The Parliamentary Peloton

Peter Mair

  • A Very British Revolution: The Expenses Scandal and How to Save Our Democracy by Martin Bell
    Icon, 246 pp, £11.99, October 2009, ISBN 978 1 84831 096 4

During a summer school on the theme of parties and democracy held at the European University Institute in Florence last September, the talk turned to political corruption, as it often does when politics students visit Italy. The Telegraph’s principal revelations in the MPs’ expenses scandal had appeared some while before, but the summer school students were in any case more intrigued by the doings of Silvio Berlusconi and the daily stories of political chicanery in La Repubblica and Corriere della Sera. They also had revealing stories of their own. In Bulgaria, we were told, one vote in seven had been bought by a political party before a recent election. Bulgaria is 71st in Transparency International’s most recent ‘corruption perceptions index’, sharing with Romania and Greece the lowest ranking in the European Union. The highest price paid for an individual vote was said to be about €15, and the proof that the voter had fulfilled his part of the bargain was a photo of the completed ballot paper taken with a mobile phone. (A number of countries now ban voters from taking mobile phones into the polling booth.) In Turkey, which is number 61 in the index, and is thus seen as being less corrupt than Bulgaria, Romania or Greece, bribery and corruption, we were told, are to be found everywhere in the government and the military. In Greece, in the lead-up to the 2007 election, the ruling party offered €3000 compensation to anyone who had suffered as a result of that summer’s fires. No evidence was required. The opposition alleged that public money was being used to buy votes.

Less serious, but pretty nasty, was a student’s claim that in Macedonia left-wing activists urged their young supporters to hide their conservative grandparents’ identity cards on election day in order to prevent them from voting. ‘That happens in Spain too,’ another student said (Spain is number 32 on the index). Earlier that summer in Norway (No. 11), Aslaug Haga, the minister for oil and energy, and leader of the Centre Party, resigned following questions about illegal building projects at her family homes. The English-language edition of the Aftenposten reported allegations that she had taken part in back-room deals to win support for Tromsø’s bid for the Winter Olympics and that she had had a hand in arranging a state consultancy job for a colleague. In France, 24th on the list, Jacques Chirac famously refused to resign in the face of claims that he had received substantial illegal payments for public works contracts while mayor of Paris and president of the Gaullist Party.

In Poland (No. 49), soon after the summer school ended, the ‘casino scandal’ cost the government two ministers and two junior ministers. The allegation here was that lobbyists had bribed politicians in an attempt to stop the imposition of a higher tax on gambling. A Polish colleague of mine at the European University, who has spent a long time investigating the links between money and politics in the post-Communist democracies, tells a joke about two ministers from neighbouring Balkan states. There are versions tailored to most regions of the world. In this variation, one minister visits the other and remarks on his host’s wonderful new house in the country. ‘How can you afford this place?’ he asks. ‘See that bridge over there?’ the host replies. ‘Yes,’ says the visitor. ‘Ten per cent,’ the host says proudly. Sometime later, the visit is reciprocated, and the second minister is now living in an even more sumptuous villa than his counterpart. ‘This is marvellous,’ the visitor says, ‘but how can you afford it?’ ‘Do you see that bridge over there?’ his host asks. ‘What bridge?’ the visitor asks. ‘Exactly,’ his host replies: ‘100 per cent.’

Living in Italy (No. 63), and coming from Ireland (a surprisingly healthy 14th place), I had my own stories. I even have some scandalous tales about the Netherlands (No. 6), which has long been regarded as a model of good governance, but where the large sums of public money available for building roads and infrastructure have created huge incentives for developers to suborn the modestly paid local government officials who often award the tenders. By most standards, therefore, the levels of corruption exposed by the expenses scandal in the UK (in joint 17th place, with Japan) are relatively modest. Stories of corruption are told in every European country, even in Denmark, which, at number 2, is seen as the least corrupt of the EU member states (New Zealand tops the global list, Singapore comes third). In Germany (No. 14), much controversy was aroused by the move of Gerhard Schröder from the chancellorship to a directorship of a Gazprom subsidiary just two months after losing the 2005 election, and three months after he and Putin had signed an agreement between Russia and Germany to build a $5 billion pipeline.

In Ireland, as documented by Frank McDonald and Kathy Sheridan in their recent bestseller about property developers,[*] the building industry and Fianna Fáil have spent decades in a mutually beneficial partnership. Highly favourable tax deals benefited developers in the boom years, and at the local level councillors have been given cash donations in return for their votes on planning and rezoning issues. Among the worst offenders was the overbearing Ray Burke, a former minister, who was eventually jailed for tax evasion, but had earlier pocketed almost £3 million when he sold his family home to the property developers Flynn and O’Flaherty.

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[*] The Builders: How a Small Group of Property Developers Fuelled the Building Boom and Transformed Ireland (Penguin, 304 pp., £8.99, May 2009, 978 0 14103780 6).