By Richard Heller, (former adviser to Denis Healey and Gerald Kaufman): A Private View
It could become a pub quiz question: who was the first British prime minister to sell himself to a foreign power?
It would be too easy to guess the answer — Tony Blair, who recently signed a multimillion pound contract to advise President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan. He has reportedly opened an office in the capital, Astana. Other than the president, no-one knows what advice Mr Blair is giving. His client does not need any advice on winning elections: grateful Kazakhs gave him over 95 per cent of their votes in their last presidential elections in April this year. His party already holds all the seats in parliament. Some media reports suggest that he is advising on financial institutions. According to other reports, he is helping the president prepare a bid for next year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Again, Tony Blair seems a strange source of advice, until one remembers that the prize was once given to Henry Kissinger.
As with other British ex-politicians, Tony Blair’s paid activities in Kazakhstan are virtually beyond any public scrutiny or control. They are not mentioned on the website of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba), the fangless watchdog over ex-ministers who sell their services in the marketplace. Since Tony Blair is not a peer, he did not have to supply the minimal and haphazard information required for the Register of Lords Interests. He did not have to notify the Foreign Office of his Kazakh appointment and it is not mentioned on the website of our local embassy.
Curiously, Tony Blair may face greater scrutiny in the United States than in our own country. If he helps the Kazakhs there in any way, he is potentially liable to register as their agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938. This wide-ranging law was originally designed to combat Nazi and Soviet agents: it is piquant to think that it might catch Tony Blair and positively delicious to imagine him receiving a late-night visit from the FBI.
Whatever Tony Blair is doing in Kazakhstan, he should stop it and hand back the money. It does no good to our country and our political system — and it is in very bad taste.
Whether he likes it or not, Tony Blair is taking sides in the internal politics of Kazakhstan, which are murky and dangerous for an amateur outsider. He has become a trophy for the ruling president and a figure of contempt for the opposition.
As North Africa has proved, even very long-running rulers can eventually fall, and if that happened in Kazakhstan (a country of great strategic importance) Tony Blair will have harmed our country’s relationship with the replacement government. But while President Nazarbayev is in power, it must strengthen his ego and his authority in any discussions with our country to have a former premier in his pocket. Whether he likes it or not, Tony Blair will diminish the authority, and in all probability the access, of our ambassador in Astana, David Moran.
If Tony Blair gives the president any advice on how to deal with this country he will be approaching the frontiers of treason. Selling himself to a foreign ruler for any purpose at all seems hard to reconcile with his lifelong oath of loyalty to the Queen and her successors as a privy councillor. Its language is orotund and opaque but its tenor and general purpose are clear.
It ends: “You will to your uttermost bear faith and allegiance unto the Queen’s Majesty; and will assist and defend all jurisdictions, pre-eminences, and authorities, granted to Her Majesty, and annexed to the crown by acts of parliament, or otherwise, against all foreign princes, persons, prelates, states, or potentates. And generally in all things you will do as a faithful and true servant ought to do to Her Majesty. So help you God.”
Tony Blair does not care much about history unless he can invent it, but if he did take this oath seriously it would warn him against trying to serve two sovereigns and putting himself in the pay of any foreign state or potentate. If the oath means nothing to him, Tony Blair should reflect on the impact on the image of our country when a holder of its highest office hawks himself about to foreign governments. What message does it send to disenchanted British voters who already believe that their politicians are only interested in money?
In recent articles I have called for the strengthening of ACOBA and of the Lords Register of Interests to give the British people more information about ex-politicians’ money and more influence over how they can earn it. After Tony Blair’s Astana adventure, I think we need to go one step further. No ex-minister should be allowed to work for any foreign ruler or government or state agency without the prior approval of the Queen-in-Council, including the prime minister and foreign secretary of the day.
There should be a presumption against any approval, although an ex-minister should be allowed to do voluntary service in a poor country, or to serve as an independent peace envoy or for other humanitarian purposes. That would not bar any ex-minister from joining an international body or a non-governmental organisation.
Without such reforms, our country will see an uncontrolled marketplace for ex-ministers. On second thoughts, maybe that’s no bad thing. Given the recent record of British government, with many more failures and disasters than success stories, it is surprising that such a market exists. Plenty of voters might be happy to sell ex-ministers to any foreign country to make a bid for them. Or even current ones. If Kazakhstan wants to take anyone from this government, I’ve got a little list and they’d none of them be missed.
A former adviser to Denis Healey and Gerald Kaufman, Richard Heller’s advice has never been sought by any foreign government.