When it Comes to Corruption, Great Britain is Catching up to the Middle East

I used to meet businessmen in the Middle East who were in a state of high anxiety about their chances of winning a government contract. They were naturally reluctant to spell out the details, but they hinted that their chief worry was whether or not the official they had bribed to get them a contract would, in the event, be willing or able to do so. They took it for granted that I knew that nobody successfully did business with the governments in question without paying off somebody inside it.

I was in Iraq and Afghanistan when the government system in both countries was saturated with corruption. Britain may not yet be at the same place, but it is much further down the road to kleptocracy than most people imagine. For all the finger wagging about the current scandals, the words and phrases used to describe them – chumocracy, revolving doors, cronyism, conflicts of interest, sleaze – all understate the seriousness and corrosiveness of what has been going on.

In reality, individuals and companies only employ politicians and civil servants, paying them a lot of money, because they expect to make very much larger sums themselves. There is “hard” corruption, aimed at winning a particular contract, and “soft”, generally legal, corruption aimed at winning the support of those at the top to further the general ends of those paying them.

The mechanics of corruption have much in common the world over, though the sophistication of the means used to conceal it or explain it away differs widely. In this, as in so many other things, British exceptionalism is less than is often taken for granted – indeed a presumption of honesty makes life easier for the seriously dishonest.

My knowledge of corruption is mostly drawn from the Middle East, but a list of what I see as the six main staging posts on the road to kleptocracy has increasingly strong parallels in Britain.

1. Corruption is turbocharged when companies become convinced that they cannot successfully do business with the government without having facilitators at the decision-making level inside it. If they do not not find their own insiders, they cannot hope to compete. The quickest way of acquiring such influence is to pay for it. This is likely to be cash down in Baghdad or Kabul. In Britain, the reward may be in the shape of a future high-paying job, share options or some such benefit.

An ominous example of how things are increasingly done in Britain – though there is no suggestion of illegality – was outlined by the National Audit Office report last year into the government’s PPE procurement. It revealed that there had been a semi-secret VIP fast lane for those in touch with “government officials, ministers’ offices, MPs and members of the House of Lords, senior NHS staff and other health professionals”. The report said that companies in the VIP lane stood a one-in-ten chance of winning a contract as compared to less than one in 100 for those outside it.

The reality of this “insider” fast lane had little to do with professional expertise and was much closer to the way of doing business in the Middle East. The New York Times analysed a large segment of roughly 1,200 UK central government contracts relating to the Covid-19 epidemic worth $22bn (£16bn) that had been made public. It found that about half, worth $11bn (£8bn), “went to companies either run by friends and associates of politicians in the Conservative Party, or with no prior experience or a history of controversy. Meanwhile, smaller firms without political clout got nowhere.”

2. The amount of money involved is a very important factor in the spread of corruption. Reportage on the present scandal in Britain fails to make this point sufficiently clear. This is not small-time sleaze like parliamentary expenses. People inside and outside of government may be playing for tens or hundreds of millions of pounds, which leads them to take risks that they would otherwise avoid. It is when such “life-changing” money is on offer that corruption seeps upwards. I remember a minister in Baghdad who had been happy in London if he could borrow £50 from his friends, but after a few years in office owned a mansion with three swimming pools in Amman.

3. Crises produce great opportunities for corruption whether they come in the shape of a war or a pandemic. Special fast lanes, that would otherwise look deeply dodgy, can be justified as a sort of patriotic measure to meet a national emergency. Normal checks and safeguards can be put to one side as “bureaucratic red tape” strangling the national effort – and when vast sums of money are spent and nothing is delivered this is explained away as regrettable but inevitable in the circumstances. Unfortunately, precedents set in times of crisis tend to stick around and determine future behaviour.

4. Those promoting corruption will, if they are sensible, want to spread the money around within the political elite. This means that lots of people feel vulnerable and unenthusiastic about far-reaching investigations with strong legal powers that might focus on them. Pay-offs to political parties are also a good method of evading pursuit and blocking reform.

5. The limited chance of being caught and punished is another significant driver of corruption. The best way of doing this is to ensure that what you do is technically legal, rather than dodgy or criminal, though it might appear so to the public. If such corruption is unpunished, others will soon be saying to themselves: “everybody is doing it, so why not me?”

6. Contracts handed to companies and individuals who have themselves no means of providing the goods and services paid for by the government have a special role in the decline of standards. Those receiving them become brokers and hand on the contract for a fee; this may happen multiple times. Shady sub-contracting is a trouble-free way of turning strong political connections into unearned profits.

There is one factor that makes life in Britain easier for the corrupt than in Kabul or Baghdad. Here people are still shocked when senior politicians and civil servants line their pockets. In much of the Middle East, ordinary citizens would be surprised if they did not and act on that assumption.

Naive trust in the probity of British institutions opens the door to corruption particularly wide. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the Metropolitan Police in London was not only corrupt, but parts of it operated like a criminal enterprise. For a long time its victims were disbelieved and the perpetrators given a free pass until brought down by repeated scandals. The reforming Metropolitan Police commissioner, Sir Robert Mark, famously said that “a good police force is one that catches more crooks than it employs”.

With some adaption, this would be a good motto for anybody seeking to reform the top reaches of public life in Britain.

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