This is the week to write about the PR of war, except that there
isn’t much to say. The majority favour war - at least against the
’psychopath’ Milosevic - provided victory can be accomplished by a
technical fix from the skies without British casualties. Otherwise, who
wants to know about ethnic cleansing, genocide and Balkan brutalities?
Modern war is governed by the body-bag count, so PR demands big bangs
It is therefore more profitable to respond to Lord Neill’s call for
evidence for his inquiry into lobbyists’ standards. Should their conduct
be governed by statutory regulation and should the existing rules on
contacts between lobbyists and the Government’s special advisers be
tightened up? It is, of course, decent of Lord Neill to invite comments,
but I can’t help thinking that he is going through the motions.
In the dim and distant past when everybody was being beastly to John
Major, you will recall that Number 10 was panicked into appointing a
commission into standards in public life. That august body - largely the
result of the media’s penchant for discovering far more Tory MPs in the
wrong bed than in receipt of brown envelopes, promptly recommended a
commissioner to police MPs’ conduct, which since seems to have gone from
bad to worse.
This then produced a situation in 1997 when general election candidates
asked us to place our confidence in them to regulate our affairs as they
were tacitly admitting they were unfit to regulate their own.
That killed the case for self-regulation stone dead in Britain. Only
institutions such as the Fourth Estate, which many feel is abusing its
power as blatantly as did the unions in the 1970s, continue to ignore
the obvious. So I hope lobbyists don’t waste everybody’s time pompously
demanding a right which MPs have themselves humiliatingly conceded.
I accept that this drive for external regulation may merely serve to
further undermine confidence in our institutions by converting the age
of accountability into the age of suspicion. But self-regulation is not
the flavour of the millennium and lobbyists should not join the press in
its monumental hypocrisy by demanding it. Instead, they should recognise
two things. First, not so long ago it was politically fashionable to
decry lobbying. Statutory regulation would cement lobbyists into the
fabric of public life.
Second, there is a need for statutory regulation after the ’Dolly
Drapergate’ lobbyists’ affair with political advisers which demonstrated
the different standards applying in public life post-Major. That need is
all the greater because of the mushrooming of both the political adviser
and lobbying industries, especially as Celtic devolution approaches. If
lobbying is a respectable trade - as I believe it is - we had better,
Lord Neill, try to keep it respectable.