The corruption of the political class

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“WE CAN become a corrupt country,” said Jonathan Evans, the former head of MI5 and the interbank peer who chairs the Committee on Public Life Standards, as he denounces the government’s attempt to save the country’s political career. ‘Owen Paterson and neutral parliamentary regulation. paid lobbyists.

On the same day Chris Bryant, chairman of the Commons Standards Committee, said what Boris Johnson’s government was trying to do by overturning Paterson’s suspension was “a perversion of justice” and is “not what we do in this country – this is the case in Russia when a friend or foe suddenly finds himself in the hands of the courts.

But perhaps the government’s botched attempt to save Paterson’s skin – despite detailed evidence that he lobbied the two trading companies to pay him £ 9,000 a month – is, on the contrary, exactly how we are doing things now in the UK. Bryant’s analogy with Russia – he may have mentioned Iraq or Turkey or a score of other countries – may not be too far off the mark. Lord Evans is clearly right about the slide towards corruption and only wrong about how far this process has come.

People in the UK often fail to see the seriousness of this deteriorating situation because crass words and phrases such as ‘lobbying’, ‘sleaze’ and ‘egregious cases of paid advocacy’ are used. But when these activities come together, they create a toxic system in which only companies that invest heavily in acquiring the services of powerful politicians and officials who will win the big contracts and connect with government grants.

In the wake of Paterson’s fury, much of the commentary centers on Boris Johnson’s errors in judgment, and there is a heightened sense that his government is full of shady people doing shady things. Parallels are drawn with the Tory Sleaze scandals of the 1990s or the parliamentary spending scandal of 2008. But these analogies miss the point, because in both cases the amount of money involved was insignificant in relation to the sums. colossal that powerful politicians can now hope for Gain.

Paterson’s overall earnings were around £ 100,000 per year as a consultant for two companies, which may not sound like huge, but Randox Laboratories paid him £ 8,333 for 16 hours of work per month, or around £ 500. of the hour according to the Commons Standards Committee. report. Lynn’s Country Foods, a processor, paid him £ 2,000 for just four hours of work every two months, which is roughly the same hourly wage rate.

But Paterson’s gains are overshadowed by those of former Prime Minister David Cameron, who reportedly earned $ 10 million from Greensill Capital for lobbying ministers on their behalf in the two and a half years before the collapse of the company in 2020.

We are now talking about politicians making millions, and it does not end there. The Covid-19 pandemic has produced great opportunities for corruption and the militarization of political influence to produce vast profits that run into the billions. The chaos and panic of the time provided a splendid excuse to hand out contracts to politically well-connected people.

A National Audit Office report in 2020 on government PPE procurement revealed the existence of a semi-secret VIP fast lane open to people recommended by “government officials, ministers’ offices, members of parliament and members of the public. members of the House of Lords, senior NHS officials and other health professionals ”. The report found that those in the VIP fast lane had a one in 10 chance of getting a contract compared to less than one in 100 for those who were not.

Proof of the effectiveness of the VIP fast lane came from a New York Times analysis of a segment of 1,200 UK government contracts relating to the Covid-19 outbreak worth $ 22 billion that had been made public. He revealed that about half, worth $ 11 billion, went to businesses run by friends and associates of Conservative Party politicians, or with no prior experience or a history of controversy. Meanwhile, small businesses without political influence have come to naught.

Too little attention has been paid to this report in the UK, but it is clearly proven that Lord Evans was right this week in his belief that Britain could not only be on its way to becoming a corrupt country, but that this factor affected “international perception of us”.

Foreigners may indeed be better than the British at perceiving that the political elite will have taken a major step down the road to corruption if business enterprises find they have no choice but to find their own ‘insiders’. To promote or defend their interests. If they don’t, they will be unable to successfully compete with rival companies that do. This is the conventional wisdom of businessmen in Moscow, Baghdad and Istanbul, and there is no reason to assume that the mechanisms of well-paid political influence and corruption work any differently in London.

My experience with these mechanics is drawn from many years as a correspondent in the former Soviet Union and the Middle East. Not all of the forces driving corruption in these countries are the same as in the UK, but many are. At the top of these is the assumption that you can’t do business without paying someone or giving them a share of the profits. In Iraq, business friends would worry less about the colossal sums they paid their “insider” than whether or not they could honor the promised contract. A friend in Kiev had to leave the country because his local “partner” became too demanding for his business to make a profit.

An important factor in the slide towards corruption is the amount of money offered to those who are able to turn their political power into money. A Middle Eastern minister, whom I believed to be steadfastly honest, allegedly accepted a bribe of over $ 100 million. Another, who was running his ministry like a racket, apologized to his friends, asking them, “Why shouldn’t I do this when everyone in government makes money the same way?” “

Honesty and dishonesty are more a matter of habit than people will admit. The spread of corruption is supercharged if the fortunes to be made are large and the risk of penalties low. But the lesson from Russia, Ukraine, and a host of other states around the world is that once a political class becomes corrupt, there is no way to go back because its members will jump to defend their own, in case they are the next to be detected. and punishment. It may not have happened in the UK yet, but, as we saw this week, it’s not for lack of trying.

CounterPunch.org, November 9. Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).


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