We are all aware that in some countries – like Somalia, Venezuela and Afghanistan – corruption is endemic and hugely damaging. As Robert Zoellick, former President of the World Bank put it, “Corruption is a cancer that steals from the poor, eats away at governance and moral fibre and destroys trust.”

The UK, by contrast, has long seen itself as a model of probity. The London Stock Exchange, for example, has the motto dictum meum pactum — my word is my bond – and the Lloyd’s of London insurance market had simply Fidentia – confidence. In both cases, the idea was that the British would at all times be above reproach: our word would be sacrosanct, and written contracts were unnecessary. The same idea, that the British can be relied upon to behave well without the need for onerous rules and regulations applied to the British constitution: it is, for example, considered ‘unparliamentary’ to suggest that a Member of Parliament might tell a lie.

Are we right to think that corruption is a problem for other countries, or should we worry about corruption here at home?

In reality, of course, there are no grounds for complacency in the UK – corruption is an extremely serious issue and there are growing signs that it may be becoming more widespread here:

  • corruption is easily hidden and denied; but
  • it is not a victimless crime; and
  • there is increasing evidence of large-scale corruption in the UK.

Corruption is easily hidden and denied

One of the leading organisations campaigning against corruption is Transparency International. They define corruption as follows:

the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. Corruption erodes trust, weakens democracy, hampers economic development and further exacerbates inequality, poverty, social division and the environmental crisis.”

At its simplest, a person in a position of power or influence accepts something of value from a third party (the ‘bribe’) and in return uses his or her power or influence to perform a valuable favour to that third party (the ‘payback’).

A classic example of corruption is the case of oil contracts in post-occupation Iraq. According to the Serious Fraud Office (SFO),

“The SFO has today [24 February 2021] secured the conviction against a former Single Buoy Moorings Inc. executive who conspired to bribe public officials in order to secure lucrative oil contracts in the years following the overthrow of Saddam Hussain in 2003. ….

This is the latest in a string of convictions related to the SFO’s Unaoil bribery case, which has uncovered the payment of over $17 million worth of bribes to secure contracts worth $1.7bn for Unaoil and its clients.”

Of course, there is risk involved for both parties, and therefore the stakes tend to be high. The person accepting the bribe will only do so if it is of significant value – enough to risk the position of power and influence that makes them bribe-worthy in the first instance. And the person giving the bribe will only do so if the payback is far greater than the cost of the bribe. In the case above, the bribes totalled over $17 million – but the payback was $1.7 billion: 100 times more.

But if both parties are careful, both parts of the transaction can be hidden (for example, the bribe could be in the form of directors’ fees for sitting on a Board of some kind); and even if they are not, especially with smaller bribes, the connection can be denied: “I awarded the contract purely on merit; the fact that we went on holiday together [he flew me out to stay on his yacht for 2 weeks] had nothing to do with my decision.”

 

It is Not a Victimless Crime

Corruption can seem like a victimless crime – ‘of course he shouldn’t really have done that, but what is the harm?’ But as Transparency International pointed out, not only does corruption erode trust, it causes real suffering with real victims: competitors, taxpayers, the environment (and all the victims of climate damage) and even democracy itself. The bribe itself can look almost innocent, but the payback can be hugely damaging.

In the SFO’s Unaoil bribery case, the beneficiaries were Unaoil and its clients; the more deserving competitors lost out to the tune of $1.7 billion. That is significant.

In some cases, a politician or an official takes a bribe to transfer a public asset to a private sector purchaser at well below market value. A (relatively) small bribe can create a billionaire overnight. Wikipedia describes the wealth of the Russian oligarchs in this way: “Russian oligarchs … rapidly accumulated wealth during the era of Russian privatization in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. The failing Soviet state left the ownership of state assets contested, which allowed for informal deals with former USSR officials (mostly in Russia and Ukraine) as a means to acquire state property.”

In this case, the billions of dollars owned by the oligarchs is wealth which should properly have belonged to the Russian people. The total value of the Russian oligarchs’ wealth has been estimated at $584 billion; that is around $4,000 for every man, woman and child in Russia.

The Climate Change Counter Movement has been well-funded by Big Oil, and it has long been known that they funded propaganda to further their aims. Recent research highlights how payments to several US politicians may also have played an important part. An exposé by Greenpeace and Channel 4 found that:

“[A lobbyist] named 11 senators who he says are ‘crucial’ to ExxonMobil… We gave all these senators a chance to respond. All the senators declined to comment. There is no suggestion of illegality. Channel 4 News has established, through Federal Election Commission (FEC) data, that all except two of these … have received financial contributions from ExxonMobil.”

Note that despite payments being made and the evidence that these senators were ‘crucial’ to ExxonMobil, there is no allegation of illegality. This may or may not be an issue of corruption. Even if it is not, it highlights the potential for corruption on issues of huge impact. The cost of climate damage is hard to quantify accurately, but its impact is likely to be far larger than that of the wealth transfer to the Russian Oligarchs.

Perhaps most importantly, as Ranier Fsadni wrote:

“Corruption gives rise to a State where people are divided between cheats and cheated, bandits and the helpless, gods and animals. If the forces of law and order do not do their job, what order is there?… There is, to coin a phrase, one law for the gods and another for the animals.”

For democracy to function, opposition parties need to be able to compete. If the ruling party becomes corrupt and rewards donors with massive paybacks, potential donors are left with a choice: do they wish to be among the cheaters (and prosper mightily) or among the cheated (and lose out)? Over time, it becomes increasingly difficult to hold out and resist joining the cheaters. And as a result, it becomes ever harder for the opposition parties to compete.

In extreme cases, a corrupt government can even bribe or blackmail its population in this way. It can make it clear that cities and regions which vote for the ruling party will be given preferential treatment – e.g. in the allocation of central government funding. If the party has sufficient grip on power to be able to get away with such politically-biased spending, the consequences for regions which do not vote according to the wishes of the ruling party can be severe.

There is Increasing Evidence of Large-Scale Corruption in the UK

The UK has always prided itself on not being one of these corrupt countries. We have seen ourselves as being among the least corrupt countries, along with New Zealand, Canada and the Nordic countries.

But there is increasing evidence in the UK of activity that can only be described as suspicious. Thanks largely to investigative work by the Good Law Project and Byline Times, we know that many aspects of the government’s response to Covid have been, at best, ill-judged.

The purchasing of personal protective equipment (PPE) for the NHS is a case in point. Well over £1 billion worth of PPE contracts were purchased often using non-standard procurement approaches from suppliers with no previous expertise in the area but close links to the government. In many cases what they supplied was unable to be used. Moreover, there is now clear evidence that a procurement ‘fast track’ was set up for contacts of ministers – and that this fast track crowded out suppliers who might have been able to provide usable supplies. Ministers, who claimed to have no role in procurement have been found to be actively supporting their contacts in winning large bids. As the Good Law Project asks – “The question is, why? Why did they go out of their way to help these middlemen?”

The government’s test and trace system – which it insists on calling ‘NHS test and trace’ – is costing an astonishing £37 billion of taxpayers’ money. In reality, rather than using the existing NHS capabilities for test and trace, the government largely circumvented them using a network of private sector suppliers. As the National Audit Office reports, the results have been extremely poor. Their first report showed how little tracing was carried out. And the second revealed that “Only a small minority of the tests it has bought have been registered as used.” As with PPE, there was a fast track set up for ‘VIP’ suppliers, and as with PPE, there were efforts to shield this from the public gaze – by coordinating it on private emails.

None of this demonstrates corruption, but coupled with recent revelations about health ministers and even the Health Secretary failing to declare their contacts with these companies, it is impossible to say that the government has been making the usual efforts to be whiter than white in its procurement.

The government repeatedly talks about levelling-up, and set up a pot of money to be distributed to areas of greatest need. When the Financial Times investigated how the pot was being shared in practice, they concluded that the bias in favour of Conservative-held areas was “pretty blatant.” And in recent by-elections, the government has strongly hinted to voters that if they want to see any investment, they had better vote Tory. In Chesham and Amersham, Rishi Sunak wrote a letter to voters headed: To recover from the pandemic, Chesham and Amersham needs an MP who can work with me, and saying, “… We have been able to protect jobs with the furlough scheme and support businesses with extra funding. So now it is time to focus on what comes next. As we emerge from the pandemic, Chesham and Amersham can secure an economic recovery. But the only way to guarantee it is with a Conservative MP.” Johnson made a similar hint in relation to Batley and Spen. Again, of course, none of this demonstrates corruption – but it shows the potential for it.

Conclusion

It seems clear that there are no grounds for complacency about corruption in the UK. And if any of the issues above were found to provide incontrovertible evidence of corruption, there is also a risk that ministers would find ways of placing themselves above the law.

Fortunately, thanks to the effort of campaigning organisations like the Good Law Project and new media organisations like Byline Times – and, of course, The 99% Organisation – the UK public are beginning to recognise these dangers.

If you share our concern, please do sign-up and join the 99% Organisation to help stop the rot.