LONDONVisitors from the East cannot fail to be struck by a shift in ethical trends
from one side of the globe to the other. The role of money in politics is under
increasing scrutiny in the East but appears to have been gaining ground in the
This is not to say that the politics of
India, South Korea or Thailand are about to become as exemplary as those of
Finland and Sweden. But, given how much has been written about links between
money and politics as one cause of the Asian crisis, it is instructive to see
what has been happening in the English-speaking countries that often see
themselves as models of integrity and transparency, and in Germany.
(France, in contrast, may be making some
effort to clean up a political past perhaps no less murky than Italy's.)
American politics have long lived with
Washington lobbyists, but surely a new low was reached with the presidential
pardon handed out to the fugitive financier Marc Rich. This was not just an
insult to the U.S. taxpayer, whom Mr. Rich was alleged to have defrauded of tens
of millions of dollars, and to U.S. citizens who have not renounced their
nationality to evade the law. It was an insult to an international community
that is supposed to be cracking down on money laundering and the use of offshore
financial centers to escape laws and taxes.
Britain, being a lesser country, has
lesser scandals - but plenty of them. The Blair administration looks well set to
fulfill its early promise of being sleazier than any since David Lloyd George's
post-World War I government sold peerages.
Its minister for Northern Ireland, Peter
Mandelson, has had to resign a second time, now over allegations that he
interceded to get a British passport for a member of India's ultra-rich Hinduja
family now under investigation in connection with India's Bofors arms scandal.
The Hindujas had contributed generously to London's ill fated Millennium Dome
This version of ethics is a reminder of
the medieval pardoner who sold salvation in exchange for a donation.
The Blair government has from the start
been an easy touch for all manner of interests willing to contribute to its
coffers or give it media support. Some of its prominent business backers have
had murky backgrounds.
One target of government policy has been
that famous British rural activity, foxhunting with dogs. A bill to ban it was
brought forward, presented as an ethical measure, but it has nothing to do with
animal welfare. Foxes are mass killers of rabbits, poultry and lambs. Hounds
kill foxes with less pain than the trap, poison or shotgun now to be used to
keep the big fox population in check. Shooting of animals (deer, rabbits, foxes
or birds) for sport remains legal.
But it is not surprising for a government
that has always been obsessed with image to pretend to be ethical when it is
venal. The Blair government has no discernible principles and will do or say
whatever it thinks is immediately popular. Its chief spokesman is, suitably, a
protégé of the late Robert Maxwell, and its ethos has all the gravitas of the
Princess Diana cult. It has bypassed Parliament and its own grass roots and is
now undermining one of Britain's oldest bastions of liberty and equality before
the law, jury trials.
The leadership rewards personal friends
with ministerial jobs and well paid positions in do-little, quasi-state bodies.
Some of these practices are familiar in the United States, but they are not the
trans-Atlantic stimulus to entrepreneurship that Britain needs.
Contrast the advance of sleaze in Britain
with what has been happening in Asia - jail terms for top people in South Korea,
real efforts to stem money politics in Thailand, disgrace of senior officials in
China, indictment of a former prime minister in India, and now the fate of
Joseph Estrada in the Philippines.
British politics, even U.S. politics, are
still relatively money-free compared with much of Asia, but the trend is clear.
It is not in the West's favor.