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In Britain, keeping campaign finances a secret is no crime

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April 4, 1997
Web posted at: 9:25 p.m. EST (0225 GMT)

From Correspondent Margaret Lowrie

LONDON (CNN) -- British voters may never learn where the country's two largest political parties raise the 60 million pounds ($90 million) that they plan to spend during the current election campaign.

But Britons know one thing for sure: Some of the largesse being tucked into Tory and Labor coffers will come from places far afield of the queen's dominions.

This is because in Britain, there are no laws requiring disclosure of political contributions. And politicians not only accept donations from outside of the country, they actively pursue them.

"The problem in Britain is exactly the same as the problem in the United States, namely, that the campaign finance laws are written by members of Parliament," according to Bill Emmott, editor of The Economist. "And it's then members of Parliament who are raising the finances for their campaigns."

Conservatives court Asian money

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Individual candidates for Parliament are limited to what they can spend on their campaigns, but there's no limit to party spending.

And while President Clinton and his Democratic Party have been mired in a controversy over accepting campaign contributions from Asian nationals, a process that is illegal in the United States, the Conservative Party in Britain has set up an organization called the Dragon Club to actively seek Asian money.

Despite allegations of "dirty money," the Conservatives reportedly kept a 450,000 pound ($700,000) contribution from Turkish-Cypriot financier Asil Nadir, who also happens to be a fugitive from British justice.

"What sometimes happens is that contributions are made from dubious people, and the party treasurers have to make their judgment about whether they think that it will turn out to be a boomerang," says Ben Pimlott, biographer of former Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

"Recently, the Conservative Party has turned out to be much more careless, perhaps, than the Labor Party in this respect."

'I want to know who is bribing my government.'

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"The basic problem is lack of disclosure, generally," Emmott. says. "I don't think that there's a particular issue in my mind as to whether or not the funds come from a domestic briber of government or a foreign briber of government.

"Either way, I want to know who is bribing my government"

Washington may have been rocked by revelations that Clinton was inviting campaign contributors to have coffee in the White House, but, in London, big-time contributors expect more than just a spot of tea at 10 Downing Street. Twice a year, they are invited to dine with the prime minister.

Now even the Labor Party, which is supported by trade union money, is hosting fund-raising meals.

"That's something that used to be unheard of, even a few years ago, and is now standard practice," Pimlott says.

"Whether there's anything wrong with it is a matter of opinion. I suppose the critical question is whether people who make contributions in this kind of way ... think they're getting something out of it in terms of political favors."

 
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