Book Review, Politics – ‘A Quiet Word: Lobbying, Crony Capitalism and Broken Politics in Britain’

Reading political books such as these never fails to frustrate, annoy and impose itself onto my conscience due to the rising tide of anger it incites along with the obligated sense of purpose it instills in me to spread the word. Normally, I just rage inwardly or adopt the usual exasperated mood of resignation but once in a while, some books demand a little more than that, however self-consciously awkward it makes me feel to get so irate, and Tamasin Cave and Andy Rowell’s book which came out last year is essential reading for anyone, regardless of place on the political spectrum who holds onto at least some hope for an open democracy.

It’s premise is looking at the inevitably dangerous relationship between wealth, power and influence – a problem that is hardly new to human civilization as any anthropologist / historian / sociologist / common sensist will tell you. The focus in this instance though is through the contemporary practice of (specifically corporate) lobbying.

Lobbying, of course, is at its core a perfectly legitimate democratic act and is available – in theory – to any individual who seeks or petitions change at the governmental level to existing practices to suit their interests: from social legislation to get rid of discriminatory attitudes, to how best investment programmes or austerity cuts should be allocated or targeted. It is also a very human act – it is the relationship of power dynamics between people and is visible in any area where influence is sought – however minor. The authors of the book express this explicitly – acknowledging that in the writing of this book, they are also hoping to lobby for their own opinion of the network between politicians, lobbyists and PR business’ to be influenced by reading this text.

That understood, the great problem comes in our access to understanding and being aware who is exerting these influences. We know that authors of a text are trying to persuade of particular values or ideas through the imprint of their names on the front cover, in addition to a synopsis on the back cover. We have an idea on the perspectives and / or qualifications involved on those who are producing this text.  We can inform ourselves happily enough of the credentials of those seeking our favour.

At the other end of the scale, we have governments with huge reserves of cash and influence to offer, and a select few people who seek to buy and control those ‘products’. And of this, we know disturbingly little – the disturbing component derived from many examples taken from private money’s interventions into the NHS, Education, Foreign Trade etc. This fact won’t come as a huge surprise to those with the vaguest awareness of the problems with politics today. Anyone with a pulse can sigh and put forward the suggestion to “follow the money.” Yet, whilst this is true, I suspect too few of us go on to explore the detail and consider the wider ramifications of these secretive arrangements between the un-elected, unaccountable power brokers.  This book provides an undeniably ambitious compendium of lobbying in Britain in the 21st century.

Whilst the chapters are on occasion quite dense, chock full with cited references, and an array of politicians and personalities for whom keeping track of names and professions can be frustrating, the value of its over-riding thesis remains starkly evident. The imposition of agendas by those who wield spectacular power, with feeble checks available against this, is concerning. We see how the waters have been muddied in communication discourse on legislative agendas from the smoking ban ( see the pernicious influence of the Phillip Morris International group ) to Citigroup and the financial industry’s opposition to regulation. The consequences of deregulation in the financial sector in the past few decades are certainly not hidden.

The nature of frequently disingenous re-framing of arguments, have helped sway political decisions their way, and the media bigwigs themselves come in for their fare share of criticism – the fourth estate often style themselves as the unofficial extra check against abuse of powers, yet they themselves act as the primary medium through which messages from top to bottom and vice-versa are channeled – and how far this medium is manipulated is examined intensely in this book. Even in the age of the “open-access” social media and twitter revolutions, the controlled messages from the more established wings of the press core face far less scrutiny than one would like from so-called professional journalists. A very contemporary example to support this claim can be seen with the allegations surrounding the Daily Telegraph’s coverage of tax fraud concerns with HSBC.  The erosion of trust within media organisations only serves to make it harder for the average man and woman to find out what exactly is going on behind the headlines.

This is arguably the book’s strength, focusing on these concerns, and providing examples of associated  lobbying craft – so called astro-turf campaigns for example – established to promote a cause by lending it the appearance of an ‘independent’ grassroots movement that supports a companies agenda.  These movements often have figureheads that appear detached from external influence and seem to be superficially an appropriately connected person, but conceal a particular agenda. An example cited in the book is that of Nurses for Reform, an organisation that sounds genuine  with the NHS always battling against underfunding and its consequences for patient care. Yet further investigation  reveals that she’s an advocate of private health investment, and referred to the NHS as a ’60 year mistake, halfway to Moscow and admired by Hitler’.  She was given unchecked prime airtime on Radio 2 and had an audience with David Cameron a month before the 2010 elections. Nurses for Reform was heavily supported by lobbyists and right wing think tanks – yet how much of that information was available to the average listener on the radio show or in the news at large for them to be able to appreciate the vested interests? None. Liberal Conspiracy explore the issue further here.

There are many others, supported by numerous references within the book providing empirically based concern as to why the imbalance in influence in our country is having deleterious effects on such fancy notions as democracy, and public accountability.

On the down side, as well as the dense nature of some of the early chapters – which can be difficult to read through with any great ease, come the flaws in over extending its reach. The book takes on examples of malign influence across a wide spectrum of corporate greed’s influence – where perhaps one would like to see more focus attached to one industry itself – and the limitations that inevitably come with a business practice that demands secrecy means that often we have merely strong inferences rather than outright proof of the links between each wing.

Nevertheless, it is of great value to any discerning reader interested to know more of the shady practices that are allowed to manipulate and frustrate our politics when transparency is taken off the agenda. Please Read!