The gilded age
- May 19, 2011
Corruption is a phenomenon that the British often prefer to associate with less civilised countries and Latin American ‘banana republics’ rather than the cradle of parliamentary democracy. We prefer to use more polite and genteel terms such as ‘potential conflict of interest ‘ and ‘revolving doors’ to describe the incestuous relationship between politicians and the private sector which reached its gaudy apotheosis during the Blair years.
Transparency International UK has just published a new report on the ‘revolving door’, which lists a strikingly high number of former ministers from the Blair and Brown governments who have picked up lucrative jobs with private companies since leaving office. They include ‘Sir’ Kevin Tebbit, former Permanent Under-Secretary for the Ministry of Defense from 1998-2005, who went on to become a board member of the aerospace and defense company Finmeccanica.
Among other things Finmecanica owns the helicopter manufacturer Augusta Westland. In March 2005, at at a time when Tebbit was still in office, the company won a £1.6 billion contract to provide the MoD with 62 Lynx Wildcat helicopters by 2012. No other bids were considered, even though a rival company offered to provide the government with 60 helicopters by 2009. These helicopters might have come in useful in Helmand province before 2012, and cynics out there might conclude that there is a connection between this decision and Tebbit’s new career.
Another former minister cited in the report is Patricia Hewitt, former Health Secretary, who now makes £45,000 advising the retail and pharmaceutical company Alliance Boots and another £55,000 performing the same task for the investment company Cinven, which bought 25 private hospitals from Bupa in 2007.
The report did not mention Geoff Hoon, former Minister of Defence. In March last year Hoon was secretly recorded in a Channel 4 documentary sting bragging of his ability to offer private sector access through his membership of the Nato ‘group of 12’ committee. This was the documentary in which Stephen Byers – a politician who long ago dispensed with the inconvenience of a moral compass – boasted of his access to Blair and Brown and asked an undercover reporter to consider him as a ‘cab for hire.’
A lot of people have come up with other terms to describe this sickly excuse for a public servant, and Hoon’s performance did not receive many plaudits either. The former lawyer bragged that he had used a recent visit to New York to combine Nato work with ‘Hoon work’ and that he was looking to do ‘something that, bluntly, makes money’ and suggested a fee of £3,000 a day for his services.
Such declarations are not entirely surprising, coming from a man who once supported the British Army’s use of cluster bombs in Iraq. When a Radio 4 interview once suggested that Iraqi mothers who had lost their children to these weapons might not appreciate them, Hoon replied hopefully ‘one day they might.’ What a man! ‘Buff’ (Hoon) as he was once affectionately known, was forced to resign from Nato for his discretions and was subsequently accused of bring the Commons into dispute. But alls well that ends well, for Hoon has now just got a new job with none other than AugustaWestland – the same company whose bid he approved in 2005 when he was Defence Secretary.
The trough-like instincts of Keir Hardie’s heirs are not exactly a revelation. In January 2008 the Sunday Times listed 28 former Labour ministers who had picked up private sector jobs since leaving office, worth £10 million in annual salaries. They included David Blunkett, former council leader of ‘Red Sheffield’ during the Thatcher years, who began a £25,000 job as an advisor with the Texan-based security company Entrust in 2007.
At the time it did not pass unnoticed that Entrust provides information technology to governments for ID cards – a pet scheme of Blunkett’s when he was Home Office. True, Blunkett later rejected ID cards in 2009 in favour of biometric ‘e-passports’, but then Entrust also provides governments with ‘public key cryptography’ for biometric passports as well.
Given New Labour’s cosy relationship with the filthy rich, perhaps it is churlish to quibble the desire of these humble public servants to seek some reward for the years they spent at the parliamentary grindstone. And the efforts of these grasping minions are indeed humble compared with the peace envoy in the Middle East, who has amassed more income from the private sector in the shortest period of time than any prime minister in British history, for reasons that have no obvious explanation – except that he once did what certain businesses wanted.
Blair’s heartwarming and inspiring journey from Fettes to the heights of Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan is a story of our times. For the post-ministerial trajectory of New Labour’s creme de la creme is not just a question of personal greed and amorality – though neither is in short supply. Nor is it a question of a few bad apples. Blair and his cohorts reflect a relationship between politicians and business that has become systemic and semi-institutionalised through access channels, networking and behind-the-scenes lobbying.
In an era in which money and wealth are glorified and regarded as ultimate goals, politicians oil the wheels of business, and few parties were more mesmerised and dazzled by the rich than New Labour. It’s only natural that some of its leading representatives should want to bask in the slipstream. Just don’t call it corruption.