Psychologists have been presenting evidence for a long time that people in power have a tendency to take silly risks, break laws and assume that rules apply to others but not to them. Subjects primed to feel powerful in a lab are less able to see things from another’s perspective (and therefore more likely to dip into a jar of sweets meant for children). People with expensive cars are more likely to violate the rules of the road. The observation that power corrupts, established first in literature, has now been long established in science as well. But what causes this phenomenon?
I’d suggest one rather simple explanation. Law enforcers defer to power. They are less likely to punish high-status people, even in supposedly non-corrupt Western democracies. The powerful tend to break the rules – for the simple reason that they tend to get away with it.
For a topical example, look no further than the recent behaviour of the Metropolitan Police in two cases of high-status rule-breaking. First: partygate. While the Met often acted with maximum officiousness in handing out fines to lowly members of the public over Covid rules – convicting protesters who attended the Sarah Everard vigil, for example – the police dragged their feet at every stage when it came to investigating the Prime Minister and his top team.
Officers guarding 10 Downing Street at the height of lockdown seemed strangely unaware of the raucous parties going on inside, even as their colleagues prowled the city for ordinary people breaking the law. They initially declined to examine the claims that Boris Johnson’s team had repeatedly breached lockdown, insisting they would not take retrospective action on the issue.
Eventually, when pressure from the media and the public became too much to ignore, the Met did announce that it would launch an investigation. But it did so in a way that was coincidentally timed to help Johnson, forcing the Cabinet Office to put its own inquiry, led by Sue Gray, on hold. That split the Gray report in two, spinning out the findings and taking the pressure off the Prime Minister. The Met’s declaration at a crucial moment that Johnson would face no further fines took the sting out of leaked pictures of the PM raising a toast at his press secretary’s leaving do, and deflected attention from the Gray report’s conclusion: that Johnson had presided over a culture of rule-breaking.
When fines were given, they were doled out disproportionately to junior staffers. A legal letter sent to the Met claims it did not even send Johnson a questionnaire over which parties he attended, as it did to others. Even when a group of elites are penalised, it seems punishment falls most heavily on its least powerful members.
The second high-status example involves the UK’s future king. There was a startling revelation on 26 June that Prince Charles had accepted bags of cash – a total of £3m, handed over in private meetings – from a former prime minister of Qatar for one of his charities. No laws were broken, but it nevertheless looked dodgy: exchanging suitcases of cash is often considered evidence of bribery or money laundering (Western banks, for example, have strict laws against accepting large cash deposits).
It also turned the spotlight back to a more serious allegation involving Prince Charles: that he accepted tens of thousands of pounds in cash from a Saudi billionaire, Mahfouz Marei Mubarak bin Mahfouz, while offering him honours and help getting British citizenship. (He was later awarded a CBE at a private ceremony at Buckingham Palace.)
Yet the police were again reluctant to act. The claims were revealed in September last year by the Sunday Times journalist Gabriel Pogrund. That same month, the Met said it received a letter – a criminal complaint – relating to the media reports. Yet it only announced an investigation in February this year. And, as the Times pointed out on 27 June, that investigation hasn’t conducted a single interview or made a single arrest.
It’s clear the Met is institutionally partisan and needs to get its house in order. It must, for one thing, ensure proper independence from the country’s leaders in its decision-making. Before Cressida Dick stepped down as its commissioner in April, she spoke of the force becoming “more politicised”. “Operational independence from local and central government is crucial… for an effective democracy,” she wrote in a parting letter. There has long been a close relationship between politicians and the police – the trend was instigated under Margaret Thatcher’s government during the miners’ strikes in the 1980s, and has been maintained under every prime minister since.
But that is not the Met’s only problem. Its bias towards high-status wrongdoers is prompted not just by politicisation of the force, or institutional corruption, but the human tendency to defer to those in power, and to treat them better than everyone else.
Power corrupts not only those in high positions but those supposed to keep them in line. That is the root cause of not just the Met’s obsequious attitude towards the powerful, but some of the bad behaviour towards the much less powerful – vulnerable women and minorities, for example. That instinct is only exacerbated by the authoritarian hierarchy of the police force, which dictates that officers unquestioningly defer to their betters and command their juniors.
It is clear the police need to overcome this tendency. Stricter rules, better training and greater independent evaluation would be a start. Applying the law equally is harder than you might think.
[See also: How the Met Police helped Boris Johnson endure partygate]