It is amusing to see how most people see their nation as the most corrupt, as if there are tables. With the exception of Scandinavia and Poland, all European governments are endemically corrupt. Laws and contracts are bought and sold, having little to do with democratic processes.
Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso)
Cross-posted from Counterpunch
Photograph Source: Daniel Lobo – CC BY 2.0
“We could slip into being a corrupt country,” said Jonathan Evans, the former head of MI5 and the crossbench peer who chairs the Committee on Standards in Public Life, as he denounced the government’s bid to save Owen Paterson’s political career and neuter parliamentary regulation of paid lobbyists.
On the same day Chris Bryant, chairman of the Commons’ standards committee, said that what the Boris Johnson government was trying to do in overturning Paterson’s suspension was “a perversion of justice” and is “not what we do in this country – it’s what they do in Russia when a friend or a foe is suddenly under the cosh in the courts”.
But perhaps the government’s botched attempt to save Paterson’s skin – despite detailed evidence of him lobbying hard for the two commercial companies paying him £9,000 a month – is, on the contrary, exactly the way we now do things in the UK. Bryant’s analogy with Russia – he might have mentioned Iraq or Turkey or a score of other countries – may not be too far off the mark. Lord Evans is demonstrably correct about the slippage into corruption and wrong only about how far this process has gone.
People in the UK often fail to see the seriousness of this deteriorating situation because mealy-mouthed words and phrases such as “lobbying”, “sleaze” and “egregious cases of paid advocacy” are used. But when these activities come together they create a toxic system in which it is only the companies that invest heavily in acquiring the services of powerful politicians and civil servants who will win the big contracts and plug into government subsidies.
In the wake of the Paterson furore, much of the commentary is about Boris Johnson’s misjudgements, and there is a reinforcement of the feeling that his government is full of dodgy people doing dodgy things. Parallels are drawn with the Tory sleaze scandals of the 1990s or the parliamentary expenses scandal of 2008. But these analogies miss the point, because in both cases the amount of money involved was trivial compared to the vast sums that the politically powerful can now hope to gain.
Paterson’s overall earnings were about £100,000 a year as a consultant to two companies, which may not sound enormous, but Randox Laboratories was paying him £8,333 for 16 hours’ work a month, or about £500 an hour according to the Commons standards committee report. Lynn’s Country Foods, a processor, was paying him £2,000 for just four hours work every other month, which is about the same rate of hourly pay.
But Paterson’s gains are dwarfed by those made by former prime minister David Cameron, who reportedly earned $10m (£7.2m) from Greensill Capital for lobbying ministers on their behalf in the two-and-a-half years before the company collapsed in 2020.
We are now talking about politicians earning millions, and it does not stop there. The Covid-19 pandemic produced great opportunities for corruption and the weaponising of political influence to produce vast profits that were in the billions. The chaos and panic of the time provided a splendid excuse for handing out contracts to the politically well-connected.
A National Audit Office report in 2020 into the government’s PPE procurement revealed the existence of a semi-secret VIP fast lane open to those recommended by “government officials, ministers’ offices, MPs and members of the House of Lords, senior NHS staff and other health professionals”. The report revealed that those in the VIP fast lane stood a one in 10 of chance of getting a contract compared to less than one in 100 for those outside it.
Proof of the effectiveness of the VIP fast lane came in a New York Times analysis of a segment of 1,200 UK government contracts relating to the Covid-19 epidemic worth $22bn that had been made public. It found that about half, worth $11bn “went to companies run by friends and associates of politicians in the Conservative Party, or with no prior experience or a history of controversy. Meanwhile, smaller companies with no political clout got nowhere.”
Too little notice was taken of this report in the UK, but it is strong evidence that Lord Evans was right this week in his belief that Britain might not only be on its way to becoming a corrupt country, but that this factor was affecting “international perception of us”.
Foreigners may indeed be better than people in the UK at perceiving that the political elite will have passed an important staging post on the road to corruption if commercial companies find that they have no choice but to find their own “insiders” to promote or defend their interests. If they do not, they will be unable to compete successfully with rival businesses who do. This is the conventional wisdom of businessmen in Moscow, Baghdad and Istanbul, and there is no reason to suppose that the mechanics of well-paid political influence and corruption operate any differently in London.
My experience of these mechanics is drawn from long years as a correspondent in the former Soviet Union and in the Middle East. Not all the forces propelling corruption in those countries are the same as in the UK, but many of them are. High up among these is the assumption that you cannot do business without paying somebody off or giving him or her a cut of the profits. In Iraq, business friends would agonise less about the giant sums they were paying their “insider” than about whether or not he or she could deliver the promised contract. A friend in Kiev had to leave the country because his local “partner” became too demanding for his company to make a profit.
An important factor in the slide into corruption is the amount of money on offer to those able to turn their political power into money. One minister in the Middle East, whom I believed to be unshakably honest, was alleged to have taken a bribe of over $100m. Another, who ran his ministry like a racket, excused himself to friends by asking “Why shouldn’t I do it when everybody else in the government is making money the same way?”
Honesty and dishonesty are more of a matter of habit than people care to admit. The spread of corruption is turbocharged if the fortunes to be made are large and the risk of punishment low. But the lesson of Russia, Ukraine and a host of other states in the world is that once a political class becomes corrupt, there is no way back because its members will leap to defend their own, in case they should be next in line for detection and punishment. This may not have happened yet in the UK, but, as we saw this week, it is not for lack of trying.
BRAVE NEW EUROPE has begun its Fundraising Campaign 2021
Support us and become part of a media that takes responsibility for society
BRAVE NEW EUROPE is a not-for-profit educational platform for economics, politics, and climate change that brings authors at the cutting edge of progressive thought together with activists and others with articles like this. If you would like to support our work and want to see more writing free of state or corporate media bias and free of charge. To maintain the impetus and impartiality we need fresh funds every month. Three hundred donors, giving £5 or 5 euros a month would bring us close to £1,500 monthly, which is enough to keep us ticking over. Please donate here.