Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Article excerpt

'There is such a thing as society -- but it's not the same as the state' is the best of the David Cameron soundbites. The row about the funding of political parties offered the Tories an opportunity to put this belief into practice, but they have passed it up. Political parties exist on the principle of voluntarism.

They are not organs of the state, but vehicles for citizens to band together to advance their beliefs and interests. Their ability to raise money is a rough index of their success in winning public support, and the methods they choose are a good test of their fitness for government. Generally, it proves hard to raise money. Faced with that problem, any normal charity or church or campaigning group would ask itself how to win greater loyalty from its supporters, how to persuade potential donors of the importance of their cause. Political parties react differently.

Believing that their time is much more important than that of their donors, they curse the rich people to whom they suck up, and can't be bothered to go out and win over the poorer masses. Modern politicians are always pointing out that people today do join organisations interested in public affairs -- Friends of the Earth, the Countryside Alliance etc. -- but not political parties. The funding row is part of the reason why: it is so blatant that parties are self-serving, not serving others.

So the solution that naturally enters the parties' minds is state funding: we have to pay and their lives are easy. In this latest row, the main parties have emerged as morally the same. By choosing pure voluntarism, the Conservatives could have marked out, for the first time, a real difference.

Strange how, in scandals such as these, the bit that is truly scandalous so quickly gets forgotten. Labour were not wrong to try to get contributions from rich people. In fact, they were positively right to do so, because this moved the party away from dependence on the trade union movement. They weren't automatically wrong to accept anonymous donations or loans, though anonymity tends to raise doubts. They weren't necessarily wrong to give peerages to donors, since donation to political parties should be seen as public-spirited. They were wrong if they sold honours, and it looks as though they did, but this is not proved. No, the only absolutely clear wrong is the stinking hypocrisy. It was under pressure from Labour that John Major introduced the disastrous Nolan process which was supposed to clean up public life.

Ever since, MPs and parties have become like schoolboys, trying to get round rules they have allowed to be imposed upon them, instead of consulting the sense of honour which is the only way an elected law-making assembly can truly regulate itself. It was Blair who insisted on transparency about donations and Blair (and yes, it does seem accurate to speak of him personally here, rather than just his government in general) who approved a system of loans designed to get round the rule he had himself invented. Now he wants a law to ban anonymous loans, thus criminalising his own device because it has been exposed.

Last week I asked if the Blairs could afford their mortgage -- £3,467,000 on Connaught Square and £472,500 on their flats in Bristol. Subsequent conversation with a mortgage expert deepens the doubt. Even at 6 per cent (a very good rate) the interest alone would be little short of £240,000 per annum. …

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