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.