MPs for sale, get them while they’re hot

Image: Chatham House

Image: Chatham House

Two senior MPs have landed themselves in hot water after being caught using their political influence for the wrong reasons.
Labour’s Jack Straw and the Conservatives’ Sir Malcolm Rifkind, both former foreign secretaries, are accused of breaching the parliamentary code of conduct in offering their services, power and influence to businesses. Mr. Straw used his parliamentary office to host a business meeting, putting his abilities up for sale and apparently boasting about how his influence has tweaked some European laws; Sir Rifkind came up with the ludicrous idea that he works without a salary (and has since gone on to say that salary he does receive is not enough to sustain himself!) while consulting a fictitious ‘client’ and agreeing to ask specific questions in the House of Commons. He bragged too, saying that he could set up a meeting with any British ambassador on the globe (M. Weaver, The Guardian).

The actions of Mr. Straw and Sir Rifkind have got them in trouble with our Parliament, costing them their positions and bringing their parties into disrepute, no doubt another inspiration for the parties like UKIP to further chant their anti-establishment messages. But aside from the now-troubled careers of these MPs (or MPs no longer?), what does this mean for the rest of us?

Recently I wrote about the ‘auctioning’ of politicians’ time for wealthy donors and its dangers: there is nothing wrong with people offering money to ideas they support, but the problem in that previous scenario was that leading business or social figures could go a step further and offer more cash on the immoral condition that new policies were written to reflect their interests, or exclude them from harm. Policies are therefore edited to ensure that wealthy donors are protected from harm and so are willing to keep writing cheques to the party. However, this dilemma goes even further – here we have politicians wilfully offering their power and influence in exchange for cash. It’s not a case of businessmen playing dirty tricks and manipulating powerful statesmen, but rather politicians freely putting their abilities and influence on the market for financial gain, regardless of the ethical implications!

Politicians obviously hold great power in what they do. If Mr. Straw’s blabbering is correct then people like him could turn the tide, or at least alter, important political documents or international agreements. By putting a price tag on this ability, we no longer have politicians working for the common good of the public, but instead the selective interests of the person who is willing to pay the large sum of money that Mr. Straw and others charge – and it’s not inaccurate to say that there are plenty of people in this society with that kind of money.

Similarly it is a bad idea to let MPs’ questions be influenced by private parties. MPs ask questions to ministers and officers within meetings in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, to critique new acts and bills and to inquire about details. At first we might forgive businesses for wanting to know about the nitty gritty; after all, the owners of a business want to make sure that they will not walk into work one day and find that their corporation has suffered due to new laws! But considering the huge wealth and power of these inquiring businessmen, again the ethical implications seem to outweigh this; once again we have prominent figures of authority operating to help someone who is writing them a big fat cheque rather than the people who voted them into their position.
Mr. Straw and Sir Rifkind are in the spotlight, but this is not the first ‘cash-for-access’ scandal that has featured on our newspaper headlines – with publications like Private Eye continuing to dig up the dirt, these scandals aren’t going away anytime soon.

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