Skip to main content

Great Britain Has Lobbies Too

ISSUE:  Summer 1930

The British seem able to muddle along with their lobbies without fuss or furore. A glance at the situation there suggests analogies and differences that are timely when contrasted with conditions in the United States. In this country searching investigations of the lobby . attract wide attention and cause much fulmination. But the lobby in the House of Commons is not the target of criticism. No Royal Commission is appointed to delve into its activities. Parliament is not intimidated by organized reform. Superficially at least there is little evidence of the influence of lobbying interests such as have been so voluminously reported here of late.

Yet in both countries social and economic interests must seek their own channels for expression under a representative system that officially ignores their existence. On the continent advisory councils and parliaments of industry have been instituted to regularize in some measure the contacts of capital, labor, and consumers with the government. In Great Britain the Labor Government after being in power seven months took the first wary step toward utilizing the expertise of special interest spokesmen. An Economic Advisory Council is to be constituted with the Prime Minister as chairman, a small group of Ministers as the nucleus and in addition persons chosen “in view of their special knowledge and experience in industry and economics.” This body has as yet wrought no change but its creation is significant as recognizing the necessity of providing some means whereby the special social and functional interests of individuals may be represented as well as their more general concerns as members of the State. But if the institution of this council is meaningful in its implications, British experience in handling the lobbyists in day to day contacts is concretely suggestive with regard to current American practice. Lobbies, defined as the agencies through which special interests attempt to make their influence felt upon legislation, are by no means a unique American institution.

There are in London a great number of national organizations veiy similar in composition and purpose to those that are found in such abundance in Washington. Their names, their memberships, and their objectives are strikingly akin. In variety and number they can be compared very closely. An examination of the publicity matter of these associations demonstrates that they take a keen interest in what goes on in the House of Commons. For example, the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship cites as a reason for joining the fact that “the Association concerns itself with National questions and keeps Members of Parliament in touch with the views of their women electors. . . . The National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship has a strong headquarters with a Parliamentary Department. . . . This Headquarters keeps its affiliated Societies in direct touch with what is happening in Parliament,” The staid and eminently sedate London Chamber of Commerce is akin with the feminists on this point. Among its objects it announces “the promoting, supporting, or opposing of legislative or other measures” affecting its interests. Similarly the “National Union of Manufacturers is continually urging the principle that the manufacturers of this country should be consulted before legislation affecting their interests is brought forward, and it is certain that in the future there will be closer cooperation between Government Departments and British Industry than ever before.”

Moreover, the organized farmers through the National Farmers’ Union are “constantly fighting to secure fair play from the Legislature where agricultural politics are concerned so that the farmers’ business interests shall not be ‘crabbed’ by oppressive legislation.” The above announcements might have been issued by the National Woman’s Party, the United States Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, or the American Farm Bureau Federation without a single alteration in sentiment.

To emphasize further the analogy between London and Washington in this regard one might cite the presence of propagandist and reform organizations which though differing in name and purpose are certainly alike in spirit. Note the National Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty with its imposing letterhead decorated with titled sponsors, and witness its professed aim: “The Council is working for the abolition of Capital Punishment, and by the issue and distribution of literature, the provision of speakers, by Parliamentary activity, and in many other ways, is seeking to arouse public opinion and thus fulfill its object. Write to the Secretary for further particulars.” Or hear the call of the National Anti-Vivisection Society:

Reader: You have a heart of compassion. Will you not help to stop this evil? Register your vote against any Candidate for Parliament who will not pledge himself if elected to fight on behalf of the animals in our physiological laboratories. Help us to put an end to a great wrong—an evil that is a disgrace to our country.

Even the dignified English Church Union follows all legislation that may affect the interests they feel called upon to protect. With regard to a proposed change in the divorce laws the Union suggests: “Members of the Union Would do well to write to their representatives in Parliament urging that the Bill should be amended on the point referred to.”

These scattered examples are but indicative of the general situation. In Great Britain and in the United States citizens have come to the conclusion that the rights and privileges resulting from the one-man-one-vote doctrine are not all-sufficing to give them the voice in government that they desire. There are other and more pressing matters which they think require their special attention and for these particular aims they organize themselves into societies and importune the government for favorable treatment. Yet in this country we have the lobby with the criticism and abuses that follow in its train, while in England little talk of exerting pressure on Parliament is heard. What are the factors that account for this?

Of course, it is perfectly obvious that the main differences as to the methods of the respective lobbies are due to the fact that England has a parliamentary system of government and this country a congressional system. Here the emphasis is upon the legislature but in Great Britain the ministry and the administrative departments are of outstanding importance in the eyes of the reformer and the special interest spokesman. Mere differences in the form of governmental apparatus do have an effect upon the actual status and efficacy of the lobby.

An aspect of the subject that frequently comes to mind is the mental picture of a professional persuader nabbing a legislator by the button-hole and taking him aside for a few minutes of earnest converse. This is a method of approach generally recognized as of dubious effectiveness. Still there are those in Washington who go the rounds of the congressional offices and present personally their arguments to Congressmen. Representatives of the American Federation of Labor, for example, still continue this practice. In England such canvassing would not be resorted to and would, in fact, be well-nigh impossible.

The very arrangement of the buildings of Parliament would militate against it. If an individual wishes to speak with an M. P. he accosts the police officer who stands at the entrance of St. Stephens and gives him the name of the member. The bobby then permits the visitor to enter the great hall which is situated just midway between the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Arrived in this central hall our imaginary lobbyist sees on his left a corridor leading into the lobby of the House of Commons. But the way is guarded by an iron railing and a large police officer. The visitor may request this sentinel to have an M. P. called. Messengers go over the great length of the buildings looking for the members sought by their colleagues or by visitors. The lobbyist must wait with what patience he may until word is brought back. The M. P., once found, may simply pocket the visitor’s card; a member never sends word that he does not wish to see a caller. For all the lobbyist knows the member may never have received the message.

Should the M. P., however, decide to answer the call he comes to the barrier at the great hall and gives his name to the police officer who announces it aloud. A conversation may take place in the great hall or the member may invite the visitor to step past the barrier into the inner lobby immediately before the entry to the House of Commons. The member is supposed to stand with his caller and when he leaves him the visitor no longer has the privilege of remaining within this inner sanctum.

The only point in this disquisition is simply to indicate the degree to which the M. P. is protected from favor seekers and lobbyists without any inconvenience or embarrassment to himself. Add to this the fact that few members have offices where they may be sought out and one realizes how really difficult it is for a lobbyist to get into ready communication with many members. They could possibly, be reached at their lodgings or, if they are City men or London lawyers, at their offices. For a lobbyist to canvass any number of county members would be an undertaking requiring much time, patience, and perseverance. Then, too, one would hardly call upon an M. P. at his home without some degree of personal acquaintance. The contrast with Washington is evident. Here within the walls of one building a diligent lobbyist may see a score or more of legislators within a single day. Even the most influential members can be got at upon any reasonable excuse.

Of course, in England the favor-seeker and the special interest spokesman communicate with the officials holding the real authority. Speaking to a mere M. P. is hardly worth the trouble it entails. Power is in the hands of the Ministers. The relationsnip between Minister, M. P., civil servant, and lobbyist is thus put by Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the distinguished students of British institutions:

As a matter of fact, the only questions upon which the Member of Parliament becomes even superficially versed are those which are being pushed by some vigorous group of persons outside the House of Commons, sometimes philanthropists, reformers, or the adherents of particular creeds; sometimes the professional representatives of great capitalists, or of technical or labour organizations. Hence the able civil servant and the expert Minister are always trying to placate their little groups of outsiders and to make arrangements with those who really understand and are interested in the issues involved in new legislative or administrative work, so as to prevent these issues being raised in Parliament. In short, the real government of Great Britain now-adays is carried on, not in the House of Commons at all nor even in the cabinet, but in private conferences between ministers, with their ptmcipal officials, and the representatives of the persons especially affected by any proposed legislation or by any action on the part of the administration. (Italics mine.)

Interests groups by no means limit their activities to the legislature; even more important are their contacts with the bureaucracy. They likewise testify before Royal Commissions and appear before departmental committees. They are concerned with legislation from its inception in the mind of some individual through its consummation into law and even its execution by the administrative authorities. It is interesting to obtain concrete evidence of this process of law-creating in the published records of single-aim associations and other organized groups.

In Great Britain, just as in this country, the lobby has become the agency for the expression of the opinion of non-political groups. One of the methods by which members of the English Church Union may further their cause is “by signing Memorials and Petitions issued from time to time by the Council of the Union, and by obtaining the signatures of others.” A reformist organization announces that a petition to Parliament is the next move in their campaign. They state: “After three years of educational work, the Executive Committee has now decided that the time is ripe for testing public opinions by means of a national petition to Parliament. It is hoped to collect signatures throughout the winter and present the petition to the new Parliament to be elected in 1929.” The petitions sponsored by societies that today appear fantastic may be the laws of the future. Or they may be balderdash which will happily, be forgotten on the morrow.

More definite and immediate evidence can be cited of social and economic organizations that do not look to distant objectives: it is rather these associations that prompt the comment of the Webbs. If a lobby desires to pass legislation through Parliament three paths lie open, the choice depending largely upon the nature of the measure rather than upon the preference of the lobbyist as to the method to be pursued. Firstly, there are the public bills supported by the Government ; secondly, there are private members’ bills; and thirdly, there is the procedure of private bill legislation.

The two latter methods may be disposed of summarily. The measures that are classified as private bills are those which concern usually a municipality or corporation and generally are for the purpose of authorizing a grant of further power to an agency of local government or of permitting an extension of some activity to a public service agency,. In other words they do not affect questions of general public policy. This, combined with the manner in which they are handled, prevents their having any political signification. These bills must go through a very definite and formal procedure wherein petitions for a hearing are duly filed in prescribed form and given before a private bill committee which functions much in the spirit and manner of a judicial tribunal. The spokesmen appearing before this body for the private interests concerned must be duly qualified parliamentary counsels. These barristers receive high fees and their specialized work constitutes a distinct branch of the legal profession. They are known as the parliamentary bar. All the parties affected by the proposed bill are allowed to testify and there is a cross-examination of witnesses and a presentation of arguments as in ordinary courts of law. It is only after this thorough hearing that the private bill is reported to the House either favorably, or unfavorably. The recommendation of the committee is usually followed. This system of course automatically eliminates the pressure that local interests might otherwise exert upon their M. P. in order to secure favorable legislation. He and his colleagues are thus freed from the necessity of log-rolling. The problem of placating powerful elements within his constituency need not trouble him. Such a system fairly and efficiently eliminates many of the abuses that are still associated with lobbies in this country.

Nevertheless important interests in Great Britain are very much concerned with problems of more than local interest. Political questions of national import far beyond the limitations of private bill legislation are often broached by great associations. They may attempt to attain their end by getting a sympathetic M. P. to introduce a bill. This is an uncertain method, however. Many, members have measures that they Would like to see enacted, but time will not permit for a consideration of all. Accordingly, members draw lots for the available opportunities of introducing private bills.. It is only the very adroit parliamentarian with an innocuous, inoffensive bill that succeeds in finally getting his measure through the House. Only five or six such bills are enacted into law during a session. It is patent that such a record holds out little hope to the lobbyist. The following quotation from the report of a reform organization is eloquent:

On April 20th, 1928, Sir Robert Gower attempted to obtain a second reading for the Protection of Dogs Bill, which seeks to exempt dogs from all vivisection. Sir Robert stated that he had received communications from almost every constituency in the British Isles to the effect that the Hon. Members of those constituencies had assured their correspondents that they would vote for the Second Reading of the Bill. Unfortunately, as on previous occasions, the time allotted to the Bill did not permit a vote to be taken. We must hope that the Bill will receive greater facilities in the forthcoming new Parliament.

Here the M. P.’s could make glib promises to their vivi-sectionist constituents, secure in the knowledge that the Ministry’s control over the time of the House would prevent any measure coming to a vote that might be embarrassing to the Government. In return for this protection the average member is strictly bound to his party. His influence is further limited by his inability to initiate appropriations. Consequently the lobbyist finds little hope in relying upon the “back-bencher.” He goes to the Minister of the department in which his interests are concerned. Together they work over the legislation. Much of law-making is purely technical and consists simply in finding a workable rule for a concrete case needing regulation. It is not a question of policy but a matter of fact. An examination of the reports of organizations such as the British Federation of Industries, the Association of British Chambers of Commerce, and the National Union of Manufacturers shows this to be the case. The Union reports concerning a factory, bill:

The preparation of the case against this bill has been undergoing a continuous detailed examination by the four subcommittees of the N. U. M. in London and the provinces, and it is hoped to present to the Home Secretary a co-ordinated criticism of the Bill very early in February. The question whether this should be followed up by a delegation to Sir William Joynson-Hicks has not yet been decided.

The Bill, although withdrawn last session, is to be re-introduced soon after Parliament meets, and it is essential to place the views of the N. U. M. before the Home Secretary prior to the bill being again introduced.

Organizations such as this, after carefully considering the provisions of a proposed act time and again, send deputations to the Ministry. The Minister who is responsible for the passing of the law and for its enforcement afterwards is directly confronted with the citizens and taxpayers who will be affected by the particular measure. The discussions at such meetings are of a technical nature. The proposed act is gone over clause by clause and phrase by phrase by the two parties most concerned: the administrative bureau on the one hand and the special group whom the law concerns on the other.

The Minister deals with a series of deputations and by the time that he has heard the story of all sides there is little in the way of representation that a mere M. P. can add. The member of the House of Commons speaks neither with the same authority nor from the same personal knowledge, Nor can he muster an equal degree of conviction: he is a party man and therein primarily resides his allegiance. He must follow the lead of the Ministry. Next he must listen to the wishes of his constituents. Party loyalty comes first and upon this his political career chiefly depends. The party often designates his constituency, and helps him fight his battle for election. Consequently the spokesmen in a deputation differ from a political representative in the directness of their interest and in the immediacy of their plea. They confine themselves to a straightforward exposition of just how the legislation under consideration will react upon themselves. It is up to the Minister to balance the welfare of a class against that of the nation. He is in a position to take the statements of the lobbyists at his own valuation. The lobbyists talk frankly and courteously. Nothing is to be gained by deception. The Minister is attentive to their statements and interested in their point of view. He can afford to be. The typical attitude is rather well reflected in the following excerpt from the reply of a Prime Minister to an important deputation:

In the first place I should like to express to you my pleasure at seeing you and your friends here and to thank you for the tone of all the speeches. It is not often that one hears a subject introduced with such delicacy. . . . I did not know what you were going to talk about in detail, but I certainly think you have put up a case that is deserving of the most careful consideration by the Government. . . . A number of the points you have raised are new to me, and they are very interesting. As I said I think they are deserving of very careful consideration. You have shown me where you think the shoe pinches, and it is our business to examine these points and if we can find a way to ease the position we should like to do so. I will not make any pledge beyond that.

From one point of view this is political persiflage but, even so, it is more than mere talk. It is indicative of the attitude of the Minister toward the usual deputation. Their right to present their case is recognized. The Minister may listen without fear or favor, complacent in the realization of his own power. Committee hearings in Congress are the American analogy of the British deputation but they differ in certain important elements. The Minister has a greater degree of responsibility; he can speak with more finality,; this is one reason why he sedulously avoids making a definite pledge of support. He is too responsible a person to promise rashly. On the other hand, a member of Congress at times finds himself forced by an organized minority to give a definite promise of support when faced with the alternative of otherwise incurring a powerful enemy within the State or congressional district wherein reside all his political hopes.

When an organization threatens to enlist a Congressman’s constituents against him through a directed propaganda campaign it becomes rather difficult for such a legislator to listen calmly and judicially to the testimony of this same association presented before a congressional committee.

In considering deputations to the Ministers one factor stands out in strong contrast with the American situation. Through these representations there is factual discussion and a careful consideration of the details of the proposed legislation but there is no directly attempted coercion on the part of the interests. The abuses connected with the lobbies in this country have been shown by congressional investigation to be due to their coercive aspects. Some lobbyists deceive their supporters into believing that they possess great influence with Congress. These are frauds. Other powerful organizations actually do threaten the re-election of legislators who hesitate to put special group interest before the national welfare. The American structure of government gives the lobbyist here opportunities to wield his power that are quite lacking in England.

The temptation removed to act as a professional manipulator and persuader, the British lobbyist finds his work of presenting facts and figures to the Government relatively enhanced. He has a recognized position and function within a delimited sphere. This zone of activity is described in the words of one powerful business men’s organization as follows:

The London Chamber of Commerce is in almost daily communication with one Government Department or another, and being familiar with the internal organization of the Departments, and personally acquainted with those in charge of them, is able to deal expeditiously and effectively with business questions which might involve considerable expenditure of time on the part of the firm or company. The Chamber represents a body of organized business opinion which cannot be ignored by any department c” the Government, and the representations of which, in the past, have been instrumental in inducing the Government to abandon projects which have proved detrimental to business and radially to modify others.

The soundness of this position is recognized to some extent in this country although many of the Washington lobbies still stress their power to influence Congress. A few are gradually taking a more advanced point of view. The Chamber of Commerce of the U. S. A., for example, does not enter into political campaigns. As an organization it does not threaten the re-election of one Congressman or promote that of another. It does urge its members to write to their representatives asking for favorable consideration of Chamber policies. The American Farm Bureau Federation announces that as a body, it does not oppose individual Congressmen or support them. It does send the farmers the records of legislators’ votes upon agricultural measures. It leaves the record to speak for itself. This slightly encouraging tendency is not confined to the two organizations mentioned. However, the American Federation of Labor and the Anti-Saloon League along with many other associations do enter into political campaigns. They fight Congressmen who are not in agreement with their point of view. And Calvin Coolidge has been one to note how “Congress in its hours of timidity becomes subservient to the importunities of organized minorities.”

It is submitted that organized groups could attain their ends and at the same time enjoy a much better public reputation if they refrained from coercion in politics and concentrated their attention upon fact presentation. Besides this there is an ever-widening field for cooperation in administration. Into this some associations have already entered; others may well penetrate farther. The voluntary trade practices agreements reached under the auspices of the Federal Trade Commission and the simplification and standardization conferences held under the supervision of the Department of Commerce may be indicative of the wider usefulness of similar contacts between administrative bureaus and private associations. Experts and technicians in business, agriculture, and labor have much to offer the government. Reformers and churchmen have points of view that may be suggestive. They have a right to be heard but they have not a right to impose their pet panaceas or formulas arbitrarily upon public servants who may be honestly striving to consider the general interest. The reaction in the press to recent lobby disclosures bears out this statement.

A perception on the part of the lobbies themselves of their own responsibilities and of the part that they may legitimately take would go far towards solving the lobby problem. In England the form of government has of itself removed these opportunities for coercion from special interests. They find it inconvenient to reach “back-benchers”; they find it difficult to initiate bills through sympathetic M. P’s.; they find it well-nigh impossible to bring pressure on Cabinet Ministers. They must perforce limit themselves to propaganda work in stirring up public opinion, to legislative work through fact presentation to the Government, and to the various commissions or committees which Parliament from time to time sets up to consider special problems. They discover many opportunities for cooperating with the civil servants. And in these contacts, which the exigencies of the situation force upon them, they find their salvation. The lobby cannot become a pernicious coercive institution. It must remain an agency for functional representation. Perhaps in profiting by, English experience as to the role that special interest representatives legitimately play in government, the lobby may here voluntarily rectify its own shortcomings and find the place that it deserves not only in governmental service but also in public estimation.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading