Democracy Ltd: How Money And Donations Corrupted British Politics Paperback – 5 Sep 2013
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'A gripping story uncovering a murky side to Westminster politics. Friedman's investigation is a must-read for anyone interested in politics and scandal.'(Kay Burley, anchor, Sky News)
'A gem of a book... If you want to know why we're in the mess we are today, read this book. Friedman's subject is serious but his lightness of touch and delicious ear for detail makes it positively zip along. He has a Rawnsley-like ability to convince you he was in the room at the very moment when plans were being hatched.'(Emily Maitlis, presenter, Newsnight)
'Friedman entertainingly chronicles a century in which the machinery of democracy has been badly corroded by money. What emerges is an unanswerable case for overhauling the funding of British politics - left, right and centre.'(Richard Brooks, author of The Great Tax Robbery)
‘[Friedman] has interviewed a number of the main characters involved… Compelling’(Literary Review)
The agenda-setting book the politicians don’t want you to readSee all Product description
Top customer reviews
There are no facts, figures or graphs in this book. Instead, we have a narrative starting from the First World War and ending in the summer of 2013. It shows just how party funding (or lack thereof) has been pretty much at the heart of the political parties for all this time and, although everyone agrees that it is desperately in need of reform, virtually nothing has been done.
From 'Cash for Questions', Al-Fayed and the Hamiltons, Bernie Eccleston, Lord Levy, 'Cash for Honours' and Labour's reliance on union funding, Friedman documents the whole sorry saga; at least, the bits we know about. And that is a bit of a problem - we know all this. It's very useful, even shocking, to have it all laid out, all connected and put in perspective, but the narrative does not add much to what is already known, assuming you've been generally keeping up with the news for the last thirty years or so.
The real problem, as Friedman points out, is less the overt corruption but the suspicion of corruption, or at least the impression that is repeatedly given that, basically, if you've got enough money, then your 'vote' is going to be worth more than other people's. As such, the whole mess severely undermines democracy. It doesn't matter whether the money comes from unions or bankers - the fact that the system is, at best, opaque, leads to uncertainty, suspicion and cynicism. And it really has to be stopped.
The final chapter puts forward some concrete proposals. There have been plenty of proposals before, not to mention commissions, investigations and even prosecutions. But whenever it looks like the parties may finally come to some agreement, they always seem to get torpedoed by sectional interests. Still, Something Must Be Done. And Friedman's proposals do make a lot of sense. There must be a limit on the total value of donations. If this value is set low enough, it would potentially mean that the parties would be forced to reconnect with the ordinary voter. Instead of chasing individual donations of millions of pounds, parties would have to attract millions of smaller sums. And, yes, there would have to be increased state funding of the political parties. They already get free TV air time, free postage and 'Short Money" ('state funds that are paid to parties in opposition to help them carry out their duties' - P154). Yes, of course, there will be questions as to whether extremist parties should receive the same funding, whether the system can truly be made transparent, whether really wealthy donors will not find some way to subvert any restrictions on their largesse, but that should not prevent the putting in place of regulations to not only stop the parties being 'in hock' to their financial supporters but also to force the parties to again 'connect' with the electorate.
It can be done - Friedman looks at the experience of both the US (and how to avoid the notorious Super PACs) and Canada. All very interesting but I would really have liked this comparative analysis to have been extended. For instance, how are parties funded outside the 'Anglo' world? There again, I suppose that the US and Canada are the closest models to what we have over here. Similarly, the discussion of the use of new media, the internet and social networking sites could also have been usefully extended - although this subject probably warrants a book in it's own right.
Overall, this book is a bit frustrating. The history of money in British politics is interesting and, when put together into a narrative as we have here, pretty depressing. His proposals seem eminently sensible, but I would really have liked them to be fleshed out more, with more feedback from all the parties concerned. At the end, I felt 'Well, yes - do it!' while at the same time realising that these people and parties are caught in a political arms race that finally ends in mutually assured corruption.
Friedman was a journalist/producer at the BBC, so it is no great surprise to find him claiming an equivalence between institutions/individuals when in fact their nature, and the degree of power they wield are massively different. The particular equivalence I have in mind is that which Friedman implies exists between Trade Unions on one side, and "high net worth" individuals and big business on the other. The idea that Trade Unionists had a significant degree of influence over the "New" Labour government of 1997-2010 is frankly laughable nonsense, the degree of power and influence they had was a miserable fraction of that exercised by big business (especially the financial sector) and "high net worth" individuals. For sure Trade Unions are not infallible, utopian institutions, but at least they represent millions of ordinary workers, and are a good deal more democratic in nature than the three main political parties, and light years ahead of Big Business and extremely wealthy individuals. To add insult to injury, the section critical of Trade Union funding of the Labour Party is buttressed with unchallenged quotes from Conservative MP and occasional Third Reich admirer Aidan Burley: his regard for Trade Unions is at a similar level to Hitler's.
Even discounting that issue, the "chronicle of a century in which the machinery of democracy has been corroded by money" (quote from blurb) is not much more than brief accounts of scandals that are pretty well known, and some pretty gaping holes (nothing much seems to happen during the 2nd and 3rd quarters of the century); many of those directly quoted are fundraisers and donors, and like our MP in Nazi regalia and unlike Trade Unionists, are treated fairly sympathetically; lacks of consistency of argument, for example at times being in compliance with the letter of the law is enough for Friedman, while at other points he bemoans the fact that the spirit of the law has been brazenly violated. There is also no conception of how Democracy might meaningfully function beyond the funding of political parties from general taxation.
In brief an extremely disappointing book, doubly so in that I'd been impressed with Oneworld's (a relatively new book publisher) out which includes Richard Brooks's The Great Tax Robbery: How Britain Became A Tax Haven For Fat Cats And Big Business, Linda McQuaig/Neil Brooks's The Trouble with Billionaires and Jacky Davis/Raymond Tallis's Nhs Sos and expecting "Democracy Ltd" to be of a similar calibre. One to avoid.
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