COMMENTING THIS WEEK on the affair of Mr Blair's letter to the Roumanian Prime Minister — which he last week dismissed, possibly unwisely, as "Garbagegate" — the novelist and newspaper columnist (and Labour supporter) Robert Harris used a series of striking images. It was, he concluded, "acting like a barium meal on the body politic, showing us how influence passes through the system: money courted, favours returned, interests conflated, misinformation spread. First Ecclestone, then the Hindujas, then Enron and Andersen, and now Mittal: it is beginning to look more than a mere series of coincidences."
Earlier, he quoted another compelling simile, used by the former Tory Cabinet minister John Biffen on the fall, out of a clear blue sky, of Margaret Thatcher: "You know those maps on the Paris Metro that light up when you press a button to go from A to B? Well it was like that. Someone pressed a button and the connections lit up".
One possible connection that could now light up along with all the others may well be that between Government money paid indirectly to the bio-tech industry (together with a good sprinkling of peerages and other such baubles), and the parallel process of bio-tech industry funds being paid into the coffers of the Labour party. To this, perhaps. we may need to add what looks very like an undermining of the normal processes of Parliamentary legislation, carried out by the Government in a way which has directly benefited the same bio-tech industry. That, surely, is how we have to characterise the hasty passage last year of a statutory instrument legalising experiments on stem cells derived from cloned human embryos (making this the first country where such things are current government policy). The instrument subsequently ran into legal challenges and is now in limbo: but there can be little doubt that in the end the Government will get its way.
Once the buttons are pressed, the connections keep on lighting up. Whether they involve actual corruption, consciously perpetrated, it is impossible for us to say: certainly we are not alleging it here. But there is another kind of moral decline, in which honourable men can become involved almost without knowing it, and which can come subtly to dominate the way in which political power and commercial patronage come to be exercised.
Consider. to quote Robert Harris's phrase, the "interests conflated" of Professor Chris Higgins, the Medical Research Council. the bio-tech company Ardana, the bio-tech multimillionaire Sir Chris Evans (knighted on Mr Blair's recommendation), and the funding of the Labour Party. The connections may be innocent: they may not. But the least that must be said is that there are questions to be asked about them.
To take the connections in reverse order: the Labour Party has twice received "more than £5.000" from Sir Chris (how much more? We need to know: it could be very substantially more: if so, there are explanations to be made).
Sir Chris is a substantial shareholder in Ardana, which has. to quote its website, "an exclusive option [our italics] to obtain a licence of assignment of ... all unencumbered patent applications" which arise in the course of research carried out by the Human Reproductive Science Unit (HRSU) of the Medical Research Council (MRC).
The MRC, according to its own website, is "a national organisation funded by the taxpayer". The director of its Clinical Sciences Centre (as well as of much else) is Professor Chris Higgins, who last month inspired a House of Commons early day motion in the names of Ann Widdecombe and David Amess, which we quote without comment: "That this House notes with anxiety the appointment of Professor Chris Higgins as scientific adviser to the House of Lords Select Committee on Stem Cell Research; notes Professor Higgins's support for embryonic stem cell research as well as well as so called "therapeutic cloning"; notes his positions as Director of the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre [and a number of other bodies] which have publicly endorsed embryonic stem cell research as well as so called therapeutic cloning; and believes that this undermines the credibility of the impartial nature of the inquiry." The committee's findings will be published next week. Almost certainly, Miss Widdecombe's and Mr Amess's fears as to "the credibility of the impartial nature of the inquiry" will be borne out. But there will be much else, the credibility of which needs to be questioned. "Under this government", Mr Blair told the European Bioscience Conference in November 2000, "the Research Councils have spent £600 million on biotechnology and medical R&D". That is a vast subvention, which inevitably raises questions. The first one (which we would like to see asked in the House of Commons at Prime Minister's Questions) is very simple. It is this: "How much money have individuals who stand to gain from government investment into embryonic stem cell research themselves given to the Labour Party?"
That will do to begin with. But there are even more urgent questions, to do with the morality of the Government's policy on biotechnology research in general, to which the answers already emerging make grim reading. Question: how relevant are moral considerations n research involving the use of live human embros? Answer, to quote the Prime Minister's speech to the European BioScience Conference. "our conviction about what is natural and what is right should not inhibit the role of science ... we should also recognise that there are areas where ... there is more than one morally acceptable outcome".
Truly, there are worse kinds of corruption than the merely financial.