Anyone going simply by media headlines would think that British politics was mired in corruption. Yet, for all the breathless reporting of corruption “scandals” (the latest centres on Cabinet minister Peter Mandelson and senior Tory leader George Osborne partying with a controversial Russian businessman on his luxury yacht in Greece) the truth is that, by and large, Britain’s political culture remains relatively clean.
Indeed, many of the so-called scandals may not even get a look-in in a lot of other countries — and , I mean, developed western countries with strict anti-corruption rules, not Third World “banana” republics.
It is difficult to imagine, for example, something like Watergate –or even “Troopergate” (of Sarah Palin fame) — happening in Britain. Even the cash-for-peerage scandal, involving allegations that Labour party offered peerages to rich businessmen in return for donation to the party, which was seen as a real “biggie” collapsed after the police failed to find sufficient evidence to prosecute anyone.
So far, so good. But there is one area where British politicians of all parties have been found to be extremely vulnerable: their tendency to flirt with the rich and the famous. Their weakness for high life and freebies (rides in super-duper private jets of rich businessmen, foreign holidays in exotic places and invitations to celebrity-studded parties on fancy yachts) lies at the root of most of the scandals. And the Mandelson-Osborne kerfuffle is no different.
Neither Mr. Mandelson nor Mr. Osborne is accused of breaking any rules when, in August, they met Oleg Deripaska, a Russian billionaire, on his supposedly £80- million yacht off the exotic Greek island of Corfu where they were staying as guests of their common friend Nathaniel Rothschild, a British hedge fund tycoon.
The criticism is that they showed poor judgement by hobnobbing with an allegedly dodgy businessman despite knowing about his reputation and their actions had the effect of blurring the all-too-critical line between their professional and private lives.
The allegation against Mr. Osborne is that he solicited a donation for his party from Mr. Deripaska though he is not registered as a voter in Britain and therefore cannot donate directly to a British political party. Mr. Osborne denies this.
But what if Mr. Osborne did solicit donation, as his friend Mr. Rothschild insists? Soliciting party donations is not illegal; nor, indeed, is it illegal to accept it even if the potential donor is not a British resident provided that the money is given through legal channels such as through one of his U.K.-based companies. In this case, no money passed hands. So, there was nothing scandalous about Mr. Osborne’s behaviour except that he fell prey to a failing common among Britain’s political class: its pursuit of high-jinks.
That meeting on Mr. Derispaska’s yacht was a perfect “snapshot of money and power in the sun,” as The Times vividly put it.
The charge against Mr. Mandelson is a little more serious. It is alleged that his relationship with Mr. Deripaska whom he has apparently known since 2004 might have influenced his decision when as the European Union’s Trade Commissioner he lowered import tariffs on aluminium: a decision that benefited the Russian tycoon’s aluminium business. Mr. Mandelson denies there was any conflict of interest — and, so far, the European Commission has stood by him.
Mr. Mandelson has been in trouble before for “embracing tycoons and their trophies,” to quote one commentator. A trait he shares with his friend and former Prime Minister Tony Blair who acquired a reputation for taking his summer and Christmas holidays in expensive foreign tourist resorts, courtesy his rich friends routinely sparking accusations of conflict of interest.
But, as historian Tristram Hunt pointed out, there is a long line of some very honourable British political leaders — Benjamin Disraeli, Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden among them — who couldn’t resist the smell of big money.
``From Robert Walpole (regarded as the “first prime minister” of Britain though at the time the position was not officially recognised) on, politics has always mixed with finance and some of our finest leaders have gravitated towards the friendship of the rich and suspect,” he wrote in The Observer.
So, what’s the fuss about? All that Messrs Mandelson and Osborne did was to carry forward a very British political tradition.