Kicking the ring

When I was at Sandhurst, the British Army’s officer training establishment, Wednesday afternoons were given over to ‘Academy Sport’. This was an opportunity for us bright, young hopefuls to pursue whichever physical activity was our personal favourite.  Almost every sport imaginable was on offer, providing myriad opportunities to get sweaty.  Also available was golf.  Not being a fan of the game, but being a stalwart supporter of a pub in Ascot next to a driving range, I signed up, along with two mates with similar motivations. We were accused by our Company Second-in-Command of “kicking the ring” out of the principle of Academy Sports afternoons.  But, as we were entirely within the rules, he didn’t have a leg to stand on, like many of our more dedicated compatriots come Wednesday evenings.

I was reminded of this exchange when I heard of the so-called cash-for-access allegations involving Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw, both former British Foreign Secretaries (Conservative and Labour respectively) and Sir Malcolm also the current chair of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC). Both men had been caught in a joint Channel 4/Daily Telegraph sting whereby they were filmed discussing employment opportunities as advisers to a fictitious Chinese firm seeking to invest in Britain.

The criticism broadly revolved around three issues: the daily fee each man charged for external work (£5000 in the case of Mr Straw), whether sitting MPs should take additional paid employment, and whether current or former public servants should benefit financially through the experiences, access and ideas they have accumulated through positions which are denied to the general public. The first criticism is the politics of envy (my daily rate is not yet £5000 but I’d like it to be). The second is hotly debated but, supposedly, answered by British MPs having to declare additional remuneration on the Register of MPs Financial Interests (see link here). The third is more interesting and, for me, personal, as it is exactly what I have sought to do, and is the reason you are reading this blog.

In my 23-year military career I achieved a reasonable rank and held a number of interesting roles.  Since moving into journalism with The Economist and as a freelance I have leant on that experience to offer angles that may not be readily available elsewhere in the media. However, I have held back from discussing any sensitive material to which I have been exposed and avoided any conflicts of interest. But is maximising one’s marketability for financial gain, however that experience has been accumulated, fair game? Or is it ‘kicking the ring’?

Sir Malcolm has today resigned as Chairman of the ISC and will not contest his seat at the next election (see here); Jack Straw was stepping down anyway. As well as the legendary (to my Company anyway) quote of “kicking the ring”, my former Company Second-in-Command, who is today a serving General, also offered us the following bon mot: “when contemplating whether or not to do something, if the thought ever occurs to you that it might not be a wise thing to do, it probably isn’t”. I have held both quotes close over the years and employed them equally in various circumstances.  Sir Malcolm and Jack Straw perhaps kicked a bit too hard this time.

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6 thoughts on “Kicking the ring

  1. Is the world of politics not about views and influence? The mention of money creates an unsavoury headline but that, to a very large degree, is the envy you refer to and a flame that I believe has been fanned by the media to sell stories. The lives of politicians are not excluded to us mere mortals – we just decided to follow a different path, which if we desired we could change at any time as you have demonstrated by switching from your previous life to your current as a journalist. I think the real issue is if their votes are available for cash – in this case the most I see is an offer of some influence. As long as that influence is not contrary to their beliefs or the manifesto which resulted in them gaining a seat then is this any different to them being swayed by a lobbying member of their local electorate or a story they read in the press? The only difference is the company deem money to be a quicker route than prolonged lobbying.

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    1. Hi Mike, thanks for the comment. I think they were both caught up in the brush-fire of politician-bashing that still rages after the expenses scandal. Straw’s reference to “under the radar” methods and Rifkind’s boasting of his spare time were daft comments, but may just have been bombast. Certainly if Straw was lining up work for after he left the Commons the ‘crime’ was lessened even further. But why were their political antennae not twitching? As Paul says below, if they were the only two who fell for it, there must have been warnings that the other MPs approached took notice of that Straw and Rifkind missed or ignored.

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  2. Kick away.

    Networking is the skill that we use or not at our peril.

    If you don’t then someone else will and that leaves the bitter tastes of both envy and regret. Not to mention sore shins for kicking oneself for missing the opportunity.

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    1. Hi Jamie, thanks for commenting. Shin kicking and bitter tastes? Sounds like a night out with you.

      I’ll be interested to see what they both do next. And whether or not this advertisement of their availability and access will have done them any harm in the long run.

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  3. Until the MiB Neuralyser is invented, contacts gained in official duties are there to be potentially used at a later date but not while you are still in that public servant role and certainly not for monetary gain at the time. The Civil Service Code is very clear on this and it should (perhaps it does?) apply to MP’s as well. Additional employment is not an issue but additional employment that is a private extension of the public role is an issue. The other point is that most MPs approached didn’t fall for the ‘sting’, these two did. That alone merits sanction especially for one who was until this morning chair of a key committee.

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    1. Hi Paul, thanks for the comment. I don’t know about the Civil Service code, but in the army you need your boss’ permission to take additional paid employment. If, instead of the Register of Financial Interests, the party leaders had to personally sign off on their MPs’ extra-mural activities, I wonder whether the ‘second-job’ debate would be advanced up the to-do pile?

      Also, there’s an interesting tweet from Michael Crick today. He asks, if being a constituency MP is a full-time job, how do Ministers find the time for their secondary role?

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