Political Lobbying: It's a Contact Sport

Article excerpt

At a party at this year's Edinburgh Festival, a celebrated Scottish rugby international of the 1970s was asked what he was doing nowadays. "Merchant banking," was the breezy reply. However, when the scoring system was changed from three points for a try to four, this man was confused. "Oh, it doesn't matter if you are a bit hazy on the numbers side. Merchant banking's just like rugby, really. A contact sport."

Last weekend's revelations in the Observer that executives from Beattie Media, a lobbying and public relations firm, had been, allegedly boasting of their contacts in both the Scottish executive and the Westminster cabinet has produced a rash of indignation and Lady Bracknell-like shrieks of outrage from the Scottish press. Ideals debased, the new politics tainted, reputations tarnished, and much in that vein. And yet if lobbying is anything (and it is unlikely to be as much as its practitioners claim), it is about contacts. A lobbying and public relations company whose executives know no one of any importance or influence would be laughable. Since lobbyists have historically followed political power wherever it goes, no one should be surprised at a rapid growth in the number of meeters and greeters around the new Scottish Parliament.

In order to secure its story, the Observer organised a sting where two executives from Beattie Media met someone posing as a businessman considering setting up in Scotland. At the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh on 31 August, Alex Barr and Kevin Reid met this man and went on, allegedly, to list their successes on behalf of their clients. These included arranging an opportunity for interested parties to meet and lobby the then Scottish sports minister, Sam Galbraith, for cash to be spent on football training, and also helping to persuade Lord (Gus) Macdonald to allow Federal Express to use Prestwick airport. The Observer further claimed that Kevin Reid talked about his close relationship with the Secretary of State for Scotland, John Reid. "I know the secretary of state very, very well, because he's my father."

The question that occurred to some was: is this a sensible choice of profession for the son of a cabinet minister? Leaving aside important issues of timing and family dynamics, the answer has to be "why not?" Politicians, and particularly those in opposition and/or those who have lost their seats, regularly pile into these companies to earn much-needed cash by bringing with them their contacts. …