How widely should we define corruption?

Professor David Beetham
Monday, 13 May 2013

This intervention has been prompted by David Whyte's introductory paper to the recent Liverpool conference 'How corrupt is Britain?' He argues that we should not confine our conception of corruption to the narrow World Bank and Transparency International definition – 'the abuse of office for private gain' – since this does not capture a whole series of abuses that have grabbed public attention over recent years in the UK.

I entirely agree with his broad argument, but have some hesitation in expanding the term 'corruption' beyond the precise definition given above.

There is the danger typical of any conceptual inflation that it comes to cover any and every abuse or misdemeanour, and so loses its specificity. Instead I have tried to capture the concerns that have united the different themes of the recent conference in a succinct formulation.

This is 'the distortion and subversion of the public realm in the service of private interests'.

Such a conception would include:

  • The use of tax havens and other mechanisms to deprive the public purse of due revenue
  • The privatisation and marketization of public services which don't benefit employees or service users
  • The capture of regulators and public officials by the corporate sector and its consultants
  • Cover-ups of wrong doing by officials to protect their personal reputations and position
  • Distortions of public policy at all levels which militate against the wider public interest.

The typical means whereby this distortion and subversion is effected include the payment of money, exchange of favours, personal connections, revolving doors and insider dealing, all of which are available to the wealthy, the powerful and the well-connected. I documented these different mechanisms in some detail in a recent paper Unelected Oligarchy: Corporate and Financial Dominance in Britain's Democracy, available on the Democratic Audit website.

However, I don't have a single word which encapsulates the formulation I have given above, and I'd welcome suggestions. It may be that we are driven back on the term 'corruption', but then we'd have to distinguish between a broader and a narrower meaning. What is clear is that it is the systematic broader distortion that encourages the narrower form of corruption, which is in turn symptomatic of the larger problem.

This blog is based on David Beetham's introduction at the opening plenary of the How Corrupt is Britain? conference that took place at the University of Liverpool and was co-sponsored by the University of Liverpool School and the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.