Think Britain is as corrupt as Russia? It's time to get out more

The last prime minister to make a fortune out of public office was Lloyd George. Today’s cabinet ministers earn middle-class salaries, and most of them live in modest houses. So why do people think otherwise?

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How Corrupt Is Britain?
Edited by David Whyte
Pluto Press, 208pp, £55/£16.99

The Racket: a Rogue Reporter v the Masters of the Universe
Matt Kennard
Zed Books, 400pp, £16.99

Corruption: a Very Short Introduction
Leslie Holmes
Oxford University Press, 168pp, £7.99

Corruption in British public life can be divided schematically into three phases. Until the 19th century men entered politics in ­order to enrich themselves and to reward their dependants. Samuel Pepys was a senior civil servant at the Admiralty. His diaries in the 1660s are a squalid record of how he accepted endless financial and sexual favours in return for awarding contracts and arranging promotions. Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first prime minister, amassed a prodigious fortune.

Across a great deal of the modern world arrangements of this sort continue to ­prevail. Think of Putin’s Russia, Zardari’s Pakistan, Karzai’s Afghanistan, or modern Saudi Arabia. In all cases government has been converted into a form of pillage by a ruling family, individual or ruling elite.

For reasons that are still not well understood, something fundamental changed in Britain in the Victorian period. Gladstonian liberalism brought moral rectitude to national life. The sale of military commissions was abolished. The Northcote/Trevelyan reforms led to the creation of an impartial civil service, with promotion by merit rather than nepotism. The Victorians consolidated the idea of the public domain, a sphere where the common good rather than self-interest and greed was paramount.

Of course corruption continued, because human nature is venal. But it was no longer part of the system of government. Corrupt public officials were now rogue elements, who were sent to jail and held up to public scorn if they were caught. The last prime minister to make a fortune out of public office was Lloyd George. Today’s cabinet ministers earn middle-class salaries, and most of them live in modest houses. The last minister thought to have accepted inducements was Reginald Maudling, a ­Conservative, in the early 1970s. Politics is no longer a route to riches. Tony Blair is admittedly an exception but he has acquired his wealth since leaving office. No one has ever suggested that he took (or takes) bribes.

David Whyte, professor of socio-legal studies at the University of Liverpool, challenges this complacency in How Corrupt Is Britain?, an ambitious collection of essays. Professor Whyte maintains that only a “residual racism” prevents us from acknow­ledging that we are corrupt on the scale of southern Europe, Afghanistan or Russia. Corruption is once more embedded in British public life, Whyte asserts, and his villain is neoliberalism. The state is now at the mercy of large corporations and the super-rich. The laws of the market have destroyed the public domain.

These are extremely large claims and Whyte endeavours to substandestrtiate them by citing all kinds of malfeasance: phone-hacking, the LIBOR banking scandals, child abuse allegations, the manipulation of evidence by police over the Hillsborough disaster, the 2013 horse meat labelling scandal, and so forth. Corruption, he concludes, is “a central mode of power-mongering in contemporary Britain”.

I think that Whyte is correct to argue that these examples point to a contemporary malaise. However, it is by no means clear that the problems he identifies are linked to neoliberalism. Let’s take the essay by Paul O’Connor on state torture. It deals primarily with allegations of British misconduct in Northern Ireland in the early and mid-1970s, well before the Thatcher government inaugurated a revolution in market economics. There is no question that British involvement in torture was reprehensible, but no evidence at all that the free market should take the blame.

The same applies to police misconduct, the subject of several other essays in this book. The police have largely not been subject to the same sorts of pressure to adapt to market forces as have been brought to bear on the NHS, schools and the welfare state. Episodes such as Hillsborough are horrifying, but cannot be laid at the door of Milton Friedman. In any case, police corruption dates back to well before the neoliberal revolution, as the Mark report into Met corruption during the 1970s shows.

The same problem applies to Whyte’s treatment of recent child abuse scandals. The BBC could never have suppressed the Newsnight report into Jimmy Savile if it had been governed by the rigorous systems of accountability favoured by neoliberals. The reports on the Rotherham child abuse scandal by the admirable Times ­journalist Andrew Norfolk prove the point even more strongly. The Times is part of the Murdoch newspaper empire, a paradigm neoliberal organisation, while the abuses took place with the complicity of an old-fashioned Labour council. The worst case of institutional child abuse in the 20th century concerns the Catholic Church, by no means neoliberal. The ascendency of neoliberal economics has coincided with far greater public awareness of child abuse, and a new determination to confront the problem. This might be a coincidence, but it is unfortunate for the professor’s thesis.

Whyte’s analysis of the relationship between the civil service and business is subject to a different kind of flaw. His book contains a workmanlike essay by Stuart Wilks-Heeg on “revolving doors” between the public and private sectors. Wilks-Heeg shows that there is much more of this ­nowadays. However, the interchangeability he writes about was also a feature of Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany and postwar France. These were not neoliberal states by any stretch of the imagination. Wilks-Heeg fails to establish any substantial connection between his revolving doors and corruption.

Whyte’s biggest problem of all concerns definition. The World Bank defines corruption as the “abuse of public office for private gain”. This is a lucid definition that has the advantage of describing accurately the malefactions of Pepys, Walpole, the Karzai family, Zardari and so on. But Whyte equates corruption with general wrongdoing. This device enables him to develop a vast charge sheet against the modern British state, but muddles his argument. “The phone-hacking scandal is essentially a bribery scandal,” he asserts. Wrong. The phone-hacking scandal was a conspiracy to obtain private information illegally. It had nothing to do with bribery. As for Whyte’s suggestion that Britain is as corrupt as klepto-states such as Afghanistan or Russia, and that only residual racism prevents us from perceiving this, he really needs to get out more.

Matt Kennard left his secure job with the Financial Times on a mission to expose the world financial system as a gigantic racket operated by the United States of America for the benefit of a tiny number of extremely rich individuals. There is much that is good in his book. He has travelled the world, and has material to work on. There is no arguing with his Chomskyan analysis of the grotesque consequences of US financial imperialism in Latin America, or Washington’s refusal to confront Israel over its maltreatment of the Palestinian population.

The weakness of this often likeable book is that it can see no good at all in the United States. Kennard argues, for instance, that the Soviet Union was the victim of American aggression during the cold war. America has certainly done great harm, but it also contains epic strengths: an independent judiciary, a free press and magnificent founding ideals. Its crimes cannot be compared with those of Soviet Russia, and Kennard would have made his case stronger had he acknowledged this.

Nor can his account of the Financial Times be forgiven. The FT is probably the most fair-minded newspaper in Britain, with numerous hard-working and decent journalists who have exposed many financial scandals. It has tended to lean counterintuitively to the left, supporting Neil Kinnock in the 1992 general election, for example. Yet Kennard describes his former colleagues as “willing dupes” of the US racket. He has made some strong points but none of them deserves to be heard until he apologises for this baseless charge.

The third book under review, Leslie Holmes’s Corruption: a Very Short Introduction, is much the most sensible of these three volumes. He provides serious analysis showing that the most corrupt countries are usually poor, undemocratic and uncompetitive. This makes sense. Market economies rarely tolerate corruption for long, because it leads to misallocation of resources and inefficiency. This is why the Victorian liberals went to such great lengths to eradicate it. It is also why attempts to blame neoliberalism for contemporary corruption are destined to fail.

Peter Oborne’s books include “The Triumph of the Political Class” (Simon & Schuster)

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The myths of Magna Carta