The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

16 Apr 2021

Politics and Society

What do British politicians feel when they look across the Channel and see the conviction of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy for corruption?  Probably a sense of complacency.

Complacency is the British disease regarding corruption. Yet each week seems to bring a new allegation of chumocracy. It is a problem that looks increasingly like corruption. Political leadership is required from all the major parties to embrace the problem and reverse the decline of standards in public life.

What is notable in French corruption cases, including those of Sarkozy, Chirac and Fillon, is that there is no shying away from the term corruption. Similarly, in the recent US presidential election, corruption was a term used with free abandon – by Trump about Biden, and by Biden about Trump.

Yet it is absent from the mainstream political discourse in the UK: there is a curious reticence that holds back the Opposition from describing Boris Johnson and his Government as corrupt, as though they will not be believed, or the evidence is insufficient, or perhaps all the major parties feel equally implicated.

Could it be that UK politicians are not corrupt? Let’s look at that evidence – cases so well known that they require no explanation. The Jenrick-Westferry Affair. The Jenrick pork-barrelling allegations over the Towns Fund. The Cummings Barnard Castle Affair. The resignation of the independent adviser on the Ministerial Code over the Priti Patel Affair. The Hancock Man-in-Pub Affair.

Multiple allegations of PPE procurement cronyism, and the National Audit Office‘s unease about an unaccountable fast-track system for politicians’ contacts. The Cruddas House of Lords Affair. And now the Cameron-Greensill Affair. That’s all just in the past year: the sheer number in that space of time is unprecedented in the modern era.

What these multiple affairs have in common is the element of ‘chumocracy’, which sounds so much more benign and harmless than cronyism or corruption.

A second common element – unlike the similar scandals of the past – is the lack of repentance of those involved, let alone sanction or punishment. If it can be interpreted as being within the rules, it is acceptable. If the electorate (and opinion polls) don’t seem to mind, it is acceptable. If you are senior enough, you can operate with impunity.

Scholars in the arcane field of corruption studies have struggled to work out how to apply definitions of corruption to countries like Britain, which typically perform well in international comparisons because bribe-paying within the public sector is relatively rare.

World Bank economist Daniel Kaufmann’s characterisation of ‘legal corruption’ is that ‘the elite may build a legal framework to protect [their] own conduct of corruption (e.g. legal lobbying) …This building of a corruption-prone legal framework is therefore an example of rent-seeking by the elite.’

Kaufmann is arguing that in legal corruption, law-makers use their power to rig the rules in favour of their own self-interest.

Britain’s chumocracy lies somewhere in this area. Rules are made in the self-interest of those who later exploit them (Cameron and lobbying legislation being a very obvious example, along with suspension of procurement rules during the Covid-19 crisis).

A system of mutual dependency has been created between donors, politicians, lobbying interests and potential employers which by most standard analysis looks corrupt – it is apparently institutionally corrupt while the individuals are not personally corrupt (party donors entering the House of Lords; abuse of the revolving door between civil service or government and business).

There seems to be an elite which looks after its own interests before the public interest.

But unease about the Johnson Government’s chumocracy goes somewhat further than technical definitions of corruption. The best known observation on corruption is probably still that by Lord Acton from 1887 that ‘power tends to corrupt.’

To counter-act this tendency, Britain has a set of principles for public life: the Nolan Principles. These supplement the most obvious forms of anti-corruption legislation such as the Bribery Act, and transparency legislation, such as the Freedom of Information Act.

To be effective, such principles rest on certain pre-conditions: that leaders in public life will follow the principles fairly much or all of the time, and expect others to do so; that those who obviously breach them will face some form of sanction; and that the mechanisms set up to ensure they are followed, such as the independent adviser on ministerial standards and ACOBA, will be listened to even when their roles are advisory and not backed with statutory powers.

Under the Johnson Government, none of these prevail. It is too soon to say whether there will be a systemic re-set to ensure the Nolan Principles still work, or, as the Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life recently warned, we may be entering a post-Nolan era.

But we should be in no doubt that the UK body politic has reached a crisis point for the notion of principles-based restraint of corruption.

We have moved beyond the territory of passing legislation to head off future problems, or reacting to a specific institutional failure, as happened with MPs’ expenses.

Across the board, we have failures of standards in public life, a deterrence and accountability system that is not fit for purpose, and a government that is deeply implicated in the decline rather than leading a response.

This is – so far – the lost opportunity of the Greensill Inquiry: it is a narrow response to a systemic problem.

To look on the bright side, there is no shortage of suggestions as to how to fix this. The Committee on Standards in Public Life will produce a report in the autumn on what the Government could do. Its evidence sessions, with a roll call of distinguished and well-informed figures, makes for compelling viewing.

The Labour Party is calling for the creation of a new Integrity Commission. Transparency International have a long-standing set of recommendations for reform, which would close loopholes and strengthen the sanctions. The missing components are leadership and political will.

The consequences of inaction can be devastating: disenchantment with democracy, a rise in populism and nationalism, and a spiral of decline that damages the social fabric, the economy, the rule of law and the national reputation.

Equally, using standards in public life as a stick to beat political opponents and rivals is unlikely to be the solution.

Almost exactly five years ago, the UK Government hosted an Anti-Corruption Summit, which resulted in the country’s first-ever national Anti-Corruption Strategy.

Both were ground-breaking, but both were criticised at the time for missing out the UK’s key corruption risk: political corruption. Now is probably the right time for that concept to be entering our mainstream political discourse.

By Robert Barrington, Professor of Anti-Corruption Practice at Centre for the Study of Corruption, University of Sussex.


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