‘Compared with other countries, corruption in the UK is relatively minor’
I originally wrote this article in response to the above comment made by Tom Bradby on ITV News at Ten (24.2.15). The article offers a historical appraisal of British corruption to provide context for where we appear to be today. I could also have included a lengthy analysis on the role of the press in influencing public opinion, a practice which has a long and disreputable history, from fomenting what became the Boer War (for gold, diamonds and to pursue Cecil Rhodes dream of a pan-African British Empire) to the First World War, when public opinion was swayed towards war in order to stifle rising German industrial power (7) Or, currently, the deceitful tactics being used to tarnish the SNP and the Labour Party in the 2017 General Election. Or I could have written about the alleged fraudulent and certainly shadowy involvement of overseas cash in influencing the EU referendum Guardian Newspaper plus the Tory Election Expenses irregularities. So much material, it’s hard to know where to start.
The article points a finger firmly at the British political class. I should however point out that I see SNP MPs as an essential part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
The Tom Bradby quote was in response to the breaking news of a Channel 4 / Daily Telegraph sting in which Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw fell for an offer of paid lobbying by a fake Chinese company. Damning phrases such as; ‘I can operate under the radar with a combination of charm and menace’ (Straw) and ‘I can arrange introductions with every Ambassador in the world’ (Rifkind) illustrated the insidious nature of political influence for financial gain from two of the UKs hitherto most highly respected politicians.
At face value corruption in many third world and Middle Eastern countries does appear to be more deep-seated than in the UK. Bribes for fast-tracking passport, planning or visa applications or for turning a blind eye to petty offences seem common-place. Leaders of Third World countries in receipt of International Aid are often accused of syphoning off funds for personal gain. Such countries often have a culture of barter and bargaining which no doubt also encourages corrupt practices. In the UK prices are fixed and underpinned by the rule of law. It’s rare to hear of any overt bribery at either a local or national level. However, far from being less corrupt than many other countries as Bradby claims, my contention is that the UK has institutionalised corruption on an industrial scale.
In their defence, Rifkind and Straw stated that they ‘didn’t break any House of Commons rules’ But it’s MPs themselves who make the rules and closer examination indicates that many dubious practices are enshrined in law. The practice of legitimising illegal activity with the rule of law goes back many centuries in Britain. From land grabs by the Normans in the 11th.- 13th. centuries in Britain and Ireland, to the 16th. century reformation when the assets of the Monasteries and the Catholic church were sequestered by the Crown. The seizure of land through the Enclosures Act in England and the Highland clearances in Scotland were all enshrined in law. Today 484 people own 50% of the private land in Scotland (easily the highest concentration in Europe) much of it having been inherited by dubious means (1/2).
The rule of law was extended to include Britain’s colonial conquests where, having taken control at the point of a gun, acquisitions were ring-fenced by statute. During the First World War, British officials discussed with Arab leaders how the Middle East might be ruled after the Ottoman Empire was expelled. While no official agreement was ever made, Arab leaders understood that they would have a major involvement in the future of the region in return for their support during the war. At the same time the Sykes-Picot agreement was secretly being thrashed out between the UK and France, who carved up the Middle East on the basis of self-interest and to the exclusion of the Arab community. Not for nothing was the term Perfidious Albion coined to describe the often machiavellian nature of British ‘negotiations’
In 1953 the democratically elected President of Persia, President Mohammad Mossadegh was overthrown in a coup masterminded by MI5 and the CIA after he threatened to nationalise British oil operations in Persia. The UK and USA installed the puppet dictator Mohhamad Reza Pahlavi as Shah of Persia which led to: Ayatollah Khomeini, the 1979 Iran – Iraq war, Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the 2003 invasion of Iraq by Western Coalition forces and most recently ISIS and the civil war in Syria (3). This says much about Britain’s industrialisation of corruption. The rights of the free market are seen as sacrosanct and anything and everything that can be done will be done to safeguard these rights by the Establishment – something we should bear in mind as we gear up for another independence referendum.
Who or what is the Establishment? Formerly the preserve of the aristocracy, bankers and politicians, the Establishment now includes CEOs of major corporations, Senior Civil Service, the Media and Press, even the Police and Judiciary, who, often unwittingly, support the status-quo (the smashing of legitimate picketing during the miners strike by police in 1984 being one example). The English public schools system plays a pivotal role in encouraging the ‘old boy’ network – the glue which binds much of the Establishment (4).
Banking and tax laws have gone hand in glove for many years. The UK has one of the world’s largest banking sectors and has been at the forefront of the development of offshore banking in, for instance; the Channel Isles, Cayman Islands, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands and the Turks & Caicos Islands and Gibraltar, the iniquities of which were exposed by the publication of the Panama Papers in 2015. The benefits of offshore banking is that it offers greater privacy as well as the facility to avoid tax. UK tax laws now run to nearly 20,000 pages, making it impossible for anyone to understand every nuance of tax regulation while at the same time allowing those with the financial clout to hire the very best tax advisers to run rings round HMRC. Many Scottish estates are now set up as Trusts in order to avoid inheritance tax, stamp duty and capital gains tax. It’s said that some estates pay less tax than the local shop. It’s politicians, often advised by bankers and accountancy firms (who, having advised MPs, then advise their wealthy clients on how to avoid tax) who make the rules.
Big business favours small Government. As well as lax tax laws they want as few regulations as possible on the grounds that regulation strangles enterprise and encourages the ‘dead hand’ of bureaucracy. The deregulation of the Banks was perhaps the most significant relaxation of business rules, which led to a massive expansion of the Banking sector in the UK but eventually led to the financial crash of 2008 through the sale of some very dodgy financial products. The Banks were then said to be ‘too big to fail’ and so were bailed out with public money. In effect the Government were guilty of encouraging Moral Hazard (acting irresponsibly without having to face the consequences). The overall impact was that ‘profit was privatised but losses were socialised’ The tax payer picked up the tab, wealthy Bankers and shareholders were protected and no-one was prosecuted. Meanwhile vulnerable people at the bottom of the economic order are now required to foot the bill. This is corruption on an epic scale which was approved by the UK Government.
Politicians are at the heart of the Establishment since it’s they who make the rules regarding financial and economic conduct. However the Straw/Rifkind debacle is just the latest in a whole series of questionable or downright illegal financial dealings involving politicians, from MPs expenses to cash for questions or for peerages which indicates the dishonourable, corrupt nature of some politicians. Yet the political class would have us believe that they are all ‘Honourable Members’ or ‘Right Honourable Members’ if they’re Privy Councillors. A more recent appellation is that of ‘Gallant Members’ for MPs who’ve previously served in the Armed Forces. Meanwhile in the House of Lords they are all ‘Noble Lords and Ladies’ This is all propaganda that seeks to portray the UK as a fair society with an illustrious history, governed by the rule of law, with the ‘mother of Parliaments’ at its heart. All of which encourages the belief that UK citizens live in a thoroughly civilised, law abiding country. This propaganda extends to the sports field where it’s frequently pointed out that Britain invented most modern sports and from which phrases such as ‘playing the game’ ‘not cricket’ and ‘good sport’ have come into common use and give the impression that fair play is a wholesome and ubiquitously British trait. Above all this propaganda keeps the British public quiescent – ‘never mind the inequality, just be thankful that you live in such a decent country with such a proud history’
The traditions and etiquette of the House of Commons are central to its running, indeed the main chamber is based on that of an English public school debating chamber, with many of the same conventions. Commenting on the recent BBC documentary ‘Inside the Commons’, Simon Jenkins noted:
‘The sense was of a down-at-heel public school……. Arcane customs and procedures baffled new MPs, until they were slowly drawn into the freemasonry. With parliament mostly an electoral college of candidates for government, there was no purchase in nonconformity. The only spark of life was from an occasional select committee…..The documentary showed how the government systematically precludes MPs from scrutinising its work…… As for the lords, their days are surely numbered. With 800 members and rising, Britain has the only parliament in the world whose membership is shamelessly, worthlessly sold by parties to tycoons. No British minister can uncritically accuse a foreign state of corruption’ (5)
My contention therefore is that the UK is run as a cabal by members of the Establishment, who, through our elected MPs ensure that laws and regulations favour business and make corruption, in the form of tax breaks, offshore accounts, subsidies and bail outs, possible on a massive scale and where many employer friendly pieces of legislation such as Working Peoples Tax Credits are in effect employer subsidies. Finally, that the nature of the House of Commons makes it virtually impossible to challenge these doctrines.
What to do? The current situation is largely the result of centralised Government decision making which encourages a ‘ruling class’ and the Establishment figures who both feed off and influence Government. The think tank Sustainable Government cites Denmark (a country with highly devolved Governance) as the “cleanest” country in the world. Apparently it is the only country where there is simply no corruption. Why? There is maximum disclosure and transparency, vigorous prosecution of wrongdoing; a free and vigilant press; clear rules on remuneration and expenses and a very strong ethic of public service. Another reason there is so little corruption in Denmark is that there isn’t a lot at stake. It’s a small country of five million people with a high standard of living but without huge amounts of money flowing through corrupt financial centres. It has relatively high taxes too so bankers and plutocrats tend not to dwell there (6). The Danish model sounds good to me and one which an independent Scotland should seek to emulate. Meanwhile independence appears to be the only way for us to get out of the corrupt system that now seems endemic in the UK.
1) Andy Whiteman – ‘The Poor had no Lawyers, who owns Scotland (and how they got it)’
2) Tom Johnston – ‘Our Scots Noble Lords’
3) Robert Fisk – ‘The Great War for Civilisation’
4) Owen Jones – ‘The Establishment – and how they make us pay’
5) Simon Jenkins – Guardian 5.3.2015
6) Charter for a Free Parliament
7) Gerry Docherty & Jim McGregor – ‘Hidden History – the secret origins of the First World War’