In June 1996, the funding of British politics came to front page prominence with a controversy over the funding of political opposition to greater integration within the European Union. This opposition, organized by Bill Cash, a backbench (i.e., non-office-holding) Tory MP, was offered funds by Sir James Goldsmith, a very wealthy Anglo-French entrepreneur mostly resident outside Britain. This at once created controversy, because Goldsmith, anti-big government, pro-protectionism, and very opposed to European integration, had recently launched a Referendum Party, which insists on a referendum on the issue of integration. As Goldsmith had announced that his candidates would fight all MPs who were unwilling to support such a referendum. Cash was therefore bitterly criticized within the Tory Party for taking money from a politician opposed to many Tories. The controversy led him to decline the donation, whereupon it was replaced by Mrs. Thatcher, from the funds of the Thatcher Foundation, a donation that created fresh controversy.
The entire episode revealed aspects of the Americanization of British politics. Goldsmith is a Perot figure, willing to use his great wealth to try to break the mold of two-party politics. The referendum also indicates the rise of single-issue politics, which, while not unknown in British politics, has tended to be subsumed by the coalition nature of British political parties.
Yet, despite these similarities, there are also major differences between the funding of politics on both sides of the Atlantic. First, British politics is far cheaper, for three reasons: Britain is a much smaller country, and it is therefore easier to communicate a political message on a national scale; the campaigning season in Britain is far shorter; and third, public expectations play a major role. The public does not like extended campaigns, and is hostile toward the notion that elections can be bought. There is considerably more unease, indeed opposition, toward expenditure on politics in Britain than there is in the United States. Talk of campaign chests or donations excites disquiet, if not obloquy, and both major political parties are sensitive on the issue. The Labour Party seeks to refute claims that it is in the pockets of the trade unions, the Conservatives that they rely on business donations.
A second major difference involves the party context. British political parties play a greater role than their American counterparts, and they are certainly crucial in funding and expenditure. Individual candidates play a much smaller role in both than in America. This, again, is a consequence of the smaller size of the country and the less complex nature of its politics.
Public culture plays a role as well. Television channels are obliged to air party political broadcasts free, and to allocate the time available in relation to the political support of the individual parties. The slots are therefore dominated by Labour and the Tories. However, there is also time for minority parties that have virtually no funds, including those representing environmentalist, fascist, and nationalist parties; thus both the Welsh and the Scottish nationalist parties gain a British voice, or rather, attention, at that level. Free political broadcasts on television, allocated in accordance with electoral appeal, reflect a political culture that is somewhat different from that of the United States. The role of television advertising is also affected by the fact that two of the four major British channels, BBC1 and BBC2, do not carry any advertising. Thus the party political broadcasts are treated not as advertisements, but as public interest items. This status affects their content. In contrast to political advertisements on American television, their British counterparts arc concerned to praise, not to attack. However, newspaper advertisements are apt to be more aggressive.
Aside from party political broadcasts, candidates are also allowed to distribute one leaflet to every elector in their constituency post-free. Again, therefore, there is a dimension to this electioneering, and its funding, that relates to electoral polities as a public function.
The account hitherto has been somewhat static, but the very essence of modern politics is its dynamism. It is not simply that issues change. Rather, the very electorate is dynamic. Each year there are many new voters, but in addition, the degree of geographical and social mobility is such that voters “reinvent” themselves politically in changing their identity.
This mobility affects the strength of local political structures and thus their ability to raise funds. In fundraising terms, constituency branches are weaker than ever before. Party membership fell badly in the 1980’s and early 90’s: first the Labour Party and then the Tories. This, more generally, is an aspect of the decline of voluntarism in British society since the 1950’s. Another problem for local fundraising stems from the decline of the local ownership of businesses. Increasingly, local businesses have been bought out by national, or indeed international, combinations, thus reducing the number of local concerns able and willing to fund political parties. Shifts in business ownership have also affected donations: there are fewer privately owned companies where an individual or family can decide to donate funds. Instead, there are more companies that are quoted on the stock market, and in the mid-1990’s such companies, or rather their stockholders, have become more sensitive about political donations.
If the dynamism of British society has really affected classic sources of Tory funding. Labour has also been badly affected by the decline in the trade union movement. The expansion in the “middle class” in the 1980’s and the growth of white collar at the expense of blue collar jobs, and of part-time and female at the expense of full-time and male employment, has led to this decline, which has lessened the political contributions payable to Labour. Furthermore, trade unions no longer have the right to force members to subscribe to the unions’ political contributions as part of their membership.
Another dynamic aspect is the European dimension. There are now elections to the European Parliament in Strasbourg as well as to the Westminster Parliament. Fought on different constituencies and at different times, these elections place new burdens on party finances, but also lead to a new timetable and scale of polities that requires popular and institutional responses. It is as if the United States suddenly added a new level of transnational elections.
More generally, the political world in Britain is affected by a decline in traditional assumptions and practices. This is part of a more general collapse in deference that affected Britain since the 1960’s, creating what in effect is a new society. This new society has traditional political institutions, but a new more volatile, and secular, political culture; and reaching out to win and retain support is more difficult than was the ease with the political practices of the 1950’s. Polities is also affected by the new consumerism and by the rise of visual means of conveying ideas and eliciting responses. The emphasis is on politics as a consumed product, and this is expensive.
The new political world thus creates pressures for new funding solutions. One is to raise more money by traditional methods, another to supplement these by new consumer-oriented products, for example credit cards that pay a percentage to a nominated political party. The problem of mass polities of the 1990’s has led to increased pressure for the public funding of political parties. This pressure has almost entirely come from Labour and Liberal, rather than Tory, sympathies. It is linked to the dissatisfaction with existing practices and call for constitutional reform that have played such a major role in left-wing political discussion in the 1990’s. The pressure is also linked to suspicion of private capital and the links between financiers and polities. In particular, there was criticism that the Tories took money from foreign businessmen.
Thus, on the issue of public funding, the left-wing agenda, supposedly driven into retreat in the 1980’s, is on the return. It is advanced with all the naiveté that characterizes such arguments. For example, such public funding to be effective would be very expensive. Taxpayers would be expected to underwrite politicians yet again. In addition, there is the question of the institutionalization of political activity that such public funding would entail. This is a serious issue, and any naive British confidence in the superiority of British political funding should fade in response to the widespread willingness to advance the issue.