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Under a new law, which will come into force shortly in Britain, all political donations of more than 5,000 British pounds (some 800,000 yen) will have to be reported and foreign donations will be disallowed. The rules have been brought in to deal with suspicions that large donations to party funds may tempt recipients to make decisions on policy in line with the wishes of the donors. The present government came under fire shortly after the last election when it was reported that the Labor Party had received a gift of 1 million British pounds from Bernie Ecclestone, a rich entrepreneur who has managed to monopolize Formula One motor racing. The government had decided to exempt, at least for a time, Formula One from the proposed ban on tobacco advertising. The exemption was “justified” on the grounds that without it Formula One would not be viable. In the end, Labor was forced to repay the gift.

The Labor Party has been criticized in recent weeks for accepting three large gifts of 2 million British pounds each from three successful businessmen who are or have become supporters of the party. There has been no evidence that these gifts have influenced government policy or will be likely to do so, although the fact that one of the gifts has come from the man who is leading the consortium to take over the Millennium Dome at Greenwich (now closed) has raised suspicions among skeptics. It has also been suggested that donors of such sums might feel that they deserved, and be rewarded with, a peerage. The acceptance of such large sums from people who would not be regarded as natural and traditional party supporters offended some more traditional members of the party. It also gave the opposition Conservatives a welcome opportunity to accuse the government of sleaze, although their own record is far from clean.

The last Conservative government ended in a plethora of accusations of sleaze. One former Cabinet minister, Jonathan Aitken, after losing a libel action against the Guardian newspaper was found guilty of perjury and had to serve a prison sentence. Another former Conservative minister, Lord (Geoffrey) Archer won his action for libel, but some of the evidence used in the case has proved to be false and he now faces charges of perjury. Another former minister, Neil Hamilton, lost his libel action against the owner of Harrods, who had accused him of accepting bribes (envelopes stuffed with notes) for asking parliamentary questions on his behalf.

Last year the Conservative Party pressed for a peerage for their treasurer, Michael Ashcroft, who made his millions through the bank that he owned and controlled in Belize (a former British colony in Central America). Eventually Ashcroft — who had the strong support of Lady Thatcher — agreed to reside in Britain and pay British taxes, and a peerage was awarded to him. Financial institutions in Belize have sometimes been rumored to be involved in money laundering. No evidence has been produced to suggest that Ashcroft has been involved in such operations, but he accepted the post of ambassador of Belize to the United Nations and holds dual British and Belizean nationality. His relations with the British High Commissioners in Belize have been poor and he seems to be arrogant. The way in which the Conservative Party pressed for him to be ennobled did not reflect well on the party.

The amounts of money used in British general elections — which are strictly controlled — are small in comparison with the sums spent in American — or Japanese, for that matter — elections, but there is a strong case that even so British parties spend far too much money on advertising and on dubious public-relations exercises. Fortunately the evidence suggests that much of this money is wasted. The great British public generally know the difference between fact and blarney. Many of us would like our politicians to get on with their jobs and deliver better services rather than waste their time and our money trying to persuade us that they are wonder kids. Such a common-sense view will not, I fear, prevail with our party leaders (Labor or Conservative).

Certainly the case for more openness over political donations is unanswerable. The new law should at least make it easier to see whether undue influence is being exercised on policy issues by big donors. But the law does not deal with all the issues that arise over political funding. Some political leaders think that donations over a specific sum should be banned to ensure that no individual has too much potential influence. The government rejects this suggestion, not least because they reckon that they need the money to fund their campaign in the general election that may be held in May. They seem to believe, wrongly in my view, that presentation is as important as policies and the achievement of real and quantifiable improvements in services.

Others argue that small political donations should be tax deductible, but this would complicate an already over-complicated tax system.

Still others urge that Britain should follow the German model and provide at least an element of central funding for political parties, but the government reject this idea on the grounds that it would be unpopular with the electorate, who feel that they are already overtaxed. It has also not prevented the German Christian Democrats and former Chancellor Helmut Kohl from being accused of accepting illicit donations.

Bribery is illegal in every country, but it is not easy to decide whether a gift is a bribe. Certainly it will help if all donations to parties and parliamentary candidates are made public.

In Japan the situation is far from satisfactory. It is well known that every politician seeking re-election needs large sums of money not only to run his/her campaign and fund those tiresome trucks, which bellow out demands for votes from electors, but also to cultivate his/her “jiban” supporters.

It behooves those in Japan who want to see a healthy parliamentary democracy in their country to insist that all political funding is transparent. This means that all donations should be publicized and scrutinized by the media. The amount spent in elections should also be much more effectively monitored and limited.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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