Beware the resentment of the ordinary folk

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The Independent Online
ON THE face of it, the current obsession with Tory party finances is rather odd. Yes, the Asil Nadir connection has given a new angle to an old story. But it is, after all, a very old story. The Conservatives' obscure finances, and murky links between political fundraising and national honours, have been with us for most of this century. They have been a vague, liberal-intelligentsia issue - but never really come to the front of political debate. So why now?

Isn't the Labour Party, which has been making most of the running, guilty of incompetent politics? No one among the electorate really cares about these obscure rows. Party funding is hardly central to the political debate, is it?

The answer is that the Opposition is deliberately trying to recreate the sense of political decay felt in the latter stages of the Macmillan administration 30 years ago - the mix of incompetence, drift and downright corruption that brought in Harold Wilson soon afterwards. Incompetence and drift we know about. The whiff of rot, up to now, has been of marginal interest. But unless Tory leaders, including the Prime Minister and Sir Norman Fowler, the party chairman, take the issue seriously, the Labour attack could prove lethal. People are looking for high-minded excuses to turn against the Tories.

Sir Norman protested earlier this week that it was impossible either to buy political honours or political influence. The matter of honours is both harder to deny and less important than the other. Lists of chairmen and chief executives of big company donors to the Conservatives who have become peers and knights are strong enough circumstantial evidence of a system 'everyone' understands.

No captain of industry would be so nave as to ask Tory fundraisers the going rate for a 'k'. These are not the cruder, ruder days of Lloyd George, whose underlings had a price-list for the cod-medieval trappings. Nowadays, the thing is more oblique, rather akin to buying a poached salmon in the Highlands. A gift is left with a certain person. Some time later (and wholly unrelated) a fish is deposited in a certain place.

But it is hard to get too worked up about such deals. No one confuses a loyal Tory engineering company executive with a medieval knight, still less an aristocrat. Most of his friends probably laugh behind their hands at his innocent vanity.

The question of political influence, of buying a special 'in' to policy-

making at a senior level, is much more potent. The belief that there is a privileged elite slipping in and out beyond all parliamentary scrutiny is something that John Major simply cannot allow to get abroad. It focuses vaguer, more generalised resentments, especially in hard times. This is the connection - between political failure, improper influence and downright corruption - that Labour is trying doggedly, week after week, to make.

It is dangerous for the Tories now because there is already a view that the sort of corporations which fund them have become specially privileged - compared, for instance, with ordinary taxpayers. As the new think- tank Demos argued in its first report: 'It is now national companies and the immobile middle and working class which shoulder a growing proportion of direct taxation.' There is something in this. The Treasury itself has been increasingly concerned about whether corporation tax rates have been allowed to fall too sharply - from 52 per cent in the late Eighties to 33 per cent now.

There is, in fact, no evidence that big companies have used improper influence to escape taxation, or buy themselves a privileged position. Business leaders and Tory leaders tend to think alike on many issues, whether or not the former help to fund the latter. And when it comes to the taxation of big companies, those who have studied the issue, such as Harold Freeman of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, are sceptical about whether they are, in fact, underpaying.

But the difficulty of proving anything about the private links between politicians and big companies is something the Conservatives should be worried, not relieved about. They are losing their common touch. We have had years now of directorships for former ministers in privatised companies, and of low-level peccadilloes. A political establishment that fails to deal ruthlessly with such connections, that takes secret donations from tycoons and awards 'honours' to representatives of companies which support it, is laying the foundations for a return to the politics of envy and class.

Does Mr Major realise what he and his party chairman are throwing away? He came to power so recently as a fresh face, a man remarkable for his ordinariness, striking for his unassuming humility, impeccably straight and honest. He spoke, perhaps incautiously, of a classless society. He even singled out the honours system for reform. He promised an open style of government with which ordinary voters could identify - one that struggled to improve the service in benefit offices before it protected the fat cats.

Perhaps the Tory establishment has failed to notice how the world has moved on; failed, as well, to take its own rhetoric seriously. Perhaps the party is so deeply mired in debt that it simply cannot face the thought of any reform, however shallow, however 'presentational', which could put off future donors. But in doing so, it is losing its authority to speak for the ordinary, average voter. What a loss. John Smith, the Labour leader, had a bad question-time yesterday. But he sat down with a broad grin. He could well afford to.