We need to talk about corruption in the UK

Many people have lost interest precisely at the moment when all the evidence says we need have our eyes wide open.

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On Thursday 23 January, Transparency International published the latest edition of the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). The United Kingdom came in joint 12th (with 77 points out of 100) out of 180 countries and territories.

If you knew this already then you are doing very well. The launch of the CPI was not at the centre of too many news bulletins. To their credit, the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Mail did give the CPI an honourable mention, but you’d still need to have been a pretty committed reader to have stumbled across their respective pieces.

So what? With plenty of other news about, the UK’s position in one corruption league table hardly seems to be a “hold the front page” story. Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, news of a dangerous Sars-like virus emerging in China and even the ongoing Prince Harry and Meghan Markle saga quite legitimately deserve the coverage they are getting. Plus, not everyone thinks the CPI is a particularly good way of measuring corruption anyway.

Yet the minimal coverage of corruption league tables like the CPI may also be telling us rather more than we might think. It may be indicative of the fact that many people have lost interest in the issue at precisely the moment when all the evidence says we should really have our eyes wide open.

The trends evident in the Corruption Perceptions Index are hard to ignore. Very few countries seem to be making genuine progress in tackling corruption. That applies as much to the Western world as it does to everywhere else. Corruption is systemic in a majority of countries and even in countries where the graft is less prominent, we know from surveys such as the Global Corruption Barometer that is still regarded as a significant policy challenge.

So why the apparent non-engagement? Firstly, we may simply be so used to corruption that we are effectively immune to anything but the most high-profile coverage of it. Corruption appears to be the norm in so many places that it’s only the most outlandish of claims that warrant special attention. Cue hand-wringing at the case of Isabel dos Santos, the mega-rich daughter of former Angolan leader Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who stands accused of embezzling billions of dollars. Or disgust at the underlying corruption that underpins Nicolás Maduro’s attempts to hold on to power in Venezuela. Anything less than these most egregious of cases just can’t squeeze its way in. That means that an awful lot of potentially corrupt behaviour remains under the radar.

Secondly, data such as that presented by TI would infer that the UK is actually doing pretty well. This year the country is apparently on a par with Canada and Australia, just ahead of Hong Kong and Belgium and just behind Iceland, Luxembourg and Germany. That performance is also broadly in line with how the UK has done in previous years. A slip of four places in 2017 (8th with 82 points) but an improvement on 2012 (17th with 74 points). The UK may not be Liverpool (16 points clear in the Premier League, as well as European and World Club Champions), but being Tottenham Hotspur (a successful club that performs admirably but wins very little) surely isn’t so bad either (no matter what Arsenal fans may think).

There is nevertheless another way of reading this. Despite what these data say, British citizens are well aware of what they perceive as corruption in the public sphere. Cronyism and issues of money buying access to power, for example, are widely recognised and widely criticised. Corruption, in other words, is seen as a problem in the UK no matter how much more of it (apparently) exists elsewhere and how well the UK might do in the CPI.

Furthermore, over the last decade successive British governments have made a real play of talking up their anti-corruption credentials. That has involved high-level speeches to both domestic and international audiences, as well as a raft of policy initiatives. The UK Bribery Act (2010) is one of the strongest pieces of anti-corruption legislation in the world. The UK has an Anti-Corruption Strategy that the government rolled out with a fair bit of fanfare. Tough talk on beneficial ownership in the domestic context and the appointment of various anti-corruption champions can also be added in. If all of this leads to CPI scores that are don’t really change much then what evidence is there that any of this is actually working? And if this is just politicians yapping away to no real effect then why should normal folks on the street care too much about it? If the talk (and action) leads to little in the way of noticeable progress then we can’t really blame onlookers for metaphorically shrugging their shoulders.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the divisive discourse that has swamped UK politics undermines broader trust in politics. It breeds cynicism and encourages a disconnect with the tough process of governing. This in turn can open the door for genuinely corrupt people to enter political life as voters become ever more anaesthetised to corruption. This makes politics look and feel more corrupt as politicians accuse each other of being cheats and liars thereby changing both internal and external perceptions of the UK.

Non-decisions, as is often said, are decisions too. If corruption slips away quietly from the front line of politics then that is can only be bad news for all but those who profit from it.

Dr Dan Hough is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex and Director of the Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption

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