The Secret Joke of Our Democracy: Britain’s Elephant in the Boardroom

As another election looms, there is no doubt that one particular set of truths will not be discussed on any of the UK’s television channels. It is a recurring enigma which lies at the heart of Britain’s political structure, and yet remains largely overlooked. It is not a phenomenon that has anything to do with Freemasons, or Zionists, “Lizard people”, or some secret infiltration of parliament by Putin’s Russia. And yet it is an enigma which directly concerns how a democratic structure governs the country it is set in.

Almost eight years ago, here in the UK, the “MPs expenses scandal” broke. Politicians across all parties were exposed for their outrageous expense –claims – flipping mortgages on second houses, stays in luxury five-star London hotels for months at a time, not to mention the infamous practice of hiring one’s spouse as a “personal secretary”, a trick employed by many MPs to bring a second salary into the household.

What followed was a full-blown political crisis which lasted for several weeks, brought about dozens of resignations, some criminal prosecutions, and the general smear of an institution already disliked by many ordinary people. It may seem surprising that the newspaper which broke this story – The Telegraph – is an overtly right-wing newspaper, generally considered Conservative in its tone and audience. The main effect of the “scandal”, however, was ulimately a sense of relief and resolution – of “moving on”, and restoring a spirit of transparency to UK democracy.

The “expenses scandal” worked in its ultimate function: to distract us all from the most insidious capture of our democracy – namely, the estimated 2,800 directorships and consultancies which both our houses of parliament appear to profit from. We have MPs who sits on the boards of healthcare companies (such as Cyprotex), wealth management firms (such as Vestra Wealth), arms companies (such as Aegis), city brokers (such as Tullett Prebon), energy companies (such as EDF and Tethys Petroleum).[i] It is quite possible that every third MP in the House of Commons (and every second Conservative MP) has some kind of financial relationship with big business. Although the ruling Conservative party are by far the worst offenders in this respect, names from Labour (such as Gisela Stuart, David Blunkett and Margaret Beckett), the Lib-Dems (Nick Clegg and Vince Cable both have relationships with healthcare and arms companies – a wonderful combination) and Scottish Nationalists also appear.

The extent to which our democratic structures are interwoven with big business (a situation the journalist Martin Williams calls “Parliament Ltd”) is completely absent from everyday public debate. In many ways, the “expenses scandal” was a stroke of genius on behalf of the system – getting us all to worry about whether politicians are charging ten pounds extra on their return tickets to London, whilst the real elephant in the room – the wholesale takeover of our parlimentary democracy by hedge funds and investment companies – goes completely unnoticed. The privatisation of the NHS, the increasing British arms trade with Saudi Arabia and the political goodwill towards the fracking industry in the UK are only three consequences of this soft, silent, bloodless coup. And although some limited press attention has been given to this problem – mostly from the Guardian, but also other titles as diverse as The Mirror and Business Insider have addressed it – an overwhelmingly business-friendly BBC has largely failed to recognize even the most mildly-alarming contours of this problem.

The silence around the soft, systemic lobbying of our democracy is a problem which not only highlights questions of professional integrity within the BBC (whose top 300 employees earn between £150-650K per year) but also the relative ineffectiveness of organisations such as Transparency International, which lists the UK in the top ten of least corrupt countries. Drawing attention to “corruption” is always a welcome act – but when it becomes a tacit way of legitimizing “lawful” activities such as consultancies and directorships, then a fixation on scandals and fraud ironically lubricates the non-democracy that permits a nation’s power grid to be sold to Swedish, German and French investors.

Pascal famously said: “Truth is so obscured nowadays, and lies so well-established, that unless we love the truth, we shall never recognize it”. Last year, the Conservative MP Boris Johnson gave a talk at Chatham House, warning that “democracy was in retreat… across the Middle East”. It remains unclear exactly what Middle Eastern democracies have to learn from a former London mayor whose deputy office was embroiled in all manner of outside directorships and links to the City, including the running of a major hedge fund; it remains equally elusive what countries like Turkey (which, for all its faults, still has two or three very lively anti-government tv channels[ii]) need to imitate in a country whose parliament is packed with energy consultants, financial directors, insurance executives and arms company representatives, all masquerading as MPs – and a state media which is largely silent on the matter. As the election draws nearer, and if we are to keep true to Pascal’s adage, it is no longer enough to respond critically to what politicians and journalists say – voters will have to listen to what is not being said.  Now, perhaps more so than during any previous election in living memory, this obligation is upon us.

Ian Almond is Professor of World Literatures at Georgetown University (Qatar). He is the author of five books and over forty articles.


[i] Liam Fox (Con) has received £5,000 from IPGL Ltd, who own the pharma company Cyprotex; Gisela Stuart (Lab) has a partnership-interest in Vestra Wealth; Nicholas Soames is the chairman of Aegis Defence Services; until 2009 Michael Fallon (Con) was chairman of the City broker Tullett Prebon; Michelle Donelan (Con) has received money from the energy company EDF and Peter Lilley (Con) is a non-executive Board member of Tethys Petroleum.

[ii] In Turkish television, CemTV and HalkTV are two opposition channels, stridently anti-Erdogan, still operating at the time of writing.

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