The massed ranks of Daily Mail and Telegraph readers descended on London, proclaiming that people who can afford to own a horse have fewer rights than blacks or gays. So when exactly was the last time that a fox-hunter was turned down for a job on a building site? Did the armed forces ever forbid fox-hunters from signing up? Back in the 1950s, were there handwritten signs in front-room windows in Notting Hill saying: "No Blacks, no Irish, no packs of beagles"?
So what with all that palaver, the A-level marking fiasco and the ongoing government advertising campaign that "War is good for you!", many will not have noticed that a tiny country in southern Africa struck one of the biggest blows against multinational corruption ever.
On 17 September, the High Court in Lesotho found the Canadian company Acres International guilty of paying bribes worth nearly $266,000, relating to work on the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. Thus have been reversed decades, possibly centuries, of rather racist cliches about having to pay bribes because "that's the way they do business down there".
Acres is appealing against the judgment, and in a press statement refers to Lesotho as "a country reputed to have an independent judiciary". The tone of the statement is of lofty pity for the confused and backward blacks who have found the mighty Acres guilty. Reading between the lines, it says: "Look, guys, the savages have made a mistake." If Acres loses the appeal, maybe it will claim that blacks have more rights than companies and organise a Company Alliance march in London. Maybe Prince Charles will chip in and say that bribery is a tradition, a right and part of the fabric of the "companyside".
The Lesotho judgment is remarkable for many reasons, not least because the World Bank, which funded the water project, threatened legal action against the authorities in Lesotho in 1994, if they sacked the project's chief executive, a certain Masupha Sole. This was the same Masupha Sole found guilty on 13 counts of accepting bribes in June this year and sentenced to 18 years in prison, and the same Masupha Sole whom Acres has now been found guilty of bribing. So it looks like the World Bank will be joining Acres on that demonstration in London. Maybe the top World Bank executives will be there, defiantly waving flares in one hand and placards reading "Protect Corrupt Officials!" in the other.
Amazingly, a World Bank committee investigated Acres International for two years over the bribery allegations; they found absolutely no evidence of wrongdoing. The World Bank is currently being twinned with the Police Complaints Authority in the UK.*
It is doubtful that the World Bank would eat anything as common as humble pie, but I bet a few plates of humble canapes will be passed around as it considers if it should exclude Acres from future bids.
However, the dread dead hand of institutional inaction isn't monopolised by the World Bank. According to Business Day magazine in Cape Town, the European Union had assured Lesotho officials that it would help cover some of the legal costs. Considering the European Investment Bank is another of the project's funders, it seems sensible that the EU should protect its investment. Currently, the German multinational Lahmeyer is in the dock in Lesotho and the trial of the French Spie Batignolles** is set to take place early next year.
However, funds from the EU have not been forthcoming, and so one of the world's poorest countries is having to finance its own legal battle against some of the most powerful construction and engineering companies on the planet. The EU's behaviour can only be explained by supposing that it, too, must believe that companies have fewer rights than blacks and gays. So we should expect to see the EU commissioners on that march as well, ambling arm in arm with Barbour-jacketed hoorays, while Sir Leon Brittan blows a hunting horn and fondles a ferret.
Britain was the last OECD country to introduce laws against bribing a foreign official (the law came into force in February this year). So either bribery is a totally new concept for UK multinationals or they have been getting away with it for centuries. What counts is not what Blair says about corruption in Johannesburg, but what his government does. And by their actions they seem to be saying: "That's the way you have to do business down there."
* Libel lawyers: please note this last is not true and I claim the "comedy defence".
** Spie is 46 per cent owned by the UK-based Amec, which has an option to buy Spie outright, effective from July 2002.
Mark Thomas's reply to the ECGD letter in last week's New Statesman can be found on www.mtcp.co.uk