The Canary is Dead: Britain is Corrupt

Examining the corpse of the News of the World is all very well...

When the Murdoch hacking-dead-people’s-phones scandal hit I had just finished writing something about the corruption of the British government. I had not written much about the role of the media in the corruption of our political system and that now seems rather remiss. However I am not going to fundamentally change anything I wrote, because what the hacking scandal has revealed about how British politics works simply confirms what I had already said. John Harris in the Guardian in particular nails some of the more unsavoury social aspects of the corruption we face.

As for what the whole scandal/investigation means for British politics right now: not much I fear. It is still being treated as an isolated incident, as another of those unfortunate aberrations from the way politics is normally done. If the public debate continues to regard it in this way then it can all be swept up and swept under the carpet.

There is another way to see it: the entanglement between the Murdoch empire and the political establishment, which created a culture of impunity for people with power, is the normal way of doing politics in Britain. The Murdochs are not the source of all evil in our democracy, and nor were the staff of the News of the World. They are simply the canary in the coalmine. Now the canary is dead and we must decide what to do about it. Which brings me to my intended starting point for this piece of writing before the current scandal broke:

Our government is corrupt. I feel confident about making this statement, as confident as I would saying it of Mubarak’s Egypt, or of the government of Equatorial Guinea, or the one-man-state machine of Berlusconi.

It’s true that, at least in the highest UK political circles, there’s very little need for passing round wads of cash in brown envelopes, and this seems to be why we don’t think of Britain as thoroughly corrupt. But the corruption that has replaced it isn’t really much more sophisticated. It doesn’t appear when examining individual parts of our political and economic system, but to anyone keeping an eye on the political system as a whole, the corruption becomes very clear. The failure to expand our definition of corruption to encompass what is happening in Britain suggests some uncomplementary things about the media who are meant to keep the politicians in check, but eloquent critiques of the current mediascape are out there already. The result of the failure of the media is that it is rare to hear people talking about how our political system really works, as opposed to how it is meant to work.

What do we see when looking at the system as a whole? We see that certain interest groups – banks might be a good example, private healthcare another – have become very good at getting their own way, against the interests of British citizens. Some of their methods are very obvious. John Major and Tony Blair both work in the financial sector. David Cameron will certainly work for banks when he leaves power. The former Prime Ministers are paid millions of pounds by the institutions that lobbied them while in power. The financial sector lobbied to be deregulated, and the politicians did what they asked, and we got our financial crisis. It was their crisis of course, not ours, but by that time they had their claws so deep in the politicians that there was no question about who was going to pay for it. I should point out that it is perfectly possible that Major, Blair and Brown all believed that deregulating the banks was the best way to create wealth, but it is easier to believe fairy tales if you know you’re going to be paid for believing them, and if, like Blair, your life’s ambition is to hang around with all the important and wealthy people who believe them too.

The financial crisis, the subsequent recession, and the current public spending cuts are a result of the corruption of our political system. This is something we need to say loud and clear. The corruption didn’t come just in the form of payments to Prime Ministers and Chancellors after they left power. It also came in the form of a revolving door between government and the industries they are regulating. That government might want to recruit top industry talent is not remarkable. That these ‘top talents’ are allowed to offer fat-salaried jobs and influential positions to their old colleagues might raise a few suspicions. What is remarkable is that, having regulated the industries just so (i.e. not at all really), they are allowed to go back and work in the industries they helped provide the framework for in government. In other words, you can go and deregulate your own industry as part of a very smart career move that will make you popular with all the right people. That we do not regard this as corruption is astonishing.

The third leg of the corruption that has developed over the last few decades is a very sophisticated lobbying apparatus that is not just about simply buying politicians nice dinners or having a cosy chat with your old school chums. We have ‘campaign groups’ and ‘think tanks’ all over the place, often presented as impartial, actually pushing highly political agendas for their funders.

The Taxpayers Alliance was set up by members of the Conservative party, in order to push the Conservative Party and politics more generally toward a tax-free society for the wealthy. It uses the national media to do this and probably contributed to the increased acceptance of the Conservative Party at the last election. They were repeatedly cited on the BBC as some kind of impartial source or democratic citizen action group. So irritated were some people with the notion that the Taxpayer’s Alliance represented taxpayers that several competing groups, such as The Other Taxpayers Alliance, were set up. They got far less attention because they didn’t have wealthy and strategically-minded Conservatives behind them.

2020Health, a self-declared ‘grass-roots’ think tank, was targetted by NHS Direct Action the other week. In response the think tank did a very good job of pretending to be the affronted innocent citizens who simply wanted to improve our healthcare. Yet when you look at their staff histories and their output, you can’t help seeing the ‘think tank’ as a lobbying front group for the private healthcare industry. It is chaired by Tom Sackville, CEO of the International Federation of Health Plans, a group that represents 100 private healthcare companies in 31 countries. If this is grassroots, it is a ‘grassroots’ global corporate movement, not a grassroots UK citizens movement.

The way individuals move between private sector, campaigning groups, public sector, politics and think tanks reveals a deeply dishonest political class that presents an image of a thriving democracy in which many different sectors all have influence on government, and yet these are all the same people, all with the similar outlooks, all doing very well thank you from the policies they push, and helping their friends to do well too. It is a false-front democracy, and one of the pillars of the new corruption.

None of this is entirely new of course – self-serving and dishonest elites have always been a part of the political landscape – what is new is the degree to which it is happening, and the lack of any entrants to the political system who are not already part of the game. What emerges when we look at all these forms of corruption is that rather than competing elites, which is the best approximation to democracy that representative democracy has managed to produce, we are currently ruled by what you might call a conglomerate elite that presents itself as one thing one day, something else the next, but who always move together towards one goal: greater wealth for themselves and people like them, often at our expense.

This is corruption. Our parliamentary ‘democracy’ is thoroughly corrupt, throughout all major parties, systemically, in a deeply embedded form, in ways that go directly against the interests of most British people. Almost no one voted for the privatisation of the NHS – only a minority voted for the Tories, and even they didn’t dare put ‘privatise the NHS’ in their manifesto. The NHS has been shown to be a highly efficient healthcare system in several comparative studies of developed country healthcare systems. It compares very favourably in outcomes with the rest of Europe, even though we spend less money than many of the wealthy economies. The politicians of all major parties are privatising the NHS anyway. Because they want to. Because they can, because no one will call the corruption what it is and fight it.

It isn’t bundles of cash passed under the desk. It’s far more dishonest than that. So what do we call it? Systemic corruption? Faux-democracy? Bogus political diversity? Total institutional corruption? Perhaps we could opt for ‘Lord Browne-ism’, after the former chair of BP, once a non-executive Director of SmithKline Beecham. He became a friend of Tony Blair, got appointed to the House of Lords, chaired an ‘independent’ review of education at the request of Peter Mandelson, then adopted by the Conservatives, that resulted in the new tuition fees. Lord Browne now works for the Coalition government as ‘lead Non-Executive Director’ on the Cabinet Office board, ‘improving governance’ in Whitehall by recruiting business leaders to serve on government departmental boards. His appointees include Andrew Witty, CEO of GlaxoSmithKline and Ian Davis, once on the board of BP. For his day job Lord Browne is Managing Director of Riverstone Holdings, a private equity firm specialising in the energy and power sectors. Riverstone Holdings works in partnership with the Carlyle Group, whose European Chair is John Major.

As I have already said, this way of doing business is not entirely new. While we see a particular incarnation of corruption right now, the ability of the political elite to organise amongst themselves, against the interests of the populations they supposedly represent, is a built in feature of representative democracy. So this is not malfunctioning democracy we are talking about here, it is the way democracy has always worked. It’s difficult not to suspect that the politicians who made the original concessions towards ‘democracy’ did so precisely because they knew they could still keep a grip on power, they knew the ‘democratic’ institutions were far enough away from us all that we couldn’t keep an eye on what was going on . We’re supposed to depend on the media to do that of course. So we’ve got two instutions that don’t do what they claim to do. The important thing to realise is: they never have.

Whatever we prefer to call the current incarnation of corruption – systemic corruption, false-front democracy or Highly Organised Crime – we need to call it something fast, because if we’re going to fight it, we’re going to need a name for it. If we don’t fight it, the next financial crisis is just a matter of time and the NHS will soon exist only in name. Thankfully, once the mechanisms are publicised and widely understood, it won’t need any original names or any qualifiers and we will be able to name it simply and for what it is: mere corruption.

Understanding the corruption also leads to the conclusion that, while it takes different forms in different eras, our system of representative democracy has always been this way, to a greater or lesser degree. There were moments of triumph for people-power but they were the exception not the rule. Corruption is the rule. Britain has always been corrupt and it is our lauded system of representative democracy that makes it so. We can clean up some of the newer and more extreme dishonesty behind the democratic masquerade – and that is very much worth doing I think – but that will only give us a temporary lull before the next corruption/economic crisis hits.

Seeing the once-all-powerful Murdochs squirm has been a genuine pleasure, a moment of minor accountability in the usually vacuous Punch And Judy Show of parliament. But let’s not celebrate too much: the canary is dead, and we are still in the coalmine.

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One Response to The Canary is Dead: Britain is Corrupt

  1. tim says:

    Although I use the word myself, I have heard it argued that calling this way of working corrupt is really not particularly helpful. Corruption implies that there is some fundamentally “better” system (or morality, or something) that is being corrupted by some actors behaving unethically.

    Rather, what you are describing is how the institutions actually work and have been designed to work. For example: a critical focus of government spending activity and legislation/regulation is the “economy” – the benefits of which accrue disproportionately to the already wealthy. Significant government resources are spent on getting business deals around the world, the British Empire was largely propagated through “entrepreneurial” business activity (East India Company or Virginia Company of London among many examples).

    What exactly is being corrupted?

    As an aside: I believe that what we are seeing when the Murdochs are being interviewed is simply the result of a slight shift in power. My feeling is that they simply pissed off one too many members of the criminal establishment (by which I mean the government, royal family, powerful business leaders/owners, etc). It is not accountability to the public in any sense, the public have had no say in the matter; some very rich and already powerful people (e.g. Max Moseley, various ex- and current politicians, some parts of the legal establishment) who they pushed a bit too far by publishing embarrassing personal news stories (why judges have been making privacy laws), (and probably they have also pissed people off by taking such an extreme political position through operations like fox news, most of the world’s elite are not the far right of the US republican party), and are too rich to be able to simply pay-off have eventually (and slowly over the past few years) been undermining the Murdochs influence and banding together to prevent (or reduce the ability of) the Murdochs from continuing to be able to publish such stories. Hacking the phone of the average person is fine, but you can’t just hack into the phones of these kinds of powerful people and expect there to be no consequences.

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