Johann Hari: If you don't pay for politicians, the rich will

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The Independent Online

As the Government slithers in the mud with undeclared loans from Rod Aldridge, Sir Christopher Evans and the rest of the ranks of the super-rich, the right-wing press will try to make this a personality issue. This, they bray, is a personal failing by Tony Blair, evidence that he is uniquely corrupt and should be booted from office in disgrace.

But in reality this is a much bigger structural issue, with Blair's foul-smelling decision to take the loans only a small and secondary part of the story.

The truth is that we have arranged British politics so that our politicians - Labour, Tory or Lib Dem - are required to grovel to billionaires for funds to run their election campaigns. It is mandatory. Across the world, election campaigns have ballooned in cost over the past decade, and the old sources of cash - the trade unions, small individual donations from ordinary people - are no longer sufficient. Enter the billionaires.

This ripples out to every home in Britain, because it skews our politics even more in favour of the super-rich and away from the interests of ordinary people. Where they hold the political purse strings, the arguments of billionaires become the "common sense" of our politicians. They quickly learn that any measure capping the whims of the super-rich in the interests of ordinary people is politically impossible.

Just look at the US, a country where both Democrats and Republicans are wholly owned subsidiaries of the rich, and it is common for billionaires and corporations to hedge their bets by donating to both parties. The result? Domestic policy dances to the billionaires' tune, with Bush slashing taxes for the mega-rich while 40 million Americans have no healthcare insurance.

Of course it is just about possible that, as Labour's most loyal apologists claim with a blush, a few of these billionaires have - after a lifetime of squeezing the profit margins and calculating the spreadsheets - suddenly become entranced by the need for a minimum wage or trade union recognition, and are donating to Labour out of the goodness of their hearts. But it is infinitely more likely that these hard-headed businessmen expect some kind of return on their political investments, as they do with every other kind.

The British Government wants to shower away this mud by making all loans transparent. But they made donations public back in 1997, and all it has ensured is that our politicians are openly selling peerages rather than doing it secretly. The real solution was laid out in Helena Kennedy's brilliant Power Commission a few weeks ago. She suggested that each voter should be asked to nominate a political party to receive £3 of public funds a year. The political parties would - in a swoop - become more accountable to us, not to billionaires.

Some people begrudge state funding, demanding to know, "Why should I pay for these people?" The obvious answer is: because if you don't, billionaires will, and they will shaft you and your family in subtle ways for a very long time. Political parties are an essential part of our democracy. If you don't want to pay for them, you might as well moan about having to pay for ballot papers and polling stations.

We have a simple choice. Our politicians can be funded by the mega-rich, or they can be funded by us, the taxpayers. So long as we leave it to the billionaires, we will never scrub the dark sticky stain of mud from our political life.

Defend free speech for everyone

This year, London has seen more than one mass rally in favour of censorship. The enemies of free speech recur throughout the ages, appalled by Michelangelo, Galileo, DH Lawrence ... and today, it is cartoon depictions of Mohamed that stoke their rage. Tomorrow it will be something else, perhaps something you love.

This Saturday, there will be a rally in Trafalgar Square at 2pm opposing these calls for thought-crimes and forbidden speech. The rally will defend free speech for everyone - for the Islamic fundamentalists who oppose us, for the Holocaust deniers we despise, and, yes, for our freedom to ridicule religion, even if it causes terrible distress to its followers.

Even the most basic rights are never banked, saved and caked in concrete. Every generation needs to renew the fight for them. This Saturday is a good time to start.

* In 1988, a baby named Samuel was admitted to a Chicago hospital with massive brain damage. Doctors warned it was very unlikely he would ever wake up, and if he did, he would have very little quality of life. Samuel's father found it unbearable to see his son in this state, so one day he broke into the hospital, unplugged the machinery, and warded the nurses and doctors off with a gun as he cradled his dying son in his arms. Because I support the philosophy of this brave father - that it is cruel to keep babies alive if they have no quality of life and no ability to ever express their own choice - my colleague Dominic Lawson thinks I am ignorant of the horrors of the Holocaust.

There is a moral difference between helping out of their pain a small number of agonised babies who can never recover and herding adult disabled people who want to live into gas chambers. It should be possible to have a serious discussion about the most humane place to draw the line and the most compassionate way to end a life if that decision is taken, without accusing each other of being one step away from Auschwitz.