Lindsey German on the return of Tory sleaze and the persistence of the War on Terror
The stench of corruption emanating from Westminster and Whitehall is not new. There have been repeated scandals – cash for questions, MPs’ expenses, ministers’ favours to property developers, the al-Yamamah arms sales deal. But the latest over Greensill and former prime minister David Cameron threatens to reveal not just another series of sordid and illegal transactions but to blow apart the intricate and very lucrative links between politicians, the civil service and big business.
The collapse of Lex Greensill’s business empire, and its links as main lender to the steel magnate Sanjeev Gupta’s GSG, which owns Liberty Steel, is shining a light on the workings of government. It’s not a pretty sight. The involvement of Cameron (Eton, Oxford, distant cousin of the queen) as a paid employee of Greensill who stood to make millions from his shareholding, has been at the highest level. He texted and phoned the chancellor Rishi Sunak to lobby for Greensill to receive state money during the Covid-19 pandemic. He also tried to lobby the German government over an investigation into the Greensill bank there.
Even more astonishingly, Bill Crothers, a civil servant who was head of government procurement with oversight of a £40 billion annual budget, was allowed to join Greensill as a part time adviser while he was still working for the civil service.
The difference between this and many earlier corruption scandals lies in the whole approach of successive governments to private industry and to the public sector. We have had over 40 years of selling off nationalised industries but also the privatisation of many areas of public provision – from prisons to schools. Outsourcing of jobs such as catering and cleaning is now dominant, giving huge profits to companies such as Serco and G4S.
Businessmen and women are given public appointments to the civil service in order to bring in the culture and methods of private industry. This was the case with Crothers, and others brought in from business and encouraged to ‘shake up’ the civil service - in reality to ensure that private industry had its advocates in Whitehall.
While private companies denounce state spending and insist on its being cut back for schools, hospitals and housing, they are first with their snouts in the trough when it comes to contracts and subsidies. Even the very limited rules of scrutiny and competition which govern the award of government contracts have been gaily abandoned by the Tories during the Covid-19 pandemic, with them going to friends and family of ministers and MPs. Health secretary Matt Hancock has shares in a company involving his sister which won a contract from NHS Wales – this follows the great good fortune of his local pub landlord being awarded another.
Huge corporations have benefited from furlough and grants during the pandemic, yet the nurses are denied a decent pay rise and companies like British Gas have sacked hundreds of staff while forcing those remaining to accept worse conditions.
This is a very serious problem of government and goes to the heart of the state machine. The numerous investigations now under way will not bring out anything like the whole truth, but they are almost certain to result in further revelations about a lobbying system which is both utterly corrupt and widely accepted by ministers and business because they gain from it.
Even Keir Starmer’s Labour has woken up to the fact that the opposition needs to make some political capital out of this scandal. It is however limited in what it can do. This is a Tory government, but we shouldn’t assume that Labour is free from the taint of corruption and certainly not from lucrative links with big business. In addition, Starmer has no fundamental problem with the involvement of private industry in government nor of privatisation itself. His back has been firmly turned on the Corbyn era, and there is no clamour from Labour to sweep out the lobbyists – or indeed even to nationalise the ailing Liberty Steel.
Labour is floundering very badly in the polls, losing votes to the Greens and Lib Dems. Certainly in London there is no sign of any enthusiasm or activity for the mayoral election next month and my guess is the turnout will be incredibly low. Labour in Scotland is very weak, and it’s hard to see why those who voted Tory in the north and Midlands will be won back by Starmer’s measured grey tones.
So we’re faced with a government seen as increasingly corrupt (while maintaining a considerable lead over Labour in the polls), a parliament which votes for every rotten bill it puts forward, and an opposition which has failed to oppose during the worst crisis in British society for decades. While this creates levels of apathy and cynicism from the electorate, it is also breeding resistance.
It is increasingly obvious that real change will only come from outside the chamber of horrors that is Westminster. That is where the focus of the left should be – joining Kill the Bill protests, building the People’s Assembly demo in June, and showing solidarity to all the strikers and campaigners who are fighting back.
Twenty years of war: what was it for?
The announcement by Joe Biden that he is to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by the anniversary of 9/11 this September has ruffled the feathers of the British military – and apparently of some of his own advisers. Their discomfort is because his announcement is an admission of defeat for US imperialism and for the whole War on Terror, begun 20 years ago. This was a war of revenge launched by George Bush, aided and abetted by his ally Tony Blair. Those of us who opposed the war argued at the time that it would solve nothing, would not end terrorism or bring peace to the country – already embroiled in a civil war – but would have catastrophic consequences for the people there.
Now we have come full circle. The war and occupation rapidly overthrew the Taliban government but resistance to the western powers and the government it supported continued. The Taliban now controls large parts of the country again, and groups like Isis have grown. Meanwhile the Afghans have suffered at least 100,000 dead, mass displacement and are citizens of one of the poorest countries in the world. They have suffered aerial bombardment and continuing conflict.
There was no point to this war, which also cost the lives of thousands of US, UK and other Nato soldiers. Yet instead of any honest accounting by the governments who endorsed it, they have learnt none of the lessons of their failed wars here and in Iraq, Libya and Syria. As Tariq Ali said at the Stop the War conference which took place at the weekend, we are seeing side by side the failure of their existing wars and the determination to engage new military conflicts.
Hence the sanctions and belligerent rhetoric against Russia and China, the bolstering of Nato in Eastern Europe in particular, military exercises in the Indo-Pacific region, the sending of Britain’s new aircraft carrier to the South China Sea. The latest flashpoint is over Ukraine, where there is talk of conflict over the Donbass.
The declining power of US imperialism, along with its very junior partner here in Britain, is leading to increased militarism and conflict. And those who brought us this endless war in Afghanistan have neither the intention nor the ability to learn the lessons from it.
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As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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