Bush and Blair – who sold his soul to Enron?

When is it wrong for politicians to take money from business?

Bush and Blair – who sold his soul to Enron?

By Quentin Langley

Dateline 03 February 2002

First, we must distinguish two reasons for giving money to political parties or candidates. If a person, a business, a PAC, or a union gives money, or time, to a politician because their values already align, and the donor wishes to see those values prosper, that is active citizenship and should be encouraged. If the donor gives money conditionally, and the politician changes policies to accommodate those conditions, that is corruption and should be prosecuted.

In the case of Enron, therefore, it is easy to see that conservative politicians are in the clear and their left wing opponents are not. Through most of its corporate existence Enron advocated deregulation, freer markets and more competition. It had no need to buy right wing politicians, who tend to favour these positions anyway. In Bush it found a charismatic leader committed to the views Enron supported and it backed him. This is corporate involvement in politics at its best. At the end of its life Enron seems to have sought favours from the Bush administration, but they were not forthcoming. This is political leadership at its best.

The tale with Mr Blair is somewhat different. Enron faced a hostile regulatory environment. The incoming Labour government had imposed a moratorium on gas-fired power stations to assist the coal industry. The Nation Union of Mineworkers has long provided financial and practical support to Labour. Enron donated money to the Labour Party. The Labour government abandoned the moratorium. Blair denies any connection between these events.

And Blair is on fairly good ground. One of the classic fallacies in logic is called “post hoc ergo propter hoc” – after this therefore because of this. Blair insists the moratorium was only meant to be temporary to give the coal industry “breathing space”. Though Blair would never use the defence, the fact that Enron gave money to Bush and to Britain’s opposition Conservatives without receiving any policy changes also suggests that Enron did not equate financial support with political favours. For Blair, therefore we have post and hoc but no demonstrable propter. For Bush and Britain’s Conservatives we have hoc without even any post.

The Labour Party’s involvement with Andersen is more complex. The former Arthur Andersen had been blacklisted by the British government for years and pursued in the US courts for losses incurred in the De Lorean fiasco. While Labour was in opposition the firm provided it with pro bono support for developing its tax plans. It also hired Labour MP Patricia Hewitt in an influential role, though this was in its consulting arm, now the separate company Accenture. Hewitt is now Trade and Industry Secretary.

On coming to power Labour settled the outstanding lawsuit for a tenth of the amount claimed and allowed Andersen to pitch for government contracts again. Both sides insist that all contracts have been won in open tender and on merit. Labour insists it settled on legal advice originally given to the previous government.

Andersen’s support for Labour, and the favours it may have received in return, are more complex than with Enron. It is therefore almost impossible to secure proof to the Anglo-American standard of beyond reasonable doubt, but it is also impossible to remove the suspicion that something might possibly be amiss. But Tony Blair is not English. Like his Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister) and Lord Chancellor (chief justice) he is Scottish. (Though, confusingly, both the PM and Lord Chancellor studied law in England). And Scottish law allows a verdict unknown in either England or America – that of Not Proven.

Perhaps we should declare that while Bush and Britain’s Conservatives are Not Guilty, Blair’s government is, for the moment, Not Proven.

Quentin Langley is an occasional columnist on political and business issues for the British publications Utility Week and Accountancy Age.

Copyright © Quentin Langley 03 February 2002

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