By Daniel Margrain
A year ago last week (30 July) the then Prime Minister David Cameron met with Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia to talk about corruption in the wake of allegations that nearly US$700 million ended up in the latter’s personal accounts. This followed on the heels of Cameron’s stated commitment to clamp down on corrupt money in the UK.
But on the same day he was lecturing the Malaysian’s about corruption, British corporations claimed that the Bribery Act effectively made it difficult for them to bribe people as part of their ‘normal’ export business practices. Thus, business leaders subsequently appealed to Cameron to reverse legislation that is ostensibly intended to prevent corruption.
The then business secretary, Sajid Javid, invited companies’ to comment on whether the ‘tough anti-corruption measures’ are a ‘problem’. Letters sent by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills invited industry leaders to comment on whether the act has had an impact on their attempts to export. Does the government invite you to comment, dear reader, about regulations that prevent you from making more money? No, I thought not.
Widespread international criticism of the failure of the UK to reform its ineffective anti-bribery laws – which is regarded as one of the most controversial pieces of legislation passed by the last government – soon followed. The coalition boasted that the Bribery Act was the world’s toughest piece of anti-corruption legislation. But the CBI led fierce criticisms of the bill arguing it would restrict business growth at a time of economic recovery.
The potential impact of the legislation is likely to be felt primarily, but not exclusively by, businesses. Why? Because bribery and corruption is an inherent part of big business deal-making.
On Wednesday’s (August 3) edition of the BBC HARDtalk programme, host Stephen Sackur interviewed Nigeria’s Minister for Power, Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola. During the interview Sackur repeatedly alluded that the Nigerian government was systematically corrupt. At one point Sackur related an ‘off mic’ incident in which Cameron was said to have berated Nigeria, describing the country as one of the two most corrupt countries in the world.
Apparently it hadn’t occurred to Sackur and Cameron that big business in the UK lobbied against the Bribery Act which was intended to undermine corruption, the implication being that corporations would rather be scraping around in the sewer if there was some money to be made among the filth. For the likes of Sackur and Cameron, corrupt practices are something restricted to what African’s and Asian’s engage in. By contrast, the British establishment thinks of itself as occupying the moral high ground.
Three years ago, Cameron visited one of the most corrupt and authoritarian countries on the planet, Kazakhstan. The leader of that country showered him with gratitude and praise. Kazakhstan’s former police chief is linked to the ownership of £147m-worth of London properties which forms part of the UKs status as a safe haven for corrupt capital. Then there was the Straw and Rifkind affair, the ongoing MPs expenses scandal and the long-running PFI saga that’s crippling the NHS.
Simon Jenkins summarized the malaise and hypocrisy at the heart of the British establishment
“The truth is that hypocrisy is the occupational disease of British leaders. They lecture Africans and Asians on the venality of their politics, while blatantly selling seats in their own parliament for cash. I hope some insulted autocrat one day asks a British leader how much his party has garnered from auctioning honours. The government suppresses any inquiry into corrupt arms contracts to the Middle East. And when does lobbying stop and corruption start? The Cameron government is the most susceptible to lobbying of any in history.”
Given these corrupt practices, the fact that the UK is widely perceived to be the world’s 14th least corrupt country in the world would perhaps come as a surprise to many. The gap between perception and reality is clearly indicative of the distorted way in which the media under report the subtle forms of ‘hidden’ systematic corruption that is embedded in the very fabric of the British state, camouflaged by legislation and cushioned by ‘gentlemen’s agreements’.
In bringing together a wide range of leading commentators and campaigners, David Whyte shows that it is no longer tenable to assume that corruption is something that happens elsewhere; corrupt practices are revealed across a wide range of venerated institutions, from local government to big business.
As Penny Green of Queen Mary University of London, contends, “the network of egregious state and corporate corruption in Britain rivals any in the developing world”. By observing our ‘impartial’ corporate-controlled mainstream media, it’s unlikely one would have arrived at the conclusion that one of the most advanced capitalist countries on the planet is also inherently corrupt.