Christmas and New Year may be a time for giving, but in the political world there’s little room for sentiment, and it has been taking that’s featured on the agenda in recent weeks.
Given the noted commitment of party fixers to ‘risk management’, you’d have thought that a high degree of prudence by MPs and ministers over expense procedures would have been second nature. Likewise with the handling of donations to their Westminster machines. But this has not quite been so.
The currency of routine power and influence (which comforts itself that ‘corruption’ is only something that happens in the weakened states of Africa) can rapidly descend into operational complacency. Then, rather as young people reared in an affluent, risk-averse culture are tempted to seek an adrenalin boost through recklessness with stimulants, motor vehicles and extra-curricula antics, so some politicians throw caution to the wind over hot money, dubious relationships and internal wrangles.
All three have been involved (along with police investigators) in the latest controversies about un-reported corporate and trade union contributions to Peter Hain's Labour deputy leadership camapign expenses (reported on 8 January 2008), businessman David Abrahams giving £663,975 to Labour through proxies, Scottish MSP Wendy Alexander’s more modest £900 blunder, the issue of deputy PM Harriet Harman’s campaign expenses, and other incursions.
Few seriously doubt Gordon Brown’s probity in all this; not even David Cameron, in spite of his inflated rhetoric aimed at squeezing political capital out of what still amount to serious lapses of judgement, custody and care among the government’s troops. Mr Abrahams’ donations were unlawful because people must use their own names when giving more than £5,000 to a political party. Opposition parties have criticised Mr Brown's insistence that he knew nothing about the third-party arrangements. He’s damned if he did, and failed if he didn’t.
The outcome ought to be more accountability and more transparency – of the kind that our parliamentarians are often demanding of people in other parts of the world, and which was singularly lacking when the 1980s era of forced privatization ended up with political decisions-makers sitting in the boardrooms of companies they had helped create (lest we forget). A comparable commitment to re-examine the overall regimes of party funding would be no bad thing either, provided that didn’t involve an evasion of consequences from the immediate issues.
Nor should it mean that the taxpayer is automatically dragooned into bankrolling the party system. Political parties are civic bodies given legitimacy by being run principally for and by ordinary people. The rules should be about limiting the distorting power and influence of big money interests, not allowing them off the hook. Otherwise the trend for representative politics to be downgraded by a market freest to the few with greatest leverage will continue to undermine the quest for democratic fairness.
The intervention of ex-Tory PM John Major should not go un-remarked, either. He’s always struck me as a thoroughly decent man, but the attempt to exonerate his party from blame for ‘sleaze’ by pinning it wholly on New Labour strikes one as, well, sleazy, frankly.
It’s not just that the history of ‘cash for questions’ and perjury is being re-written by omission (his defence minister ended up in jail, let’s not forget), but there is something particularly extraordinary about the former leader of the Conservative Party suggesting that using money for influence is nothing to do with them. The Tories are, after all, constitutionally founded on the defence of power, inheritance, privilege and wealth, even if Blairism seems perversely to have been seeking to steal this mantle in recent years and Cameron now craves a green, caring image.
While all these issues, which will go on rattling the Westminster cages for sometime, were being played out, another minidrama was taking place in the form of the Liberal Democrat leadership contest. The clean-cut, public school duo of Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne hardly set the nation on fire, it is safe to say; even when there were signs that the ‘nice party’ was turning nasty. Huhne’s ‘calamity Clegg’ dossier and Clegg’s attempts to juggle Trident missiles against Huhne did neither any favours.
For what it’s worth (the jury's out), Clegg won, and his 2008 resolution will be to make some kind of name for himself. What was most noticeable about the race, however, was that less ‘safe’ candidates, like Steve Webb and Simon Hughes (both Christians, as it happens) barely got a look in. What many Westminster watchers want from the Liberal Democrats is a troublesome third force who will help challenge the cosy consensus of the big two on everything from foreign policy to the mudslide of civil liberties.
From the Lib Dem fixers’ vantage point, however, there is trust to be regained after slippage that occurred around Charles Kennedy’s fall from grace. Plus psephological logic says that the crowded centre is still the place to be. People claim willingness to pay more tax for funding good causes, but then vote for their purses. Likewise, the media would love a shake-up in the House of Commons, while leaping to accuse the shakers of adolescent enthusiasm.
Meanwhile, in the corner of the London-focused Westminster eye, the SNP’s manoeuvres keep flickering away. If the Scots really do build momentum for devolved governance, the caution of the dominant system will genuinely be called into question – though certainly not thrown to the wind. Well, not unless someone pitches a fistful of uncashed cheques into the chamber and everyone starts grabbing them, anyway.
What is one to make of all this from a theological perspective? What, indeed. There are glimmers of redemption and people of genuine conviction at the heart of the political vocation. In spite of the grime, there is good to be done, justice to be spoken up for, peace to be advocated, and the accountability of power and wealth to be demanded.
But hope for deep-seated change is difficult to find within a system which is about balancing power and interests rather than recognising the overwhelming priority of those who are excluded, maimed, impoverished and marginalised.
In his Christmas Eve BBC Radio 4 Thought for the Day, the Archbishop of Canterbury told stories of ordinary people in Ireland and Israel-Palestine who need more than the ‘realism’ of established political posturing can offer. He observed: “Hard political talk can’t be avoided, but God help us if that’s the only focus; we need embodied signs of hope as well.”
Dr Williams continued: “Christians believe that the most radical and total change in the history of the world happened when God began to speak to us in the voice of a human being – not the voice of a monarch or a philosopher or even a prophet, but the inarticulate voice of a child in need. When we start hearing the voice of God in the cries of the newborn child in the manger, we start being able to hear that voice in the raw humanity of other people. We can’t any longer write off the suffering of others on the grounds that they’re not really like us – because they’re Israeli and not Arab, Catholic and not Protestant or whatever.”
Or because they don’t have media managers, cash for influence and a vote-winning formula, either.
© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. His blog can be found at http://faithinsociety.blogspot.com
This article has been extended and developed from one that appeared in the Winter 2007/8 issue of Third Way magazine.