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Vested interests and the erosion of government

May 4, 2014 at 4:08 pm

When Professor Paul Whiteley of the new Essex Centre for the Study of Integrity published his study “Are Britons getting more dishonest?” this month, he didn’t have to wait very long for the answer.

Just three days later, Eirian Walsh-Atkins, the head of constitutional policy in the Cabinet Office, resigned after posting a message on Twitter saying that she hoped a group campaigning for better regulation of the lobby industry “would die”. The headlines became more disturbing by the day. On 28 January the Guardian reported, “Gove awarded public funds to organisation that he advised”. The Sunday Times reported on 29 January, “Internet minister in web shares row”, and Monday 30 saw the Independent revealing that, “Lobbying reform official in Twitter rant never even met the campaigners she attacked”.

In an article headed, “Hester-Huhne are symbols of a country in moral free fall”, the Telegraph’s political editor, Peter Oborne, recalled, “The 2005-10 parliament was probably the most corrupt since the 18th century – its members lied, cheated and sometimes falsified documents in order to obtain expenses fraudulently”.

Having witnessed the burial rites of New Labour in the 2010 general election, many expected with more than a touch of wishful thinking that there would be a change of tack in David Cameron’s “Big Society”. That once-attractive slogan is no longer bandied about in the media or government discourse; instead it is fast unravelling less than two years into the term of the Coalition government. Dysfunction is not the making of the bankers and big business only, as bad as they are; it is also a consequence of the rampant meddling by vested interests at the heart of government.

The latest revelations from Westminster may just be the tip of the iceberg. They follow the inglorious exit of former defence secretary Liam Fox amid claims, according to The Times, that there was a money trail linking Fox’s “advisor”, Adam Werritty, to a private intelligence company and a property investor who lobbies the UK government on behalf of Israel.

The Guardian’s report on Michael Gove said that he had awarded £2 million of public money to the Community Security Trust (CST), which distributes funds to pay for security at Jewish schools. When challenged on the fact that the Secretary of State for Education is a member of the board of advisors of the CST, a spokesperson from Gove’s department said they were satisfied that “there was no conflict of interest in the secretary of state making the decision to award the grant”.

In October last year, Gove stopped eight state schools from sending pupils to the Tottenham Palestine Literary Festival, in which the former children’s laureate Michael Rosen took part. Jeremy Corbyn MP, who supported the festival, said: “It was a great opportunity for children to understand the wealth and joy of Palestinian literature and a little of the history of the region. It’s not in any way biased, but a festival which encourages children to broaden their horizons. The children were looking forward to it.”

A spokesman for the department of education gave this rather curious explanation: “The Secretary of State wrote to a number of schools seeking an assurance that they were not in breach of their duty under section 407 of the Education Act 1996 requiring that where political issues are brought to the attention of pupils, they are offered a balanced presentation of opposing views.”

In the circumstances, no one should delude themselves into believing that the education secretary or his government would demonstrate his sense of morality, impartiality and balance by awarding £2 million to Muslim schools, for security purposes or anything else. It simply would not happen. Even Gove’s much-vaunted Free School programme is not without controversy; exactly a year ago, Michael Gove rejected an application from Al-Aqsa School in Leicester for Free School status, based on an out-of-date inspection report. When this was pointed out to the Department for Education, the school was told, “There is no right of appeal”. It could, of course, be entirely coincidental that the founder and managing trustee of Al-Aqsa School is a prominent campaigner for Palestinian rights, and Gove’s decision on the school was based on solid educational grounds, but we have our doubts. After all, on 4 February 2008, Gove tried to scupper a Christian Schools Trust and Association of Muslim Schools inspection initiative by telling the House of Commons that the same trustee, at that time Al-Aqsa School’s head teacher,” called political Zionism a threat to world peace and said of Zionist control of the media, that there is no smoke without fire”. As reported in Hansard, however, Michael Gove didn’t actually tell the House that Christian schools were involved in the initiative; he focused solely on the Muslim schools, calling for “more, rather than less, rigorous in policing the growth of separatist Islamism in education”. So the Secretary of State has form.

Of course, the government of which Gove is a key member and, it is understood, architect of Conservative Party policies, will continue its self-righteous preaching about justice and human rights, of which David Cameron’s speech in Strasburg last week at the European Court of Human rights was a classic example. After all the abuses that took place under the Blair government – secret rendition and torture – we could be forgiven for thinking that the prime minster would be keen to facilitate a greater role for the European court to protect victims of abuse and criminality. However, with the court more or less out of his government’s manipulative reach, such a stance would be unthinkable.

Alas, the entrenched vested interests which lobbied successfully on behalf of Israeli war crimes suspects will go on manipulating official thinking and policy. Cameron’s amendment to the laws on universal jurisdiction was intended to do just this.

Peter Oborne was right when he asked, “If Tony Blair can lie to Parliament about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and get away with it, or David Cameron can hire the appalling Coulson as his No 10 spokesman, why on earth should a teenager feel even a twinge of conscience when he steals money or dodges fares?”

Paul Whiteley may not have said it as explicitly as that, but if our political leaders do not get a grip of themselves, and become more honest and transparent, the vested interests they promote may well prove to be their nemesis, one by one.