Monday, 26 March 2012

Cash for Canapés

So it turns out that the Tory party's former treasurer, Peter Cruddas, offered to give people access to David Cameron in exchange for large gifts. Cameron's initial response was to say that this was unacceptable, but that he would not publish a list of people that he had met at private dinners - only his public agenda would be available to the public. Now he has agreed that the list will, after all, be published.

There are echos of Horse Gate here. The Cameron response to any political problem seems to be the same: (1) deny the problem, then (2) admit there is a problem, but refuse to release anything publicly about it because it's a 'private matter', and then (3) realise that it's not going to go away and decide to make it public after all. Are there no PR people working at No 10 any more? Surely anyone can see that looking both incompent and corrupt at the same time is a bad strategy.

Anyway, there are two important things here about so-called 'cash for access' (though I think 'cash for canapés' is a better name). The first is the PM's complete misunderstanding of his role. The very idea that he can have 'private' meetings with people while in the Office of the Prime Minister is wrong. The PM does not get to have personal or private meetings with people which do or might have any bearing on the work of the government. And to be clear, anything that 'the party' is interested in is, while that party is in government, connected to the work of the government.

But in a way, the more interesting thing about this scandal is that people seem surprised. The Tory party is completely up-front about the fact that a big donation will get you access to senior MPs and party officials, including the Prime Minister. As their website says, a £50,000 donation gets you membership of the Leader's Group, including:

"[being] invited to join David Cameron and other senior figures from the Conservative Party at dinners, post-PMQ lunches, drinks receptions, election result events and important campaign launches."

Similarly, for the bargain price of £25,000, one can join the Treasurers' Group, which:

"is aimed at substantial financial supporters with a keen interest in politics. Members are invited to join senior figures from the Conservative Party at dinners, lunches, drinks receptions, election result events and important campaign launches."

Now, it's fair to say that these elite 'clubs' are a feature of many organisations that seek to raise money from private individuals and organisations. The University of Oxford does it too - we have the Vice-Chancellor's Circle and the Chancellor's Court of Benefactors, for example. Individual Colleges within Oxford sometimes make major donors Honorary Fellows, or invite them to attend College functions. But there is a difference.

When an organisation like the University of Oxford sets up these circles, there is very little quid pro quo. People are thanked for their donations, and in return they are invited to occasional dinners and kept informed of what the University is doing with their money. (We usually invest it in buildings, research or student scholarships, if you were wondering.) Look at the description of what you get for being in the Chancellor's Court of Benefactors:

"This provides an opportunity for benefactors to engage with the Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, Heads of Colleges and senior academics, and to meet with other members of the Court, and to gain a greater understanding of the life and work of the University and the Colleges."

Engage with? Yes. Understand the life and work of? Yes. But influence future work? No, not really.  Influence the University so that you benefit in some way? Again, no.

So what's the difference between an organisation like the University of Oxford having this club and the Tory party doing it? Well, mainly that the University has no ability to change the law or set national government agendas. We do not have direct control over anyone other than the people who work or study here. People who make donations to Oxford are entitled to know what we do with the money, but that money does not buy influence over things that can directly benefit the donor.

The reason that this matters is that having or not having money does not make a practical difference to the benefits that you can get from Oxford. The University and its Colleges are grateful for donations big and small to cover the costs of our buildings and to fund our research, teaching and student scholarships. But you can't buy a place to study here, and you can't influence what the University does as a result of your donation.

None of that's not true of the Tory party. Surely the only reason for giving them money is precisely that you think you will benefit from it. Some people benefit indirectly - they want a Tory government, so they give money to help with election campaigns. But those who want direct access to the PM or the Chancellor surely want it because they hope to influence government policy - and that means that the rich buy influence for themselves that the rest of us can't possibly afford.

So don't forget - we're all in it together, but some of us are more in it than others.

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