Political parties and money are like bears and woods or Popes and the Catholic faith: there really should be no surprise when they are linked together. So what was really surprising about this week’s revelations in the “donors for dinners” scandal was how surprising people found it.
But what did all those people who expressed outrage really believe? Did they think donors give money to political parties for the sake of the nation? To make the world a better place? For selfless, altruistic reasons?
Donors give money to political parties for influence. They want to influence policy, whether they are wealthy capitalists, trade union barons or bus tycoons with rather old-fashioned views on homosexuality.
What was different about this week’s scandal was the foolishness of Peter Cruddas, the now ex-deputy treasurer of the Conservative Party, who boasted about the influence those donors could secure over government policy.
This was a mistake and a big one, because it gave the opposition something clear and definitive to beat the government with. Mr Cruddas’ mistake was to say publicly something which should have been (and always has been) done with a nod and a wink.
Although the Tories are up to their necks in this one at the moment, they will survive with a sizeable but not devastating dent in their poll ratings. The reason they will emerge from it is that none of the other parties can bash them too hard. They are all almost as bad as each other – and that includes the SNP.
Brian Souter, the Stagecoach owner, gave the SNP £625,000 in 2007, the biggest donation the party had received up to that point. The money helped the SNP win that ground-breaking election. Oh, and soon afterwards the SNP dropped its policy of regulating the bus industry.
Then we have today’s news that Colin and Chris Weir, who won £161 million on the lottery, were invited to have tea with the first minister at Bute House – and, four days after their chat with Alex Salmond, they gave £1 million to SNP coffers.
Mr Salmond publicly criticised David Cameron for having donors round to his flat for dinner, but neglected to declare that he had the Weirs round for tea, claiming somewhat disingenuously that the meeting did not come under the categories of dinner or reception.
Labour leader Ed Miliband has also criticised the prime minister for his private donor-dinner links, but how often does Mr Miliband meet and have dinner with the trade union leaders who help bankroll his party?
Labour MSP John Park defended Labour’s union funding record on Twitter yesterday, arguing that union members could vote to change the rules and vote to stop donations to Labour if they wanted.
But he knows and everyone in politics knows that is very unlikely. The Fire Brigades Union did so, but none of the big, powerful unions are going to sever their links because they get too much out of it. Not only do they have a hefty say on policy, but having elected Mr Miliband as leader they expect some form of payback.
Even the Liberal Democrats (many of whom wish they had big-money backers to court) are not immune from criticism, as they have yet to pay back the money they received from convicted fraudster Michael Brown.
But what no one seems to have asked is whether it is wrong for political parties to solicit donations in the first place. All those who call for the state funding of political parties seem to assume that giving money in return for the hope of influence is a bad thing. But is it?
The Labour Party was born out of the trade union movement, so it seems only right and proper for those very same unions to financially support the party which represents their views.
It is the same with business. If the Conservative Party is unashamedly pro-business, as George Osborne declared in his Budget last week, then why shouldn’t businesses donate to the Tory Party to further their interests?
The SNP may have taken money from Mr Souter and then conveniently changed their policy on bus regulation – but, if that was the price they paid to win the 2007 election, many in the party may well see it as a price worth paying.
The issue here is not the money or where it comes from. The issue here is the nature of what is being promised by the parties in return for these donations.
Mr Cameron’s problem was that he used a government not a party venue (his Downing Street flat) and the donors were promised access to a government (not a party) policy-making body. It is this blurring between taxpayer-funded services and party donations which should cause concern, not the money itself.
If anybody wants to meet the prime minister or the Labour leader it can be arranged, if the right money is produced – none of the parties have ever hidden this fact. Give the Tories a sizeable cheque and ask to meet Mr Cameron and you will be invited to a dull rubber-chicken reception at party conference time and you will get to shake his hand and have a few words.
This has always been done and it always will, whoever is in power at Westminster – and the same goes for the parties at Holyrood, too (although the going rate to meet Johann Lamont or Ruth Davidson is probably in the hundreds rather than the thousands, and as for Willie Rennie…).
The point here is that money and politics are inextricably intertwined. That in itself is no bad thing. State funding would be a mistake and placing a cap on donations is a temporary political wheeze which will suit some and not others and is only being proposed to for partisan reasons.
The answer is not to ban or cap donations, but to allow them all while making everything as transparent as possible. If donors are being invited in for private suppers in Mr Cameron’s flat, these events should be declared openly and clearly; and if the UK’s most successful lottery winners are invited in for tea with the first minister before offering the SNP a huge donation, that should be declared, too.
It is the appearance of subterfuge, sneakiness and secrecy which makes this smell bad, and the politicians only do it because they fear public opprobrium.
But if we brought everything out into the open and accepted the very basic political truth that politicians need money and those with money want influence, then we could progress without the mock shock this week’s events have induced.
We should all accept the link between money and politics and demand only that our politicians are honest with us in return. Then, we could reassure them, we will not act with feigned surprise when we are presented with the political equivalent of bears squatting in the woods.