Britain and corruption: where are we now?

Revelations from the Good Law Project about billions of pounds worth of questionable procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE) have got people on social media talking about corruption in Britain.

We don’t yet know whether these PPE deals involve corruption or not. Corruption is very hard to prove and arrangements which may look corrupt from a distance can turn out not to be, as I’ve learned years of investigating corruption for NGOs.

But it is reasonable to suspect, from what has been made public so far, that corruption may turn out to be a factor in at least some of these cases. The Good Law Project is going about its work in the smart way, which is to peel back the layers of fact and denial to find out what’s underneath and not to jump too far ahead of what can be proven.

It’s not surprising that the word “corruption” comes easily to the lips in these angry times. The word has a moral force to it, and powerful associations with stench and decay.

But are we really seeing some unprecedented Fall from Public Probity in this country? Not really. The belief that this country has uniquely high standards in public life compared to others is really based only on reforms of politics and governance in the last century and a half or so, which is not long in the sweep of British history.

Anyone who reads Private Eye’s “Rotten Boroughs” column will know that the crudest forms of corruption never went away entirely. And Britain, or more precisely the City of London and its satellites, has long played a giant-sized part in enabling corruption and tax fraud overseas. Successive governments have connived in this, while occasionally pretending not to, as the price (paid by other countries) of London’s pre-eminence as a centre of global capital.

At home, cash-under-the-table corruption seems to have been fairly rare, certainly at the level of central government. This isn’t because British politicians are genetically more honest than politicians elsewhere, but at least partly because we have a system of benefits and favours which provides some of the private advantages of corruption with none of the difficulties of breaking the law.

Parts of this system are blatantly abusive, like the practices of giving honours and privileged access to ministers in return for political support or donations. Other long-standing practices sit in a grey area, such as the “revolving door” between government and business.

The revolving door illustrates the limits of the term “corruption”. Imagine, for example, that as a minister I am lobbied by hedge funds to give them a tax break, which I do. On leaving public office, and having ticked off all the safeguards, I take up a lucrative job at a hedge fund. That hedge fund has made money from the tax break, and I am making money from my new job, but have I acted corruptly?

Yes, if it can be proven that the hedge fund had secretly offered me the job in return for pushing through the tax break. But what if I have an ideological conviction that hedge funds should pay as little tax as possible? And, separately, I need to find a job after leaving office and take one in an industry that I happen to know something about?

This is not the classic understanding of corruption – the abuse of public office for private gain – because I can argue that I have acted in good faith and consistently with government policy and my own beliefs, while the beneficiary is not one private company but a category of companies. Or to put it less kindly, it’s not a crime for me to belong to that group of people who take it for granted that whatever is good for the super-rich must be good for society.

We should recognise that most of the politicians and civil servants who go into the private sector are people of high personal integrity who would be dismayed to be offered a bribe. But the public interest in fair and open policy-making simply can’t be reconciled with granting privileged access and knowledge to those who can pay for it, which is what the revolving door amounts to. It isn’t a simple problem to fix, but we should think more boldly about how to fix it.

We need a new vocabulary for talking about the exercise of power for the private advantage of privileged categories of people. This vocabulary needs to acquire the moral force of the term “corruption” while recognising that we are not talking about illegality or even necessarily about “abuses of power”. If politics has been engineered to put the private interests of a privileged minority ahead of the public interest, then something more fundamental than “abuse” is going on.

Where are we now? In Britain, the pandemic has pushed us into a quasi-wartime state of emergency (made worse by the government’s incompetence), and wartime usually brings panic policy, waste of public funds and speculators making fortunes. If the country is to come out of that state and not end up permanently looking more like Hungary, then we will need to insist, as the Good Law Project is doing, that the law must be rigorously upheld.

But it won’t be enough to talk about honesty and integrity if we can’t also think deeply about how to build a wall between public service and private profit. This can’t be done by limiting ourselves to what is currently illegal, or by fantasising that there was always a wall in good shape which just needs a few bricks replacing. It means recognising and confronting forms of elite privilege and favouritism which are not only permitted by the law but deeply embedded in our political system. 

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