At the Poachers Arms: being realistic

Realistic blood money for realistically bloody treasure

The legendary Poachers Arms is a pub which is always open, can be found just round the corner from anywhere, and where the regular patrons make no pretence at being respectable citizens.

It was a Saturday on the thirteenth consecutive night of rain and the Poachers Arms was to be found on an unfashionable side street off the cripplingly fashionable Hoxton Street. I stepped gingerly over the puddle of water spreading from the umbrella stand by the door and into the usual convivial atmosphere around the bar.

“We’re thinking of building an ark,” said one of the regulars. “Where do you think we should build it?”

“It should be somewhere public,” I said. I ordered a pint of Poacher’s Pipe-dream then explained: “Part of the point of building an ark is to remind people that the punishment for their decadence approacheth.”

“I work in a museum,” said a woman who had come in the door just behind me. “Plenty of space there. We could get it sponsored by BP – everything else is.”

“Yes, I’ve often wondered about that,” I said. “It seems weird for public institutions to take advertising from companies that do so much harm.”

The woman looked affronted. “We turn bad money into good,” she said. “We’re using them really.” She turned to the barman. “A gin and tonic please.”

“Why do you think they spend the money though?” I said. “They wouldn’t do it if they didn’t get some kind of PR or political gain from it. They presumably think they are using you.”

The woman shrugged. “I see you’re some kind of idealist,” she said. “I’ve learned to be realistic. We need the money. They have it.”

I turned to Downer Dave, one of the regulars at the bar. Downer Dave is so called due to his unrelentingly negative, or as he calls it, realistic, take on the world.

“Who’s being more realistic Dave?” I said, then to the woman. “This is Downer Dave by the way. What’s your name?”

“I’m Louise.”

“So who’s being more realistic Dave?” I said.

“You,” said Downer Dave. He looked at the woman. “They’re using you. Sorry.”

“Hey listen,” Louise put down her drink and held up her hands. “I think the world shouldn’t be so crap but I just don’t think you can change it. I used to work in the House of Commons. It was horrible. It’s an oppressive building and the people who work there are weirdos. But change it? Please!”

“She has a point,” said Downer Dave.

“I’ve worked in government too,” I said. “In international development. And they thought I was ‘unrealistic’ too. Problem with that is that they were trying to solve a political problem – global poverty – with technical solutions. Imagine thinking you could solve a problem of too little power by taking decisions on behalf of those people. So that word ‘realistic’ is a tricky one – it often is when people use it politically. Who was being unrealistic there?”

“All of you,” said Downer Dave. He turned away and asked the barman to put on some lively music. “I’m depressed now,” he said, casting a glance back over his shoulder at us.

Louise looked at me, started to say something, stopped herself, raised her glass and clinked it against mine. Without another word we parted, and I moved deeper into the Poachers Arms, my damp clothes steaming gently in the warmth.

5 Reasons To Love Politicians

We need Andrew Lansley more than health services, for sure

1. You don’t want to run the country because it would be too much work and you’re already busy.

2. Politicians may be corrupt lying bastards but we all know in their positions we’d do the same.

3. Strong leadership is necessary and not many people are good at it.

4. Someone has to talk to Rupert Murdoch and the ‘business community’.

5. You’ve got to admit the politicians are good at what they do. By talking to the Rupert Murdochs and business leaders and doing as they ask, the politicians have structured your life so that you don’t have time to be involved in controlling your own world, thus making strong leadership ‘necessary’, and making their corruption appear a necessary evil. They’re killing the NHS. Say thank you.

The Canary is Dead: Britain is Corrupt

Examining the corpse of the News of the World is all very well...

When the Murdoch hacking-dead-people’s-phones scandal hit I had just finished writing something about the corruption of the British government. I had not written much about the role of the media in the corruption of our political system and that now seems rather remiss. However I am not going to fundamentally change anything I wrote, because what the hacking scandal has revealed about how British politics works simply confirms what I had already said. John Harris in the Guardian in particular nails some of the more unsavoury social aspects of the corruption we face.

As for what the whole scandal/investigation means for British politics right now: not much I fear. It is still being treated as an isolated incident, as another of those unfortunate aberrations from the way politics is normally done. If the public debate continues to regard it in this way then it can all be swept up and swept under the carpet.

There is another way to see it: the entanglement between the Murdoch empire and the political establishment, which created a culture of impunity for people with power, is the normal way of doing politics in Britain. The Murdochs are not the source of all evil in our democracy, and nor were the staff of the News of the World. They are simply the canary in the coalmine. Now the canary is dead and we must decide what to do about it. Which brings me to my intended starting point for this piece of writing before the current scandal broke:

Our government is corrupt. I feel confident about making this statement, as confident as I would saying it of Mubarak’s Egypt, or of the government of Equatorial Guinea, or the one-man-state machine of Berlusconi.

It’s true that, at least in the highest UK political circles, there’s very little need for passing round wads of cash in brown envelopes, and this seems to be why we don’t think of Britain as thoroughly corrupt. But the corruption that has replaced it isn’t really much more sophisticated. It doesn’t appear when examining individual parts of our political and economic system, but to anyone keeping an eye on the political system as a whole, the corruption becomes very clear. The failure to expand our definition of corruption to encompass what is happening in Britain suggests some uncomplementary things about the media who are meant to keep the politicians in check, but eloquent critiques of the current mediascape are out there already. The result of the failure of the media is that it is rare to hear people talking about how our political system really works, as opposed to how it is meant to work.

What do we see when looking at the system as a whole? We see that certain interest groups – banks might be a good example, private healthcare another – have become very good at getting their own way, against the interests of British citizens. Some of their methods are very obvious. John Major and Tony Blair both work in the financial sector. David Cameron will certainly work for banks when he leaves power. The former Prime Ministers are paid millions of pounds by the institutions that lobbied them while in power. The financial sector lobbied to be deregulated, and the politicians did what they asked, and we got our financial crisis. It was their crisis of course, not ours, but by that time they had their claws so deep in the politicians that there was no question about who was going to pay for it. I should point out that it is perfectly possible that Major, Blair and Brown all believed that deregulating the banks was the best way to create wealth, but it is easier to believe fairy tales if you know you’re going to be paid for believing them, and if, like Blair, your life’s ambition is to hang around with all the important and wealthy people who believe them too.

The financial crisis, the subsequent recession, and the current public spending cuts are a result of the corruption of our political system. This is something we need to say loud and clear. The corruption didn’t come just in the form of payments to Prime Ministers and Chancellors after they left power. It also came in the form of a revolving door between government and the industries they are regulating. That government might want to recruit top industry talent is not remarkable. That these ‘top talents’ are allowed to offer fat-salaried jobs and influential positions to their old colleagues might raise a few suspicions. What is remarkable is that, having regulated the industries just so (i.e. not at all really), they are allowed to go back and work in the industries they helped provide the framework for in government. In other words, you can go and deregulate your own industry as part of a very smart career move that will make you popular with all the right people. That we do not regard this as corruption is astonishing.

The third leg of the corruption that has developed over the last few decades is a very sophisticated lobbying apparatus that is not just about simply buying politicians nice dinners or having a cosy chat with your old school chums. We have ‘campaign groups’ and ‘think tanks’ all over the place, often presented as impartial, actually pushing highly political agendas for their funders.

The Taxpayers Alliance was set up by members of the Conservative party, in order to push the Conservative Party and politics more generally toward a tax-free society for the wealthy. It uses the national media to do this and probably contributed to the increased acceptance of the Conservative Party at the last election. They were repeatedly cited on the BBC as some kind of impartial source or democratic citizen action group. So irritated were some people with the notion that the Taxpayer’s Alliance represented taxpayers that several competing groups, such as The Other Taxpayers Alliance, were set up. They got far less attention because they didn’t have wealthy and strategically-minded Conservatives behind them.

2020Health, a self-declared ‘grass-roots’ think tank, was targetted by NHS Direct Action the other week. In response the think tank did a very good job of pretending to be the affronted innocent citizens who simply wanted to improve our healthcare. Yet when you look at their staff histories and their output, you can’t help seeing the ‘think tank’ as a lobbying front group for the private healthcare industry. It is chaired by Tom Sackville, CEO of the International Federation of Health Plans, a group that represents 100 private healthcare companies in 31 countries. If this is grassroots, it is a ‘grassroots’ global corporate movement, not a grassroots UK citizens movement.

The way individuals move between private sector, campaigning groups, public sector, politics and think tanks reveals a deeply dishonest political class that presents an image of a thriving democracy in which many different sectors all have influence on government, and yet these are all the same people, all with the similar outlooks, all doing very well thank you from the policies they push, and helping their friends to do well too. It is a false-front democracy, and one of the pillars of the new corruption.

None of this is entirely new of course – self-serving and dishonest elites have always been a part of the political landscape – what is new is the degree to which it is happening, and the lack of any entrants to the political system who are not already part of the game. What emerges when we look at all these forms of corruption is that rather than competing elites, which is the best approximation to democracy that representative democracy has managed to produce, we are currently ruled by what you might call a conglomerate elite that presents itself as one thing one day, something else the next, but who always move together towards one goal: greater wealth for themselves and people like them, often at our expense.

This is corruption. Our parliamentary ‘democracy’ is thoroughly corrupt, throughout all major parties, systemically, in a deeply embedded form, in ways that go directly against the interests of most British people. Almost no one voted for the privatisation of the NHS – only a minority voted for the Tories, and even they didn’t dare put ‘privatise the NHS’ in their manifesto. The NHS has been shown to be a highly efficient healthcare system in several comparative studies of developed country healthcare systems. It compares very favourably in outcomes with the rest of Europe, even though we spend less money than many of the wealthy economies. The politicians of all major parties are privatising the NHS anyway. Because they want to. Because they can, because no one will call the corruption what it is and fight it.

It isn’t bundles of cash passed under the desk. It’s far more dishonest than that. So what do we call it? Systemic corruption? Faux-democracy? Bogus political diversity? Total institutional corruption? Perhaps we could opt for ‘Lord Browne-ism’, after the former chair of BP, once a non-executive Director of SmithKline Beecham. He became a friend of Tony Blair, got appointed to the House of Lords, chaired an ‘independent’ review of education at the request of Peter Mandelson, then adopted by the Conservatives, that resulted in the new tuition fees. Lord Browne now works for the Coalition government as ‘lead Non-Executive Director’ on the Cabinet Office board, ‘improving governance’ in Whitehall by recruiting business leaders to serve on government departmental boards. His appointees include Andrew Witty, CEO of GlaxoSmithKline and Ian Davis, once on the board of BP. For his day job Lord Browne is Managing Director of Riverstone Holdings, a private equity firm specialising in the energy and power sectors. Riverstone Holdings works in partnership with the Carlyle Group, whose European Chair is John Major.

As I have already said, this way of doing business is not entirely new. While we see a particular incarnation of corruption right now, the ability of the political elite to organise amongst themselves, against the interests of the populations they supposedly represent, is a built in feature of representative democracy. So this is not malfunctioning democracy we are talking about here, it is the way democracy has always worked. It’s difficult not to suspect that the politicians who made the original concessions towards ‘democracy’ did so precisely because they knew they could still keep a grip on power, they knew the ‘democratic’ institutions were far enough away from us all that we couldn’t keep an eye on what was going on . We’re supposed to depend on the media to do that of course. So we’ve got two instutions that don’t do what they claim to do. The important thing to realise is: they never have.

Whatever we prefer to call the current incarnation of corruption – systemic corruption, false-front democracy or Highly Organised Crime – we need to call it something fast, because if we’re going to fight it, we’re going to need a name for it. If we don’t fight it, the next financial crisis is just a matter of time and the NHS will soon exist only in name. Thankfully, once the mechanisms are publicised and widely understood, it won’t need any original names or any qualifiers and we will be able to name it simply and for what it is: mere corruption.

Understanding the corruption also leads to the conclusion that, while it takes different forms in different eras, our system of representative democracy has always been this way, to a greater or lesser degree. There were moments of triumph for people-power but they were the exception not the rule. Corruption is the rule. Britain has always been corrupt and it is our lauded system of representative democracy that makes it so. We can clean up some of the newer and more extreme dishonesty behind the democratic masquerade – and that is very much worth doing I think – but that will only give us a temporary lull before the next corruption/economic crisis hits.

Seeing the once-all-powerful Murdochs squirm has been a genuine pleasure, a moment of minor accountability in the usually vacuous Punch And Judy Show of parliament. But let’s not celebrate too much: the canary is dead, and we are still in the coalmine.