Picture the scene: a small conglomerate of agricultural businesses demand a meeting with their local legislator. They tell her their businesses will go bust if she does not vote against a forthcoming trade agreement and they indicate no further donations to her party will be made if she does not speak out more against the deal.
In your head, you might be envisaging a scene from an American political novel where sweat-soaked men gather over bourbon in a stiflingly hot room in the American South. But such a scene could well become part and parcel of British political life as this country takes control over hugely important and contentious policy areas like trade that have long been the preserve of the European Union.
In Britain, we genuinely have what political insiders call a “national political conversation”. Politicians, the media and so-called “stakeholders” all talk about the same big issues facing the country and ordinary families. While they change over time, at any one point the whole country talks about issues like health, immigration and crime. This makes the role of MPs relatively straightforward: they can focus on national issues and vote according to the demands of their nationally-obsessed leaders and whips.
As we leave the EU and begin to conduct trade deals with massive economies like the United States, China and of course the European Union itself, we will start to see a fracturing of this national conversation. Just like in the US, more powerful special interest groups will form and aggressively campaign to make their voices heard. Seemingly out of nowhere, clusters of businesses and local MPs will force issues on to the political agenda that had never been discussed publicly before.
The most powerful groups will be those where money and geography align perfectly – in other words, where businesses from the same industry are situated in the same place. This will allow these political and industrial clusters to form. Agriculture is an obviously potentially powerful lobby, but so too are car making and tech.
At one level, it seems obvious that finance will be the most powerful lobby of all. It is predominantly situated in London and there are many London MPs. But I wonder if, in fact, finance’s power will be diluted: at the moment, national politicians look after what is rightly seen as a national asset. With the rise of other lobby groups, it is possible that finance will be merely the most powerful of a range of interests. Time will tell.
Lobbying already has a negative reputation in Britain – mostly unfairly. And some will therefore be horrified at the prospect of even more of it. In reality though, lobbying thrives in a healthy democracy. Industries have a right to defend themselves and, given their role as employers and taxpayers, the public need to hear their voice loudly and clearly.
We just need to ensure that everything is conducted out in the open. To date, that has meant that the lobbying industry has had to declare links with ministers and permanent secretaries, and politicians have had to declare donations. We should probably move to a system where politicians open their diaries for public inspection – this would be a much more comprehensive way of ensuring business is done transparently and correctly.