By George Monbiot. Published in the Oldie, November 2001
In Indonesia or Brazil, subverting the government costs a fortune. Ministers there know precisely how much they are worth, and buying them costs tens, sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars. This is money of the colour Lloyd George would have recognised. But corruption in Britain isn’t what it used to be. Today, there’s something rather shameful about the price for which the government can be bought. Policy changes which have earned Bernie Ecclestone at least £400 million cost him a mere million, which was promptly returned to him the moment the government’s confidence in its own corruption faltered. During the conference season, Labour almost gives special access away.
For £15,000 McDonalds has bought the rights to the most prestigious reception this year: the celebration of Labour’s 100th conference, attended by Tony Blair. For £10,000 you can buy the government’s question and answer session on education. Just £4,000 will brand the video screen on which Mr Blair’s speech will be relayed. Democracy has never come so cheap.
McDonalds says it will use the reception “to talk about our community-based activities”. Presumably this does not include such community-based activities as undermining local cafes and restaurants, filling the streets with litter and making every town centre in Britain look the same. But at the McLabour conference, corporations can leave their reputations in the cloakroom.
Last year’s fringe meeting on “Tackling Financial Exclusion” was sponsored by Barclay’s, which has been widely condemned for causing financial exclusion by shutting its smaller branches. The meeting on “Creating a Savings Culture” was funded by Pearl, one of the companies named and shamed for damaging the savings culture by mis-selling pensions. The congress on “Sustainability” was financed by Manchester Airport plc, whose new runway has been condemned by greens as one of the most destructive schemes ever built.
But arguably even the paltry sums required to fund these events are wasted, for McLabour has refined the art of anticipating corporate demands before they have even been made. Tony Blair’s formula for winning the 1997 election was a simple one: wherever power existed already, he appeased it in the hope of acquiring some for himself. Under the Tories, corporate executives filled the cabinet, the civil service and the quangocracy.
Taking power meant capturing the heart of corporate Britain. And the corporations were ready to be seduced. They knew that the Tories would never defect, so a pro-corporate Labour Party meant that the electorate would be presented with a free and open choice between the party of big business and the party of big business. The corporate press, the corporate donors, the corporate power-brokers have deserted their old friends, who loved not wisely but too well.
The problem with appeasement, of course, is that it makes the people you appease more powerful. Big business is insatiable: however much you give it, it wants more. So the power of people and parliament keeps rolling back, until democracy under McLabour starts to resemble the food in McDonalds: the packaging is rather more wholesome than the contents.
So, for all the spin about the People’s Britain, whenever McLabour it is confronted with a choice between what the electorate wants and what big business wants, it sides with big business. Look at the row over genetic engineering, for example, which split the only two constituencies Mr Blair cares about: Middle England and the corporations. Blair sided with the Addams family firm, enraging Middle England. Look at the private finance initiative, which anyone except the idiots savants in the Treasury can see is a disastrous means of funding public services. Look at the irresistable rise of the supermarkets, whose economic cleansing of the food trade is almost complete. Look, if you can bear it, at Lord Haskins
In McLabour’s timid new world, everything is for sale. The tragedy is that it comes so cheap.