A saga that stinks from start to finish
Published by The i paper (29th June, 2020)
Britain likes to delude itself that it is better than the rest of the world, that the 67 million citizens of this cluster of islands are somehow a little bit elevated from the billions living elsewhere on our planet. This strain of self-defeating exceptionalism is especially noticeable when it comes to the issue of corruption. Our leaders preach about the sanctity of democracy, sneer at dodgy elites in developing nations, hold summits to promote transparency and pose as protectors of probity in politics. They are right to rail against the curse of corruption since it is “one of the greatest enemies of progress,” as David Cameron once said.
Certainly we are fortunate in this country that we do not have to grease palms every time we deal with officials; in some nations, this has been shown to account for about one-third of salaries. Yet what a shame that successive prime ministers failed to practise what they preach, instead presiding over a business and political culture riddled with corruption. Britain has passed tough anti-bribery legislation and measures to combat money laundering.
Yet it does little to clamp down on tax havens under jurisdiction of our flag that enable wealthy people and major firms to avoid contributing to the public purse. Governments even hand huge contracts to the shameless corporations that encourage and benefit from such disgraceful practices. Note also how often thieving autocrats and their allies stash stolen assets with the help of our accountants, bankers, estate agents and lawyers.
At the root of this problem lies a political system that sanctions corruption. Not the overt plundering seen in some places with politicians taking vast backhanders for deals and contracts – although the expenses scandal showed Westminster was engaged in lesser but similarly grasping practices. Instead it is the constant drip-drip of petty corruption. It is the world of private dinners, party donations, lobbyists, favours and questionable relationships.
This has just been exposed again by the scandal of the housing minister, the planning deal and the former pornographer. Robert Jenrick is the housing minister. He is far from the most useless member of our inept Government. But he is typical of the current crop of Cabinet ministers, an insipid character nicknamed “Generic” who rose without trace and does what he is told by Dominic Cummings.
He was previously in the headlines for breaching the demand for people to “stay at home whenever possible” during pandemic lockdown.Last November Jenrick sat at a Tory fundraising dinner next to Richard Desmond, former owner of Express newspapers who was being challenged by Tower Hamlets council over a £1bn housing redevelopment at Westferry Printworks in London. Jenrick had called in the scheme for his approval.
Desmond may or may not have showed him a promotional video on his phone at the event. Two days later, he texted to say: “We don’t want to give Marxists loads of doe for nothing!” The following month, he sent another text urging consent before January 15 to avoid paying £45m in a new community-benefit levy. Jenrick gave permission on 14 January, overruling officials in his own department and councillors hoping to spend their windfall on education and health in one of the country’s poorest boroughs.
Two weeks later Desmond handed £12,000 to the Conservative Party, small change from the huge sum he was saving. The decision was challenged by Tower Hamlets, then the minister agreed to a court quashing his move after admitting it looked “unlawful by reason of apparent bias”. Meanwhile, pictures have emerged of Boris Johnson with his arm around his grinning donor.The saga stinks from start to finish. It reveals the hypocrisy of a government that claims to be on the side of ordinary people while doing the bidding of billionaires.
Yet there is nothing surprising about the scandal (except perhaps the rather small size of Desmond’s donation). It shows again the sleazy nexus of money and power that lurks behind the doors of Westminster and Whitehall, one in which rich people can buy access, favours, knighthoods and even seats in the upper house of our parliament – plus a planning system that is woefully open to abuse. Every party knows the problem and has been stained by similar scandals.
Yet nothing gets done, even as Britain slides in the global ranking for transparency. The disagreeable whiff is not helped by a prime minister whose party took substantial sums from Russian donors failing to release a report into Moscow’s penetration of our political system. This highlights once more how the corruption bedevilling Britain is not just about money. It is about access, accountability and influence in the shadows of Westminster. These scandals flare up repeatedly. Sometimes they lead to resignation, but never to real reform.
Yet corruption, whether personal or systemic, is a cancer that eats away at the body politic. It destroys public faith. It fosters a system of patronage that benefits the elite and disempowers those lacking cash or the right connections. It fuels state capture and rent-seeking by powerful corporate interests while disadvantaging challengers. It is wrong on moral, economic, political and social grounds. So when will Britain finally accept that even our nation is not immune to this particular disease and demand the disinfection of a tainted political system?