How corrupt is Britain?

Dr David Whyte
Tuesday, 30 April 2013

What is it we mean when we talk about 'corruption'? The World Bank's definition of corruption, probably the most widely used is simply 'the abuse of public office for private gain'. This is the definition used by the major anti-corruption NGO Transparency International. But the historical experience of Britain shows that this definition is far too narrow to allow us to understand the problem in all of its dubious glory. It is a definition that has its origins in thinking about the problem of corruption as something which affects developing or economically 'backward' societies that fail to respect the liberal division between 'public' and 'private' domains. But there is a growing awareness in academic research, media reporting and public discussion that the problem of corruption actually has its origins closer to home. As anthropologists Dieter Haller and Cris Shore noted a decade ago, after the collapse of Enron and Worldcom: "Europeans and Americans cannot assume that grand corruption is something that belongs primarily to the non-Western 'Other' or to public-sector officials in defective state bureaucracies [but] can also be found in the very heart of the regulated world capitalist system."

There is now a daily diet of corruption scandals hitting the headlines in Britain, a country that previously claimed a proud, if naive and largely mythical tradition of fair play, of open politics and clean business. There always been more than a vague whiff of racism in the claim that we're not a corrupt democracy, unlike many of our European - especially Mediterranean - counterparts. If we have corruption in British public life, we have always been told, it is only at the margins of our public and private institutions. Thanks to the daily reporting of major newspapers getting involved in phone taping and pay offs to police officers, the seemingly endless examples of the falsification of police statements in some of our highest profile cases such as Stephen Lawrence and Hillsborough, LIBOR rate-fixing, personal protection insurance mis-selling, horsemeat in our burgers, arms companies bribing foreign governments, drug companies illegally paying other drug companies to keep accessible medicines off the market, politicians being paid to ask questions and fixing expenses claims and so on and on and on, this whopping great myth is not longer plausible.

There is now more than enough evidence in the public domain to show that corruption is endemic in our political institutions, our businesses and our police and security forces. We live in a world in which the boundaries between public and private power are increasingly blurred. Corruption appears to be spread through British public life using increasingly complex systems of capillary connections which show no respect for the boundaries between public and private domains. The narrow terms of accepted definitions of corruption simply don't capture what is going on.

It is for this reason that the University of Liverpool and the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies is organising the conference 'How corrupt is Britain?' The conference will challenge the long-outdated assumption that firstly, corruption is a problem that is most serious in far-away places, in governments that do not have our traditions. And secondly, that corruption is something that we can understand merely as a problem that stems from the actions of a minority of public officials who are 'on the make', rather than something that cuts across a growing plethora of powerful institutions, whether they are nominally 'public' or 'private'.

The conference will have speakers and activists who are determined to challenge the abuse of power in politics, in the police and in the corporate sector. Rarely, if ever, do we talk about those things in the same place; even the best investigative journalism fails to make direct links across those different spheres of public life in Britain, or fails to question why all of this is beginning to rise to the top in all of our most trusted and venerated institutions. 'How corrupt is Britain?' will begin to join the dots across the public and private domains, and will begin a dialogue between campaigns for police accountability, tax justice, executive pay, political and corporate accountability, and the transformation of the financial sector. We invite you to join this dialogue.