in the eyes of the masses. A debate in parliament led to the downfall of the government and the setting up of a Royal Commission.

This made not a jot of difference. The network of contacts masterminded by Maundy Gregory, who had been whisked away to France by his Tory backers just as the scandal broke, continued to operate. Several Indian princes were persuaded to part with £3 million in today’s money.

Faced with a choice between letting the corruption continue and discrediting parliament in the eyes of the voter, no politician was prepared to tolerate the latter. In 1934 Ramsay MacDonald, former Labour politician, reluctantly colluded in the corruption and gave one of Gregory’s protectors a knighthood. As Stanley Baldwin, the Tory leader, put it, the alternative was to let Gregory ‘stir up such a filthy sewer as would poison public life’. This would have exposed the Royal Commission as a sham.

After the war, in the context of the long economic boom and absence of political crisis, corruption was a tamer affair. But it did not disappear. It flourished strongly in local government. Financial sleaze connected local government officials and companies anxious to make lucrative contracts out of the massive rebuilding programmes in the inner city areas. The architect John Poulson, whose construction company paid T. Dan Smith, Labour leader of Newcastle, a ‘fee’ of £155,000, was the most well known symbol of much wider corruption. Both went to jail. Poulson’s associate, Tory minister Reggie Maudling, resigned in 1972 after being exposed by Paul Foot in Private Eye.

But this is small beer compared with the corruption which has swollen over the last 15 years. The Tories have been so long in power that some MPs think they are untouchable, greedy as a result of their government’s deregulation and privatisation measures and careless about openly abusing their positions of privilege. The economic crisis has also meant that access to government decision making has become more keenly contested.

This is particularly true of sections of industry like defence and construction eager at any cost to secure lucrative overseas contracts. The stickiest web of corruption involves arms sales to the Middle East and massive projects like the Pergau dam project in Malaysia. The revelations and allegations about Mark Thatcher, Jonathan Aitken, Saudi businessmen and former ministers are only the tip of an exceedingly murky iceberg.

Corruption dogs the institution of parliament, whether in its early days, when it was unreformed and in the possession of a tiny minority, or whether in its maturity, when it was reformed and supposedly the expression of the interests of the majority. For in effect, whether the number of voters is a handful or whether every adult over the age of 18 has a vote, it has never and can never belong to the majority. In a class society, where the economy is owned and controlled by a minority, so too is every political institution, however democratic the appearance.

The levels of corruption may vary, depending on the health of the economy and the degree of political crisis, but corruption and parliament are inseparable. Essentially, parliament is unreformable. But we should not be indifferent to these scandals. They are an expression of the contempt our rulers have for the democracy they pretend to stand for and of their personal abuse of public services while claiming there is no money for things we need, like health and education.

There should be no illusion in parliament’s ability to solve these problems. Labour’s failure to take full advantage of the Tories’ discomfiture is strange at first sight, given that the Tories are such an easy target.

The reason for not taking full advantage is that Labour panders to parliamentary illusions. So it goes along with the idea that the only way to overcome deviations from the parliamentary ideal is by trusting to parliamentary procedure. Hence its only quarrel with the Tories over the Nolan inquiry is the extent of the inquiry’s brief.

Hence, too, the quandary it finds itself in over the Committee of Privileges, whose deliberations the government decided would remain secret. Outraged by this attempt to sweep the dirt under the carpet, the Labour MPs quite rightly walked out. But since Labour accepts the idea that you have to work within the committee system and the rules laid down by parliament, it sees no option but to go back in. Tony Benn, again quite rightly, decided to make public the committee’s secret deliberations. Labour’s front bench has not backed him because he is breaking the rules they endorse.

The most glaring example of Labour’s failure has been its reaction to the Guardian’s fax to the Ritz. The Tories jumped on this as an abuse of parliament and a gross deception. Major appeared at the dispatch box and claimed sanctimoniously that this was an insult to the highest standards of journalism. ‘The end never justified the means’, he droned. Labour failed to make the obvious reply: what’s a little deception which hurts nobody compared with the massive deception which enables MPs to have their hotel bills paid by crooks in exchange for favours over arms deals that will strengthen the killing powers of despots?

Instead Labour MPs echoed the Tories’ completely bogus anger and agreed that it was an unpardonable breach of parliamentary rules. Labour allowed the Tories to go on the offensive as defenders of parliament.

There is no way parliament will reform itself. We shall rid public life of corruption only by reform from below, from mass activity that does not look to parliament. In the process we shall discover that the alternative to parliamentary corruption is not some ‘genuine’ parliament but the democracy of workers’ self organisation.

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