Monday, April 03, 2006

Buying Titles, Blair, Livingstone and Tuttle

O, wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!

Many Americans will be unaware of some recent developments that cast an interesting light on developments across the Atlantic. The elected mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, has rescued his city from being a perpetual traffic jam with his highly successful congestion charge on vehicles entering the centre. However, instead of being grateful for the easier access to the US embassy in Grosvenor Square, the US Mission refuses to pay since they regard it as a tax.

Livingstone said, with his customary colourful phrasing, "It would actually be quite nice if the American ambassador in Britain could pay the charge that everybody else is paying and not actually try and skive out of it like some chiselling little crook." Apart from the fact that H.E. Robert Tuttle was a Reagan appointee, is a car salesman on a large scale, and has now been appointed by George W. Bush, probably for being a major donor, we can say little about his character. But please see my Ermine for IOU's column from Tribune, below, for some transatlantic connections on people buying honours beyond their apparent merits. Tuttle has as much qualification for being diplomatic as Livingstone!

On another tangent, here in New York, every time a Mayor wants to play the xenophobic card, he turns on diplomats for parking fines, for which the assorted freeloaders also claim diplomatic immunity. Of course, the assorted diplomatic community are nothing compared with the hosts of New York police, Fire Department and other city officials who park with impunity across the crowded city.

While exhorting Mayor Bloomberg to follow London's example in order to make Manhattan habitable again, there is another group that should be considering following the Ambassador Robert Tuttle's example. Every time the diplomatic core ventures through the sundry toll tunnels, bridges and roads of New York, they should cite the US Ambassador to London as their guarantee of free passage, since the tolls are clearly every bit as much a tax as the congestion charge.

And now my Tribune column, 31 March 2006

Ermine For IOU's

The "Ermine for IOU's" scandal may look as it if were a flashback to Lloyd George's days, but that is not doing modernizing dynamic Tony Blair justice. I suspect that the inspiration is not the old Welsh womanizer, but his transatlantic reincarnation, Blair's old chum Bill Clinton.

In the good old days when John Smith was alive, Comrades Blair and Brown were passing through New York and met some of the leaders of the Labour International Branch there. Their totally uncritical admiration for Bill Clinton was disturbing. "Don't you realize that he would put his grandmother for sale on the streets to get votes," I remonstrated. "But he wins elections," came back the reply.

A reply of another sorts came a few weeks later when a Liverpool councillor and PPC called to ask if I had met Tony Blair on his recent visit to the States. It seemed that he had referred to a "wild man from Liverpool," he had met in New York who, he charged, had been "badmouthing Clinton." "Guilty as charged," I happily admitted.

It was Bill Clinton who castigated American unions as "Special Interest Groups," while raking in the cash from Wall Street donors. It was Bill Clinton who sold nights in the White House in return for big campaign cheques. It was the Clintons who essentially decided that the purpose of the Democratic Party was to re-elect Bill Clinton, so that he could promulgate the voodoo economics which George Bush senior regarded as too reactionary and inhuman for his more moderate conservative taste.

Of course George Bush Junior's toxic reign has now imbued Clinton's terms with a rosy retrospective glow, but in his two terms Clinton effectively managed to complete the destruction of what was left of the Democratic Party's democracy and reduce the organization to a PO box for corporate donations, confident that the party's supporters would not vote Republican no matter what the Democrats did.

In return for big cheques, American donors have traditionally expected Ambassadorships and similar prestige jobs. In American usage, Ambassadors keep their title on retirement, so it has all the social appurtenances of a life peerage. But they all expect results, as when a few hundred thousand dollars from a Cuban American magnate got Clinton to sign on for tightening the embargo, a few million from Hollywood got his government to fight the Germans on behalf of the Scientologists, and half a million from a banana magnate bought a trade war with the European Union.

The basis for the donor-driven politics of America is the primary election, where ambitious individuals raise money to win elections to win the candidacy for political parties. Originally the primaries were intended to rescue politics from the smoke-filled rooms of Tammany Hall. They have now taken it into halls of luxury hotels and very expensive fund raising dinners. Effectively, there is no membership of political party in any sense that anyone in Britain would have recognized ten years ago.

But now, what you see in Britain is what we had already got here in the States: dwindling party rolls as members decide that a party leadership that seems to pay no attention to what they want is not really worthwhile spending money or time on; alienated unions being sent to the tradesman's entrance of Number Ten while the more piratical captains of industry get the red carpet treatment at the front.

The resemblances go even deeper. Blair originally won his leadership campaign, the closest thing to a primary the Labour Party had ever had, with an expensive campaign paid for by a wealthy individual with little or no previous connection to the Party. And now, along with a peerage, Michael Levy is the financial engineer behind his client Tony Blair's bid for financial independence from the unions, not to mention a key determinant in Britain's Middle East policy. At least Levy's son in Israel is anti-Likud, but British policy has been more tolerant of Sharon's excesses than, shall we say, Robin Cook would ever have countenanced.

There is a strong case for entrepreneurs and business people sending money to the Labour Party. Labour is better for the economy than Thatcherism, and there is a long tradition of millionaires supporting the party, even if the first name that springs to mind, Robert Maxwell, evokes caution more than applause.

Several of the recent donors say they were told to keep their loans quiet, which suggests that Clintonian reasons were paramount. Like Clinton, Blair was wrestling with the problem of how to finance an election when so many of his autocratically decided policies ran counter to the principles of the traditional members and supporters of the party. He had already attenuated the Labour Conference from a decision making body to an American style convention, a circus to endorse and showcase the winner of the expensive primary election for Party leadership. Party branches were overtly encouraged to go into hibernation.

But the members were voting with their feet ad dropping out. Unions were finding better uses for their political funds than supporting a leadership that regarded them with a baleful Thatcherite glare and which actually boasted of having the most regressive labour laws in Europe. Hence a secret slush fund and with a leap and bound, Tony was free, free to ignore his own party on Iraq, education, and all of his other innovations.

However, there is a price for this. If the first stage, the party organization, is jettisoned during the launch of the Blair fan club into political orbit, what does it leave for his successor? One answer would be state funding, which would perpetuate the current leadership's independence from the party's electoral base, at least until the Tories get their act together.

Big cheques, whether from government or millionaires, are not conducive to grass roots democracy, nor to grassroots activism of the kind needed to rebuild Labour's base. It would be interesting to hear what aspirant party leaders have to say about rebuilding the party. If members are to be involved in the choice of the next leader, and in the next election, it would be useful if promising candidates started persuading disgusted former members to return, not least by promising to listen to them.


Phoenix Woman said...

If Clinton was truly the corporate 'ho, he would never have pushed through the big tax increase on America's wealthiest citizens. That tax increase is what led to the GOP's takeover of Congress in 1994. (And don't forget what was the first thing Newt Gingrich did on becoming House Speaker: He rigged it so Rupert Murdoch could inflict FOX News on us, thus further shoving the American discourse towards fascism.)

That, unfortunately, is why Democrats nowadays don't dare say the T-word -- though what with Bush's horrific blunders, Americans seem to be less afraid of taxes, and more understanding of just who it was that benefitted from Bush's free-money giveaways.

Detector said...

Articles are too long....