- He gave William Hague’s Tories £5m before the 2001 General Election, partly because he liked the Keep The Pound campaign;
- His Today programme intervention in October 2003 – ‘IDS has to go’ – helped precipitate the fall of the last but one Conservative leader;
- And, today, he’s criticising David Cameron’s education and environment policies. Is Mr Wheeler the donor who has ‘recalled’ a £250,000 gift to the Conservative Party?
All this makes me very uncomfortable. I admire Mr Wheeler’s Euroscepticism and agree with his reservations about current Tory policies on academic selection and Kyoto but I do worry about his influence. In last year’s leadership election campaign the views of big party donors were constantly sought by the media.
Not so long ago Lord Ashcroft argued that political parties should be able to "accept financial support — cash, benefits in kind and credit — from whomsoever they choose and without financial limit". His only significant condition was openness. Lord Ashcroft is a generous man who helped save the Conservative Party from financial disaster when he was William Hague’s treasurer – the party should be grateful to him – but this is poor advice.
Big money has spoilt American politics. Individuals like Mike Bloomberg, Mayor of New York, and Jon Corzine, Governor of New Jersey, invested their substantial personal fortunes in buying office for themselves. Members of America’s House of Representatives start fundraising for their campaigns as soon as they are re-elected. The Abramoff affair is now rocking the Republican Party establishment.
At the moment there is nothing to stop a UK citizen or other permissible donor making unlimited donations to political parties. Imagine if the late James Goldsmith hadn’t just funded the Referendum Party for the 1997 General Election but had set up a £200m endowment that would have allowed it to campaign in perpetuity? That would have been perfectly legal under existing rules.
David Cameron has said that he wants to stand up to big business. This site – not uncritical of him – has welcomed that commitment. Conservatives should be the friends of free and competitive markets. That doesn’t mean befriending big businesses who can, Adam Smith warned us, conspire against smaller firms and the wider public interest.
I don’t suggest that the Conservatives should immediately declare that they will not accept any big donations – that would be the equivalent of unilateral financial disarmament in a world where Labour would still be receiving millions from the likes of Lord Drayson, Bernie Ecclestone and Lord Sainsbury. I do think, however, that Conservatives should support a more diverse basis for party funding. I’m not sure what the maximum donation should be but £100,000 would seem enough. What do you think?
In place of relying on big money from big business Britain’s political parties would have to seek money from private citizens. That would be more democratic. The internet provides political parties with enormous new opportunities to raise new monies. At the same that a cap was introduced on big money donations I would favour tax relief on small donations of, say, up to £100. Giving to political parties is a comnmunity-minded thing and it is better for public money to match the preferences of lots of individuals than being allocated by politicians in private dialogue with one another in Westminster.