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The idea that British institutions are fair and democratic is one of the foundation stones of our self-written national mythology. Historically, we have constructed corruption as something that is exclusively a problem in developing or economically ‘primitive’ societies, rather than our own. Yet the almost daily reporting of all manner of corruption cases in our most prominent and powerful institutions is beginning to unravel the idea that the British establishment is predicated on civilized values of ‘fairness’, ‘openness’ and ‘transparency’. A seemingly endless conveyor belt of cases has shown no signs of slowing down. Indeed, if anything, it has accelerated.
In the corporate sector, Tesco’s investigation by the Groceries Code Adjudicator comes on top of current investigations by the Serious Fraud Office and the Financial Reporting Council. The Mirror group is now being investigated by Scotland Yard after allegations about bribery and phone hacking that may yet exceed the depth of the News International scandal. HSBC are embroiled in yet another financial scandal, this time involving a tax avoidance scheme. Even the Bank of England is under investigation.
In the police, the announcement last week of a fresh IPCC corruption investigation of the Met for its role in a child abuse cover-up comes on the back of a very long line of cases of evidence manipulation and cover-up (Plebgate; falsification of police evidence following the Hillsborough disaster; a corruption in the original investigation of the Stephen Lawrence case; and even evidence of corruption in the Met’s own anti-corruption unit).
In politics, there have been more major exposés of ‘cash for access’ allegations involving prominent members of the three main political parties.
Given that the public has been consistently force-fed a diet of corruption cases involving key British institutions across the public and private sectors, it is remarkable that the subject has barely registered as an issue in election debates. True, some politicians have pounced upon a few select companies or individuals to use as election ammunition. Yet, as a soapbox issue, the corruption of British public life is barely on the radar of the main political parties. Precious few politicians dare to make links across the various forms of corruption that permeate business, the police and the way politics currently works in this country.
The remarkable omission of a serious debate about corruption from the hustings appears even more remarkable when we consider that the two most recent changes of party in UK government took place against a backdrop of parliamentary corruption. Labour’s election victory in 1997 took place following a major ‘cash for questions’ scandal in parliament; and an expenses fraud involving MPs from all of the major political parties provided the backdrop to the 2010 general election.
One reason is simply that we lost sense of what constitutes the ‘public interest’ in the UK. One thing that many corruption cases have in common is the reduction of the aims of ‘public policy’ and ‘public interest’ to the pursuit of the interests of private profit making corporations. Perhaps the most visible example of the way that the public interest is being coupled to the interests of business is found in the so-called revolving door of senior appointments between business and government. It is this dynamic – a more open attempt to subsume the public interest to the interest of private corporations - that has brought the rationales, practices, and even the morals and values, of the private sector into the public sector, and at the same time is further undermining the independence of policy-making and regulatory processes.
Part of this re-orientation of the relationship between the public and the private interest is that politicians treat their paid consultancies with business and their memberships of corporate boards as a matter of pride, not a reason to question their ability to represent the general public interest. Being a politician with complex vested interests is, in Britain, apparently a badge of honour rather than a matter of shame.
In December 2013, David Cameron flew 131 business leaders to China on a UK government trade mission. The delegation to China included representatives of companies that have been involved in bribery and fraud allegations connected to Chinese officials. Among them were Andrew Witty, chief executive of pharmaceuticals giant GSK, and Patrick Horgan, representing Rolls-Royce. The former company has now been convicted of large-scale bribery, and the latter still facing investigation. In fact, the GSK case was ongoing during the mission, and a Serious Fraud Office investigation into the Rolls-Royce allegations was launched just three weeks after Cameron returned from China. Also represented in the prime minister’s delegation to China was ICAP, the broker that was fined $87 million a couple of months before the trip for its role in the LIBOR rate-fixing scandal.
There is no accusation being made here that the current government welcomes those corporations as trade envoys out of a cynical desire to support or devalue the seriousness of the charges that face them. The reason they remain part of government trade delegations is actually much more mundane: if governments were to vet companies for their criminal records, or their involvement in corruption, then those trade delegations would be significantly diminished in size. The prime minister would most likely be sitting on a half empty plane.
In Britain we are not readily prepared to admit that bribery is part of our way of life. Perhaps it is even fair to argue that the bribery of individuals is not common in British police forces, public services or in government. We do know, however, that it does exist: money does change hands at some times for some purposes. Last year, the BBC reported Metropolitan Police insiders admitting that a wealth of detail about police bribery was lost when a major 4 year investigation into Met corruption ended in the shredding of a “lorry-load” of evidence. And there is more than enough evidence from parliamentary inquiries into the role of News International and other media groups into “phone-hacking” to show that private investigators and journalist have, in a very wide range of circumstances, made payments for information to former and serving police officers, and to other public officials. The phone-hacking scandal is essentially a bribery scandal. The pursuit of individual interest in the form of bribing of public officials is the corruption that the most prominent experts and watchdog organisations like Transparency International tend to focus upon, but it is probably a relatively peripheral part of a much larger problem of institutional corruption in Britain.
It is the pursuit of institutional interest that characterizes British corruption. Moreover, it seems reasonable to argue that corruption is not merely an effect of power, but is often the means by which institutions maintain and concentrate power. And this means that any politician that wishes to remove the structure of impunity that still exists for prominent people in British public life has a major job on their hands. For, to tackle corruption comprehensively would certainly mean major changes to key public and private institutions.
David Whyte is the editor of the new book, How Corrupt is Britain?