Describing the atmosphere in 10 Downing Street last summer, Sir Jeremy Farrar, the infectious disease expert who heads the Wellcome Trust, speaks of a government “vulnerable to what looked like racketeering”. When he sat down at a meeting chaired by Boris Johnson, he was struck by the presence of snake oil salesmen looking for contracts for Covid-19 rapid testing that everybody knew was useless.
“It sometimes felt,” he writes in his memoir Spike, “as if I had strayed on a set for The Third Man, that fantastic Carol Reed film of a Graham Greene novel, which features a black market for penicillin.”
The analogy is telling because Greene’s post-war Vienna and the Johnson government convey the same sense of pervasive sleaze. Furthermore, Johnson’s personality has much in common with that of Harry Lime, the anti-hero played by Orson Welles, who exudes bonhomie but is entirely egocentric and dangerous to anybody who gets in his way.
Optimists may convince themselves that the racketeers and the snake oil salesmen saw their opportunity to profit from the chaos at the height of the pandemic, but hope the same will not necessarily happen in more normal times. But, as scandal has succeeded scandal over the last two years, I wonder if we are not entering a more corrupt era in British political life. The situation feels more and more like that in 18th century Britain or in the resource-rich states of the Middle East, where those without the right connections know that they stand no chance of doing profitable business.
My impression was confirmed by the revelations over the last week about the secretive “Advisory Board” within the Conservative Party that brings together wealthy donors in an exclusive club that some members have paid £250,000 a year to join. The club, which is acknowledged nowhere in party publications, brings with it the advantage of regular meetings with Johnson and Rishi Sunak.
What these super-rich donors reportedly have in common is that they are Thatcherite free marketeers, hostile to regulation and state intervention. They include the people who have long supported Johnson during his rise to power and presumably expect their money to win them access and influence. Denials by the Tories that the donors benefit in any material way from their largesse is incredible.
As with everything else done by Johnson’s government and the Tory party, such furtive fundraising from the super-rich has its farcical side. It is orchestrated by Ben Elliot, who was given the job by the prime minister because of his high society links. Elliott is famous for running a “concierge” company called Quintessentially, which caters for the most eccentric needs of celebrities, such as sending a dozen albino peacocks to a party for Jennifer Lopez.
But as Johnson cultivates the plutocrats and puts their minds at rest about his populist pledges, he is also promising the exact opposite to former Labour voters in the Midlands and North of England. All politicians make promises they cannot keep, but there is a new shamelessness about the process: Johnson boasts of “tearing up” the town and country planning regulations, just as property interests donate £17.9m to the Conservative party in the two years he has been prime minister.
The rising power of the plutocrats, the contradictory promises to all, and the increasing smell of corruption is scarcely surprising. This pattern prevailed in the US during Donald Trump’s presidency and still does in India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The so-called pluto-populist regimes tend to behave in similar ways because they all rely on an uneasy alliance between plutocrats, nationalists and social conservatives.
The interests of the members of this coalition are very different, so it can only be kept together by promising everything to everybody, while giving special privileges to party loyalists. This requires breaking down the division between political parties and government by reducing the independence of the civil service and the judiciary, and bringing them under political control .
The danger inherent in pluto-populism is that the glue that holds it together is rejection of a status quo that many people find unacceptable for quite opposite reasons. Members of the “Advisory Board” do not want more state intervention, but voters in Hartlepool and Sunderland do. Trump won the White House by promising to help de-industrialised America, but in practice he gave priority to the traditional Republican programme of tax reductions for the wealthy and deregulation for business. Populist pledges, like rebuilding the US infrastructure, were swiftly forgotten.
The essential glue for pluto-populist nationalist governments is anger, usually directed against a minority such as Black people in the US or Muslims in India. In Britain, the need for this glue is the motive for the “culture wars”, most of which are imported from the US or spring from an exaggerated or fabricated domestic threat. A piece of graffiti on a statue of Winston Churchill is inflated into a wholesale assault on the totems of British nationalism.
In Britain racism tends to be half-concealed, as with the government’s confused attack on taking the knee, but in the US it is now startlingly open, as shown by the Republican governor of Missouri this week pardoning the couple who pointed guns at a Black Lives Matter demonstration.
Pluto-populist regimes are by definition unstable because they rely on stirring up division and they cannot make good on their promises to their different constituencies. Though demanding law and order, they tend, once in office, to show a contempt for the law and an intolerance of media criticism, combined with measures to suppress it.
All this creates the sort of generalised instability in which racketeers flourish. The pandemic created optimum conditions for snake oil salesmen who could use the panic last year as a means to make vast profits. Those who handed out huge contracts to companies with no means to fulfil them could blame the pressures of the crisis.
What makes the revelations about the donors’ club ominous is that it is only the latest in a series of scandals that predate Johnson and the pandemic. David Cameron was only mildly criticised by MPs for showing “lack of judgment” in the vigour with which he lobbied for Greensill in its bid to access government finance.
Overall, I have a sense that the Covid-19 emergency has only served to accelerate the impulse towards a sleazier and more corrupt Britain, one in which Harry Lime and his racketeers would have felt very much at home.