VSorruption is a word used nervously in the United Kingdom. We are very happy to apply it to other countries; but in Britain even critics of the status quo can be surprisingly reluctant to label our society’s narrow and often hidden flow of power and rewards as corrupt.
Part of the reason is that corruption is a slippery concept. âThere has never been a single, fixed and universal definition,â wrote Mark Knights of the University of Warwick in 2016. âNotions about what is unjust, unjust or immoral change over time. “
As a small, centralized country with a huge capital, Britain has been ruled for centuries by elites with overlapping affiliations and interests, and has offered a wide range of services to foreigners with questionable fortunes. To attack this system as corrupt is to risk being labeled abnormal – and to experience feelings of deep frustration and futility. From the House of Lords to the City of London, the capital is lined with ancient institutions that anti-corruption activists have failed to clean up.
Yet there are times when the accusation of corruption suddenly gains strength. After struggling for two years to find an effective way to criticize Boris Johnson’s government, Labor seems to finally have found one. “Corruption,” Deputy Party Leader Angela Rayner said Monday, “is rife in this Conservative government.” Keir Starmer, often overly measured, has become equally blunt on the matter.
Johnson’s response – “I sincerely believe that the UK is not a corrupt country at all” – has been very unconvincing, even by its standards. Most voters disagree with him. According to YouGov, 80% think there is “a lot” or “quite a bit” of corruption in UK politics, and only 1% think there isn’t. Since the corruption controversy took off, the Conservatives have fallen in the polls.
The word corruption sometimes suggests something that has passed its peak and is starting to degrade. And despite their efforts to pretend otherwise, the Conservatives have been in power for a long time. But most often corruption suggests something which expands, which swells, which mutates, which becomes monstrous. The constant acquisition of power and resources by Johnson’s Tories and their allies has these qualities: from appointing cronies to public office to funneling public funds to Tory constituencies to awarding government contracts to government officials. friends, relations and supporters – a practice for which the Omicron variant may open more opportunities.
Previous governments have done shady things, but few have done them so systematically and blatantly. When Tony Blair was Prime Minister, anti-corruption group Transparency International gave the UK a score in the 1980s (out of 100) in its annual index: good, but not exceptional by group standards. Under Johnson, the UK scores in the 1970s.
Appropriately for an administration that shows contempt for parliamentary democracy, the British ruling culture that Johnson’s increasingly resembles is a pre-democratic culture: the once infamous old corruption of the 18th and 19th centuries. Government jobs were regularly sold and public money was distributed to those with political influence. As the state grew, enlarged by wars rather than a pandemic, new functions were performed by private companies whose ability to win contracts and extract profits far exceeded their operational efficiency. The Prime Minister sat contentedly at the center of this system. A satirical cartoon from 1740 shows Robert Walpole – an old Etonian like Johnson, who ruled for more than 20 years – as a giant figure “stretched out over the doors of every public office”, waiting for supplicants to kiss his exposed buttocks.
Johnson is like an 18th century politician, with his brash, elaborate but unreliable rhetoric, and enrichment of favorites. And, like his style of government, at first the old corruption seemed immune from criticism. It took a century of campaigning by radicals like journalist and MP William Cobbett for the system to begin to be dismantled.
We live in a faster time now. Johnson’s ascendancy lasted just over a tenth of Walpole’s, and there are already signs it could end. Exposure to corruption can be particularly damaging to this government because Johnson has so emphatically pledged to spread resources and opportunities more widely – not to hand them over to an even narrower circle. Little progress is being made in establishing âVIP lanesâ for companies with conservative ties.
Such internal dealings are part of a larger Conservative project predating the Johnson administration. During George Osborne’s time as Chancellor, his “grand strategy”, according to his biographer Janan Ganesh, was “the calculated use of [government] politics âto change Britain in favor of his party. The austerity was aimed at reducing one of Labor’s main bases of support: public sector employees. Under Johnson, corporate sponsorship is aimed at creating an even more Conservative-friendly private sector.
The consistency and intelligence of all of this should not be overestimated. Conservative governments since 2010 have often been hit and miss, with last-minute policies and limited capacity for long-term thinking, as the frustrated departures of more ambitious strategists such as Dominic Cummings and Steve Hilton have indicated.
Yet one of the lessons of the past 11 years is that even weak Conservative governments can be transformative. They serve as intermediaries for powerful forces, such as companies wishing to run state services. The corruption of the Johnson government is as much about the vacuum of modern conservatism as it is about overconfidence.
Labor’s response to all of this works like a political message. With the righteousness of a former prosecutor, Starmer promises “a truly independent anti-corruption and anti-crony commission.” A Starmer government would almost certainly be a lot less shady.
But after a reshuffle that left the shadow cabinet with few fundamental criticisms of the incestuous functioning of our economy – and one of them, Ed Miliband, was effectively demoted – any Labor anti-corruption campaign seems likely to be limited. . The Johnson government may end up in disgrace, but British insiders will continue to thrive.