John Humphrys: Is Britain Corrupt?

November 12, 2021, 7:17 PM GMT+0

According to Boris Johnson the answer to this question is perfectly clear: ‘the United Kingdom is not remotely a corrupt country’ he asserted on Wednesday. Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? He’s the prime minister. But what’s surprising is not that this is his view. It’s that he should have felt the need to express it at all. That’s because no one had actually asked him the question in the first place. That said, it’s the question that has been dominating the political debate for the past couple of weeks. ‘Sleaze” is back on the agenda big time. And many people believe that if Britain is heading in that direction, he himself may be the cause. So is Britain corrupt? And is Boris Johnson leading us down the slide into Britain becoming a corrupt country?

To many of us older hands the Prime Minister’s remark is reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s famous statement at the height of the Watergate scandal in the mid-1970s. I was there when he made it in, of all places, Disney World in Florida. He said, virtually out of the blue: ‘People have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook’. What was revealing about the remark was not the denial – he was hardly likely to say the opposite after all - but the fact that he felt the need to say it in the first place. The effect was, predictably, the opposite of what he had intended. From then on pretty much anyone who had previously been in two minds about whether Nixon was or wasn’t a crook now concluded that must definitely be one. You could call the remark a sort of political Freudian slip: the opposite of the intended meaning was the one that stuck.

Boris Johnson did not, of course, say: ‘People have got to know whether or not their prime minister is corrupt. Well, I’m not corrupt’. He was speaking about Britain, not himself. But some people, nonetheless, will surely respond to the surprise of his saying this by thinking ‘the Prime Minister doth protest too much … what’s going on here?’

From a purely objective point of view Mr Johnson’s claim that Britain is not ‘remotely’ a corrupt country can easily be confirmed. There are indices that measure these things. The most recent Corruption Perception Index, which was compiled last year, placed Denmark and New Zealand as, jointly, the least corrupt countries in the world, with Somalia and South Sudan joint worst (179th). Britain comes joint 11th, a pretty respectable position to be in.

And we don’t have to compare Britain to the most unhappy basket cases of the developing world to console ourselves with our lack of relative corruption. Close neighbours do much worse. France, for example, came 23rd. Within living memory two French presidents and one prime minister have been convicted of offences that come under the broad heading of corruption. Jacques Chirac, president from 1995 to 2007, was convicted in 2011 of embezzlement and diverting public funds and given a two-year suspended sentence. His successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, was sentenced earlier this year to three years imprisonment on charges of corruption. He’s appealing but is also facing a second, unrelated trial of a similar nature. His prime minister, Francois Fillon, was given five years for the misuse of public funds, embezzlement, aggravated fraud, forgery, falsification of documents and paying members of his family salaries from public funds without requiring them to do much work to earn them. Leading British politicians aren’t even playing in the same league.

So Mr Johnson is, by these standards, perfectly entitled to claim Britain is not ‘remotely’ corrupt. The obvious question that arises is why. To which the classic answer is that Britain, over centuries of stable government, has built up a system of independent scrutiny of the powerful which has successfully kept in check their all-too-human tendencies to use public office for private gain. We have the rule of law and an independent judiciary; we have specific regulatory bodies that lay down and police rules about how public figures should and shouldn’t behave; and we have the fourth estate, in which journalists are free to keep our masters under constant scrutiny.

But how robust is this system of keeping public life in Britain on the straight and narrow in the face of the natural appetites of some participants in that public life to feather their own nests? According to Lord Evans, the chairman of the Committee of Standards in Public Life, it is robust only to the extent that we are constantly vigilant. There is always a danger, he said this week, that ‘we could slip into being a corrupt country’.

That danger is what the public and the media seem to have become aware of in recent weeks and months with the return of the word ‘sleaze’ to the headlines. It may not, in a strictly legal sense, constitute corruption of the sort that could produce convictions in a court of law, but many have left a bad taste in the mouth – from chums of government ministers doing very well thank-you out of contracts hurriedly signed at the beginning of the pandemic to MPs making far more money from work on the side than from getting on with their day job. Vigilance, Lord Evans tells us, is what is needed to stop a nasty whiff turning into an intolerable stench.

But where should that vigilance come from? Most people would probably think that exercising such vigilance is one of the central roles of political leadership. Surely it’s the responsibility of our leaders to preserve our reputation for not being ‘remotely’ corrupt. When John Major, as prime minister, found himself presiding over a bout of sleaze, much of it indulged by his own supporters, he took the lead and set up the independent Committee of Standards in Public Life. For the thirty years since it has been recommending to Parliament ways to keep the tendency towards corruption in public life in check. You could call it the Committee of Vigilance.

The reason, it could be said, why Boris Johnson felt the need to come out with his bald statement about Britain not being corrupt is that he knows few people think he shows the same zeal as Sir John in being Chief Vigilante. In fact, far from basking in that same reputation for rectitude, he’s regarded by many as someone who couldn’t care less.

That view seemed to be confirmed beyond doubt by the shenanigans over the fate of his friend and colleague, Owen Paterson, in the Commons last week. Instead of upholding the system of vigilance which had convicted Mr Paterson of flouting the rules on how MPs should behave, the Prime Minister sought to tear up the rules to save his friend. When he saw he couldn’t get away with it he performed an ungainly U-turn that outraged his own backbenchers who had been dragooned into supporting a measure most of them thought highly improper. That’s what led to the warning from the highly respected Lord Evans. He called the cack-handed attempt to ditch the safeguards ‘a seriously retrograde step’.

And it’s not as if this were an isolated case of the Prime Minister being ready to tear up the rules that protect this country from the slide into corruption in order to protect his chums. He defied his adviser on ministerial standards who ruled that the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, had broken the ministerial code in her treatment of senior civil servants. He told his colleagues to rally round her and it was the adviser, not the Home Secretary, who duly resigned.

Similarly, over the Paterson affair, he allowed his Business Secretary to go on television and call for the scalp of Kathryn Stone, the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, and another part of the apparatus of vigilance. He himself has been the subject of her scrutiny and may well be again. It is not surprising that Sir John Major has used the word ‘corrupt’ .

To some people, Mr Johnson’s behaviour – which also includes an apparent willingness to tear up international treaties he himself has only recently signed – should come as no surprise. His whole career, indeed his whole life, they say, has been characterised by the most cavalier attitude to the truth, to generally accepted standards of behaviour, and to the consequences of what he does. In becoming prime minister, they say, he may nominally have changed jobs from poacher to gamekeeper but he continues to conduct himself as if he were still the poacher because that’s what he is by his very nature. And so far it’s served him very well.

Seen in this light, it is not surprising that Mr Johnson should have become a tribute band for Richard Nixon or that the Chairman of the Committee of Standards in Public Life should have warned us to keep our wits about us if we want Britain not to become a corrupt country.

It has been said of Mr Johnson that he is a clever chancer who knows perfectly well how close to the wind he sails, but who has so far managed to extricate himself from his self-generated scrapes. He probably thinks he’s got a good few nifty escapes left ahead of him but is also realistic enough to know that sooner or later he’ll take one risk too many.

So how robust are our systems of vigilance in the face of a prime minister who appears to have little enthusiasm for maintaining our standards? The answer probably lies less in a lofty faith in the principles behind those systems coming to our rescue and in the role cynical calculation plays in politics. Mr Johnson remains prime minister solely through the acquiescence of his backbenchers in keeping him as their leader. The evidence seems to be that that acquiescence is purely transactional. That’s to say, they’ll keep him only so long as he is of use to them in keeping their seats at the next election.

But that is the sole bond between them. There is not, as there was with Margaret Thatcher, an additional ideological bond that helped to keep her in power because her backbenchers believed in what she was doing. Reports suggest most Tory backbenchers think Mr Johnson doesn’t even know himself what he’s doing never mind leading them on an ideological crusade in which they too can believe.

So if this reading of the Prime Minister is correct (and there will be those who think it isn’t), any risk of Britain sliding down the Corruption Index can be averted only when Tory backbenchers have had enough of him. Is that form of vigilance sufficiently robust?

It might well be. Tory backbenchers are reported to be seething with anger at their leader at the moment because they have been on the receiving end of some pretty hostile comments from their constituents. In other words, voters have been prepared to ‘enjoy’ the unorthodox premiership of Boris Johnson up to now but may well be changing their minds about him as talk of corruption has started to inform the political conversation. Perhaps the voters are, in the end, the most effective vigilantes.

What’s your view? Do you agree with Boris Johnson that Britain is not remotely a corrupt country? Or do you agree with Lord Evans that there is a constant danger that Britain could ‘slip’ into being a corrupt country? And do you think the Prime Minister is our best defence against that danger being realised? Or do you believe the opposite?

Let us know what you think.

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