WWho is Tony Abbott for Great Britain or us for him? A failed Australian politician who will be remembered, if at all, for believing climate change “probably did good” as his country burned and gutted for his sexist comments by Julia Gillard. Abbott is a has-been on the other side of the world that we know little about and care about less. Nevertheless, Boris Johnson thinks of making him our commercial envoy. No one voted for Abbott in Britain and he negotiated no major trade deals during his error-ridden period as Australian Prime Minister, which ended in 2015, when, incidentally, his own party deemed it worthless and brought it down.
His record does not matter to Johnson as Abbott is the product of the global network of right-wing think tanks that have learned how easy and cheap it is to manipulate British politics. I want to emphasize the cheap. Britain is the poundshop of European politics, where the money goes further. Money doesn’t stink – “Money does not stink” – declared the emperor Vespasian defending his tax on the sale of urine from the sewers of Rome to tanners who used it to soften animal skins.
It could be the motto of the Anglo-Saxon right, which will use money from any source to soften public opinion. The best text to reach if you want to understand how Abbott, a blunder from below, became a prominent figure in London is by Peter Geoghegan. Democracy for sale, which is expected to be the most discussed political book of the year. It is by turns balanced, authoritarian, revealing and scandalous. As the web and unfunded money wreak havoc on elections, the topic could not be more urgent. However, too many politicians and journalists are too compromised to think about buying influence, and the book has not been mentioned outside of the liberal press.
I will come back to the reasons for the silence later. For now, let’s spend a few more minutes with Abbott. His case illustrates our troubles in the microcosm. Abbott could influence our government because he earned the essential qualification for promotion by becoming a roving player on the right-wing think tank circuit. He has defended Donald Trump at the Heritage Foundation in Washington and Brexit on behalf of the Policy Exchange and the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) in London. He was so far away he was ready to join Daniel Hannan, Andrew Roberts and a parade of other fruit curls clowns to claim that Britain could break free from geography, leave Europe and be a part of ‘Canzuk », An Anglo-Saxon Narnia formed by the merger of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Do you expect a government led by Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson to open up a system that gives them power? The unanswered complaint against thinktanks is that they allow anonymous donors to influence policy without the semblance of accountability. And that’s a criticism that you should never tire of making. Less noticed is how economical it is to buy access and promote your protégés. As former Tory MP Guto Bebb told Geoghegan, “If you’re willing to invest a quarter of a million in a thinktank, you can get what you pay for.” Indeed you can. Access to decision-makers is dizzying. the British medical journal found that 32 deputies had direct or indirect links with the IEA. Tobacco, alcohol, and food companies can pay a paltry sum on their terms – assuming we’re never allowed to know who funds the institute – and hear the IEA tell conservative politicians that essential public health is just interference from the nanny state. They are so integrated into the Tory state that Matt Hancock announced his back cover maneuver to ditch Public Health England at an ‘independent’ political exchange event. Then there is the equally dizzying level of media access. IEA turnover is only £ 2.5million. In 2017 he was boasting that the advertising value of media appearances was £ 66million, a return of 2,600%.
A little money goes a long way in political London. After donating just £ 12,000 to the Conservative Party, billionaire developer and former pornographer Richard Desmond saw Robert Jenrick illegally approve his property development in London’s East End two weeks later, which you might say is fast service. For $ 50,000, just about anyone can get a seat with a minister or prime minister in a group of Conservative leaders. And again, the first question is, really, is that all?
The low cost of influence peddling comes in an era when unregulated campaign groups can use small sums to target marginal seats on social media and disappear as soon as elections are over. There is a clear need for reform. The Election Commission should be enlarged and endowed with police powers. Political parties should have the same duty as banks and be held accountable for verifying the sources of money they take. Think tanks and all lobbyists should be required, under threat of criminal penalties, to declare who funds them. So are social media companies that run political ads.
Much of the media will not help us clean up politics. Sky and the BBC are too compromised. They want extreme opinions, however corrupt or stupid they may be, that will grab the attention of their fickle audience. In return, they too often betray the duty of journalists to ask the IEA and Spiked on the right and Novara Media on the left hard questions about who they represent and who takes the bill.
I don’t see politicians reforming the system. Individual MPs speak well of the folly of thinking that democracy will take care of itself in an age of black money, dubious acquired data and digital campaigns. But come now. Do you expect a government led by Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson to open up a system that gives them power? Money doesn’t stink and they want to keep the stench out of voters’ noses in case the country finds out they’re taking a piss.
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist