As pieces of Lib-Con legislation go, it has certainly riled the rump of Britain’s leftishly inclined. The TUC called it ‘an outrageous attack on freedom of speech worthy of an authoritarian dictatorship’; Greenpeace’s executive director damned it as ‘the most pernicious assault on campaign groups in living memory’; and, not to be outdone, Britain’s most hackneyed left-wing pundit deemed it ‘an audacious stab at many of our hard-won democratic freedoms’, and, just for good measure, ‘surely one of the most badly written pieces of legislation put to the Commons in recent times’.
And what have the evil Tories and their craven sidekicks, the Lib Dems, done to prompt Britain’s right-thinking into flights of desperate, democracy-invoking hyperbole? Formed a two-party state? Banned climate-change-awareness stunts (no typo)? Censored Comment is Free? No, not quite. The actual prompt for all this high-sounding blather about ‘our hard-won democratic freedoms’ is an unwieldy legislative edifice entitled Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill – or the Lobbying and Transparency Bill, as it’s otherwise known.
As it happens, the Lobbying and Transparency Bill is a thoroughly wretched piece of opportunism, driven, it seems, by the government’s conviction that it will help counter anti-politician, ‘they’re all corrupt’ sentiment among the electorate, and make the Tories look like really upstanding guys. So, despite amendments following last week’s Commons debate, meaning that it will no longer circumscribe organisations’ campaigning activities in General Election years (which is a shockingly anti-democratic idea), the bill, if enacted, still promises: a statutory register of lobbyists to identify who is representing what interests; an end to self-certification of union-membership numbers for all but the smallest unions; and an independent certification officer to check records and take enforcement action if necessary.
Effectively, what the bill does is to demonise the democratic act of citizens, from businessmen to campaigners, talking to politicians. It turns the act of making one’s case to an MP or a minister, or in some cases a civil servant, into something that is to be automatically regarded as suspicious. Political argument between citizen and politician, whether persuasive or not, is transfigured by the bill as a problem. And here’s the irony: the bill won’t restore public trust in politicians, as its advocates contend; it will merely fuel yet more distrust. After all, the bill rests on the assumption that unless politicians are regulated by some external, all-seeing ‘transparency’-emblazoned audit, they will, like flies near the proverbial poo, get up to no good. And this - the assumption that public servants will, if they can, act in their private interest - is the ground on which cynicism and suspicion flourishes, not trust.
But there is one thing worse than the bill, and that’s the prevailing trajectory of the criticism. Despite the shrilling and shrieking about democracy and so on, many of those currently working themselves up into a righteous lather over the bill don’t really seem that concerned about democracy, or with wrenching the political sphere out of its present cynicism-drenched quagmire. No, what really seems to have bugged Britain’s left-liberal types about the planned legislation is that the ‘wrong’ people are going to be caught up in it.