Dispatch

The view from the ground.

K Street-on-Thames

Britain discovers that its lobbyists are just as sleazy as America's.

BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images
BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images
BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images

LONDON — David Cameron's government has not enjoyed much success in predicting the future of the British economy, but the prime minister's political foresight has not entirely deserted him: Last year, following the News of the World hacking controversy, he forecast that lobbying was "the next big scandal waiting to happen." Lobbying, he said, has "tainted our politics for too long" and become "an issue that exposes the far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money." Greater transparency, said the prime minister, was needed to rid British public life of the suspicion that a chosen few were able to purchase power and influence.

That chicken came back to roost this week, as newspaper reports revealed the extent to which lobbying companies with close ties to Cameron's government boast of their ability to influence British government policy. If British voters could ever comfort themselves with the thought that the level of influence peddling regularly observed in Washington was unheard of in Whitehall, those days are over.

LONDON — David Cameron’s government has not enjoyed much success in predicting the future of the British economy, but the prime minister’s political foresight has not entirely deserted him: Last year, following the News of the World hacking controversy, he forecast that lobbying was "the next big scandal waiting to happen." Lobbying, he said, has "tainted our politics for too long" and become "an issue that exposes the far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money." Greater transparency, said the prime minister, was needed to rid British public life of the suspicion that a chosen few were able to purchase power and influence.

That chicken came back to roost this week, as newspaper reports revealed the extent to which lobbying companies with close ties to Cameron’s government boast of their ability to influence British government policy. If British voters could ever comfort themselves with the thought that the level of influence peddling regularly observed in Washington was unheard of in Whitehall, those days are over.

An investigation published by the Independent created a fake Uzbek business conglomerate called the "Asimov Group" that asked some of the most prominent British public affairs companies to help improve Uzbekistan’s dismal image. (The story was a British update of a similar sting pulled off by investigative journalist Ken Silverstein in Washington in 2008.) Of the ten companies approached by the Independent reporters, five expressed an interest in representing the Asimov Group in London. 

Of these five, Bell Pottinger — a public affairs firm founded by Tim Bell, formerly Margaret Thatcher’s media advisor during her time in Downing Street — was the most enthusiastic. The company’s managing director, Tim Collins, himself a former Conservative member of parliament, boasted that Bell Pottinger had "all sorts of dark arts," some of which could not be put in a written presentation because "it’s embarrassing if it gets out." 

Secret recordings of the meetings between Bell Pottinger and the Asimov Group showed Collins cheerfully admitting that "a number of [our client] governments have had serious reputational issues." 

Bell Pottinger, however, would be happy to represent the Uzbeks — one of the most repressive regimes in the world, whose state-run textile industry makes great use of forced child labor — provided the Uzbek government was willing to change its ways. Collins told his would-be clients, "[That] justifies why a PR company is representing a country which previously people shouldn’t have been talking to. Now it actually wants to change it is fully acceptable."

According to another Bell Pottinger excutive, "As long as you can see that each year is a little better than before, that’s fine." The company cited work it had previously done for the government of Belarus, another totalitarian country in dire need of better publicity in the West but one unwilling to make the kind of reforms that might win such goodwill honestly. "In our work for Belarus, nobody knows who paid us," said the executive. In other words, in the murky lobbying world, transparency is a fine, but not necessary, thing.

The Bell Pottinger team boasted that they could arrange meetings for their clients with Foreign Secretary William Hague, as well as Ed Llewellyn, the prime minister’s chief-of-staff. A meeting with the prime minister himself, however, would have to be the "end point" of a £100,000-a-month reputation-cleansing campaign. 

According to the team from Bell Pottinger, they had a track record of influencing government policy, citing an intervention made on behalf of the engineering firm Dyson. "We were rung up at 2:30 on a Friday afternoon, by one of our clients, Dyson," Collins boasted. "He said ‘We’ve got a huge issue. A lot of our products are being ripped off in China.’ On the Saturday, David Cameron raised it with the Chinese prime minister."

Unlike in Washington, where lobbyists for foreign governments are required to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, in London there is no official documentation of lobbyists or their clients, and firms are free to represent foreign regimes without having to declare their interests. Some of the claims made by Bell Pottinger, however, suggest that the lobbying business often bears a more than passing resemblance to a confidence trick. 

For instance, the firm boasted that they could set up supposedly "independent," "third-party" blogs to help whitewash Uzbekistan’s image difficulties. Moreover, the company claimed it could manipulate Google, ensuring that unwelcome items were pushed further down any list of search results, and that it had a team that "sorts" unflattering Wikipedia entries. In other words, the firm would charge thousands of pounds a month for Search Engine Optimization and editing Wikipedia! (For what it’s worth, a summary of this very claim by Bell Pottinger is now featured on Uzbekistan’s Wikipedia page.) Granted, the Uzbeks could theoretically have done all this themselves but, if they did, why would they need Western PR experts? 

Government spokesmen denied that lobbyists have any undue influence on British policy, but admitted that lobbyists frequently made presentations to ministers. This should not surprise far less shock anyone. The affair, however, reinforces the idea, already prevalent, that there is a golden circle of Westminster "insiders" who enjoy privileged access to government. At a time when public faith in parliament has not recovered from the expenses scandal that disgraced MPs in 2009, the government can scarcely afford such controversy. 

Cameron and his Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne endlessly repeat the mantra that in this time of austerity and economic gloom "we are all in this together." Many voters, however, look at soaring executive pay and the billions of pounds paid out in banking bonuses and wonder how it can be true that everyone is hurting equally. Increasingly, there is a fear that the idea of meritocracy itself has been tarnished and that the game is rigged in favor of the rich and influential. That Cameron and many of his cabinet attended Britain’s most exclusive private schools only adds to the sense that the few have too great an advantage over the many. The "Occupy" movement may have few answers, but some of their questions are wincingly pertinent. 

In some respects, this affair is but a small if leading indicator that government is not working as voters would like to believe it should. Governments, as jaundiced Washington-observers know full well, can be captured by special interests. This, it seems evident, is a crisis of confidence afflicting much of the Western world. Nor does the imposition of technocratic governments on Greece and Spain ease the sense that the project of European democracy as a whole faces grave challenges. The eurozone lurches from one crisis to another with little sign that the peoples of Europe will be permitted any great say in the outcome of the latest round of bargaining. This poses a particular problem for Cameron since he has promised a referendum on any new European treaty. Any such treaty would most likely be rejected by the British electorate, potentially plunging Europe into yet another maelstrom. Again, there is a palpable sense in Britain that decisions of major national and international importance are being made with little to no regard to public opinion. Here, too, politics is seen as some kind of closed shop.

Few things symbolized the changing face of British politics more than this year’s Conservative Party conference in Manchester in July. Just 4,000 of the nearly 12,000 attendees were actually members of the Tory party; the rest were lobbyists, representatives of NGOs, trade associations, or journalists. Politics has become another business, only more tawdry than most. Perhaps it was ever thus, but it seems more plainly so now than in the past.

In such circumstances the divide between legitimate lobbying and the purchasing of questionable influence becomes ever thinner and tougher to discern. If British lobbying has yet to produce a Jack Abramoff-type figure that may be merely a matter of luck and time. 

Alex Massie writes for the Spectator, the Times, and other publications.

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