While I was HM Ambassador in Poland I was accused of improper lobbying of Parliament.
(Slavist linguistics note: Polish has lifted the English word lobbying and incorporated it into Polish in a strange form – lobbing)
I forget now exactly what the issue was about. Maybe a complicated dispute between the then Polish government and a number of large international pharmaceutical companies over where exactly tax should be paid and how it should be calculated.
In my Ambassadorial zeal to be friendly and helpful, I wrote a letter to the then Speaker of the Polish Parliament describing the position in the UK. I copied the letter to various other prominent people with an interest.
In other words, whatever the merits or not of my letter there was 100% no attempt at concealment or behind-the-scenes manoeuvring.
Which of course did not stop some fatuous MP from lodging an official protest that I had been improperly lobbing to help a UK company.
So, what’s wrong with lobbying?
On the face of it, not much.
Democracy is all about rival interests and points of view jostling for position. The closer they get to a decision or a decision-maker, the more intense the jostling comes.
Take our Embassies round the world. The US Embassy in Washington’s main task is to lobby fast and furiously to head off US decisions which might harm UK interests. Ditto our Embassies in the EU are meant to press local governments to agree with UK views.
Where it goes wrong is when private interests attempt to influence decisions in murky, untransparent or even corrupt ways.
Where to draw the line?
Not easy. Ministers and senior officials need to get out and about and listen to different ideas. What’s wrong with someone at a dinner party having ‘a quiet word in the ear’ of a Minister to argue for or against a specific policy line? Even if there is thought to be something wrong, it’s impossible to stop or control it.
That said, the most odious aspect of the Byers scandal here in the UK (a former Labour Minister secretly filmed boasting about how with the right money he can get access to top Labour people to help press for specific outcomes) is not that he wanted to get paid for giving access.
See what I have written at Business and Politics:
The key issue here is not in fact the banal greed of the would-be lobbyists, horrible and squalid though that is.
Rather it is the fact that they expected to be successful. Which means that certain senior Ministers and/or officials currently in power were likely to be open – arguably improperly – to their furtive blandishments.
So a lot of the noise about transparency for lobbyists misses the point. It’s transparency for Ministerial and Departmental decisions which really counts. If lobbyists and their clients see that their lobbying gets few worthwhile results, they’ll do less of it.
It does not take much to see that if a lobbyist is paid a lot of money to influence a policy outcome, a Minister might do what is needed in return for a generous quiet cut.
That’s how a lot of business is done round the world.
So I do not understand why the Guardian thinks that the answer is … more regulation, this time of lobbying firms.
That will make no real difference to the way Ministers and Departments are accessed. If anything it will make the value of quiet encounters with Ministers away from the limelight even more prized – and expensive.
Nor is there much to be done about senior people cashing in after they leave office.
The fact is that the more senior an official or Minister, the less inclined s/he will be to take any notice of any rules. The rules about avoiding conflicts of interest after one leaves an official job for the private sector can be brought to bear only upon relatively junior people (such as me). See this magnificent shameless example.
In the end it all comes down to fiercely defending values – championing a sense of what is proper and honourable. Values of outcome, as well as values of process as an end in themselves.
For me, the main reason to vote against this wretched Labour government is that in so many areas they have dumbed down the very idea of honour and accountability for selfish, banal, trashy reasons.
Labour took Clintonism and turned it into something even worse: It’s not what’s right. It’s what you can get away with.
Even born-again LibDem Craig Murray agrees with me (albeit in a somewhat confused way):
I cannot for the life of me conceive how anybody in their right mind, other than their corporate backers, can even consider voting New Labour, let alone the working people whose hopes they have betrayed.
Putting this right will be very difficult.