Lobbyist Scotland, Brexit and the Closed-Door System
I am a committed democrat, a yes voter and a Remainer. I am also, god help me, a Labour Party member. In the run up to the European referendum, I became familiar with Tom Harris, former Labour MP for Glasgow South East who had a Damascene and well-publicised conversion to Brexit.
In some fairly robust exchanges between myself and Mr Harris, it became clear just how connected Mr Harris is in terms of the Scottish political establishment. His influence cuts across party lines, politics, media and the economic and cultural life of Scotland, yet Tom Harris (and many like him) operates beyond any meaningful democratic scrutiny. This is an issue that goes to the heart of post- Indyref Scottish politics.
Tom Harris lost his Westminster seat in the great Scottish Labour annihilation of 2015. He will be fine though as he writes regularly for the Telegraph, particularly about the Labour Party. In March, Mr Harris announced his intention to vote to leave the EU. Mr Harris in his previous incarnation as a Labour MP voted for the Lisbon Treaty and there is little evidence in Hansard of any Euroscepticism in his time at Westminster. As with the rest of his party colleagues, he campaigned for a no vote in the Indyref. The Telegraph was for Brexit and strongly in favour of Scotland staying in the UK. Mr Harris’s views, unsurprisingly, reflect those of the Telegraph and its owners, the Barclay brothers. As well as the Telegraph column, Mr Harris writes occasionally for Labour Hame, a website he also helped develop. These are activities he undertakes in the public realm and I have no concerns about these undertakings, although I find the blandly complacent tone of his writing infuriatingly of a piece with his privileged position within the Scottish establishment.
It is in the privileged position of Tom Harris in contemporary Scotland that things rather become more problematic. Tom has interests in the influential and overlapping spheres of Scottish public life, in Scottish politics, media and culture.
Tom Harris sits on the board of the free-market think-tank, Reform Scotland. He has also recently joined Message Matters, the Edinburgh based lobby group. He was joined in his work at Message Matters by Marco Biagi, who stood down as an MSP in 2016. Finally, Mr Harris became the chairman of Scottish Vote Leave. The vote for Brexit represents an abject failure of political leadership on the part of David Cameron, but the Brexit campaign itself stands as a shameful and irresponsible Monument to the power of prejudice and mendacity used to exploit social and political unrest to bring about an almost suicidal act of national self-harm.
Tom Harris said in a BBC debate after the referendum, that the reason the Brexit campaign did not produce any detailed arguments for what Brexit meant, was the response to the White Paper produced by the SNP which was analysed, dissected and discussed in great detail before September 18th. In other words, Tom Harris was happy to avoid any detailed discussion or debate on an issue of huge importance to every single person in these islands. The campaign, fuelled by xenophobia and racism (let’s not forget the falsehood that Turkey was set to join the EU) was a disgrace, although Mr Harris denies accusations of Brexiteers exploiting immigration or of misrepresenting the £350 million bounty Brexit offered. Mr Harris went further, saying that it was for politicians to implement Brexit and his responsibility ended with the vote to leave.
As we have heard ad nauseum, ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and it is for the politicians to make Brexit work. Former politician Tom Harris is certainly going to make Brexit work for him: Message Matters, one of many lobbying firms in Edinburgh, has appointed him as a Senior Counsel to advise clients on how best to exploit the business opportunities offered by Brexit.
Twitter is not an ideal medium in which to pursue the issue of lobbying, especially when the person you wish to question treats any suspicion about the influence he wields and the access he enables behind closed doors, as evidence that his interlocutor is wearing a tin-foil hat. Mr Harris treats scrutiny with disdain, questioners with contempt and offers little more than yes or no answers and blandly minimalist responses to detailed questions. In a rare demonstration of magnanimity, Mr Harris invited me on Twitter to ask questions, one answer he refused to give was just how he became the chairman of Scottish Vote Leave. Simply none of my business was his response. Behind that refusal lies the informal network Mr Harris has access to which literally profits from the democratic process, but is subject to neither democratic scrutiny nor accountability.
Since becoming interested in Mr Harris, the revolving door between politics, media and the Scottish establishment has become more and more of a pressing issue to me. If the open contempt with which Mr Harris treats legitimate questions on a public forum is indicative of his attitude to scrutiny, how will he and his fellow lobbyists treat issues of openness, transparency and accountability behind closed doors, especially in light of the passing of the (much – diluted) Lobbying Bill at Holyrood earlier this year? The emphasis on light touch regulation in the Lobbying Bill, and the failure to include anything other than face to face meetings or Skype in the
interactions that are open to scrutiny, is basically inviting the political and media classes who surround Holyrood to fill their boots in a deregulated free-for-all.
It was light touch regulation that brought us the financial crisis. I believe the pernicious activities of figures such as Tom Harris lobbying behind closed doors, the servants of many masters, some of whom -like the people who got Tom the Vote Leave gig- remain in the shadows. I genuinely believe the unaccountable influence people like Tom Harris wield in Scottish politics genuinely threatens the integrity of Scottish democracy and civil society. In the spirit of democracy, I think these questions need to be addressed:
How is democracy served when one person, whether Tom Harris, Marco Biagi or, indeed, Kevin Pringle, can hold so manypositions of influence within the Scottish establishment without democratic scrutiny?
How can the influence of one or more powerful individuals be measured in the digital age without recording electronic interactions when the digital sphere is where so many social and economic transactions take place?
How can we be sure that our publicly elected officials serve the public interest when they can move so seamlessly from Holyrood or Westminster to the private sector as is the case with Messrs Harris and Biagi?
How can we measure or indeed regulate the influence of a person like Tom Harris – a former MP who has a journalist’s access to Westminster; a seat on the board of Reform Scotland; a journalist who writes as if from a distance on an issue-Brexit- he has helped to engineer through his chairmanship of Scottish Vote Leave and an issue he will profit from through his links to lobbyists and Scotland’s great and good? To whom is he accountable?
How can we remain cognisant of the influence of an individual such as Mr Harris, who has access to the Scottish political and cultural elite and who is able to monetise that access on behalf of a lobbying company subject to such light-touch regulation that it offers no more than a fig leaf of scrutiny? Again, to whom is Tom Harris accountable?
I am not naive. I know the real business goes on in the informal networks where the elites have always gathered – the bars and clubs of Westminster or the bars frequented by Holyrood insiders and Scotland’s political and cultural class? But the ease with which Mr Harris travels between the political, cultural and economic spheres with neither scrutiny nor accountability raises significant questions about the health of Scotland’s democracy.
Since taking issue with Tom Harris on Twitter, I have had my mental health questioned, my integrity challenged and my fitness to teach has been weighed and found wanting by Mr Harris and various members of the Scottish political establishment, including Kevin Hague, a man willing to ruthlessly scrutinise the SNP misuse of GERS, but seemingly happy to accept the fiction of a £350 million Brexit bonus because he is positively disposed to his old Better Together chum, Tom Harris. Mark Wallace, the executive editor of Conservative Home, blithely suggested to his chum, Tom, that I was perhaps in touch with Dangermouse and the Avengers, because obviously I must be deranged to question the right of unelected, unaccountable lobbyists, shills and chancers to bring about such an irresponsible, blinkered and unprecedented political cataclysm with so little thought to the consequences. It was considerate of Mark Wallace to include me in his response to Tom just to reinforce his contempt for my attempt to inveigle my way into a game reserved for journalists, ex MPs, MSPs and political wonks. Imagine a member of the public questioning the movers and shakers that have wrought such miracles as Brexit and the financial crisis.
I am a democrat to my core. I am a graduate with an MA (hons) in English and Politics. I studied political theory and institutions at the University of Glasgow. I have voted in every election – general, by-election and municipal-since 1987. I am a realist and a pragmatist, but I believe democracy does not flourish behind closed doors; informal old boys’ (and it is mostly male) networks tend to exclude – and porous interfaces between politics, media and commerce breed complacency and malpractice and, if not corruption, at least the perception that democracy is a game loaded in favour of Tom, Marco and Kevin Pringle and, indeed, that the real business of doing deals behind closed doors transcends party politics. After all, Tom is Labour and Marco Biagi is SNP, but both are better together at Message Matters. Tom Harris is the personification of the entitled elite who monetise their access to the establishment to the benefit of their clients and, ultimately, I believe, to the detriment of democracy.
In the absence of any genuine attempt by Holyrood to legislate to find out on whose behalf people like Tom Harris, Marco Biagi and Kevin Pringle are working, perhaps Bella could provide some scrutiny. Or maybe I will put away my tinfoil hat and accept that this democracy of ours really belongs to Tom Harris, Marco Biagi, Kevin Pringle and their entitled friends. Maybe I should just accept that my role is to vote when required and leave the real decisions to the people behind the closed doors of the political consultancies, the people who write the columns, work for the think-tanks and leave. Public service to serve their private masters in the lobbying firms in Edinburgh and London.