The latest row over cronyism in Westminster involves David Cameron opening a factory in Brazil on behalf of billionaire Sir Anthony Bamford, chairman of construction equipment giant JCB, very generous donor to the Tory party, and purportedly in line for peerage. The spectacle of the UK prime minister celebrating the creation of Brazilian rather than British jobs exhibits the degree to which politicians can appear as pawns in the chess game of global capitalism, rather than representatives of their own people. Cameron’s blocking an EU-wide deal on the debt crisis in December 2011, which he declared to be in the ‘national interest’ to protect the City of London from further regulation, would coincidentally benefit many of the Tory party’s biggest donors, bankers and hedge fund managers. This opens up profound questions about the role of money in UK politics, and what donors get for their money. Often, they get a handsome return on investment.
A second example of institutionalized financial corruption involves the role of ‘astroturf’ think tanks and policy advocacy groups in the political process. “Astroturf” groups purport to enjoy popular support for a cause or a set of causes, but are in fact bankrolled by corporate interests seeking to affect policy for their own benefit. In 1993 in the US for example, the “National Smokers Alliance” was held up as a broad-based activist network against tobacco legislation. It was funded by the tabacco companies to oppose anti-smoking legislation, in part by hiring PR firms to contact citizens en masse and convince them to write or call their representatives to express their opposition to the legislation. These campaigns are designed to create the illusion of grass roots support or opposition to legislation concerning narrow corporate interests.
While these and countless other mechanisms of democratic corruption have not taken root in Scotland on a large scale, if independence is achieved, one cannot doubt that PR groups and lobbies will be seeking to influence the Scottish political system. While advocacy groups and interests are part of the democratic process, the design of a written Scottish constitution could help assure that they never come to dominate the political process, and that their interests are never put above the common good in legislation and policy.
A written Scottish constitution could include provisions for the public funding of elections and parties, and a total ban on contributions to parties and candidates. Penalties for violation of the rules must include expulsion from office. Politics should be viewed as public service, never as a means of personal enrichment.
In order for these bans not to hinder the electoral and policy-making process, the terrain of Scottish politics must be constitutionally constructed to render outside money and disingenuous fraudulent lobbying campaigns irrelevant.
In addition to the bans on party and campaign contributions, there must be total constitutionally mandated transparency on all meetings and contact with outside groups, with no loopholes. In this age of e-mails, text messaging, and youtube, all MSP’s and government officials must be fully aware that communications in all forms can no longer be hidden. Just ask Mitt Romney about his ‘47%’ remarks. For better or for worse, this age is casting an electronic eye on more and more of our lives, and politicians have less and less scope for back door dealing without detection. If lobbying occurs at a private club in Mayfair, this must also be reported. Politicians should no longer be able to weasel out of disclosure requirements just because it was not part of their ‘official duties’, or because it does not occur in the same country.
In addition, any advocacy group or think tank wishing to inform public debate must be constitutionally mandated to total transparency concerning its credentials, funding, and methodology. For example, if a think tank is created to oppose wind energy in Scotland, their website must publish who their donors are, how much they have given, what expertise their members have to competently speak on clean energy policies, and the methodology of all opinion surveys and research must be open to public scrutiny. This will oblige all think tanks and advocacy groups to be honest and transparent if they wish their policies to prevail.
Although the details of these proposals must be debated, thought through, and successfully implemented, they proffer a modern vision of how an independent Scotland could avoid the endemic financial corruption that has beset so many ostensible democracies, including the one in which it currently takes part. If Scots will it, it can happen.