Corruption is a word used nervously in the UK. We’re quite happy applying it to other countries; but in Britain even critics of the status quo can be surprisingly reluctant to describe as corrupt our society’s tight, often concealed circulation of power and rewards.
Partly, this is because corruption is a slippery concept. “There has never been a single, fixed, universal definition,” wrote Mark Knights of Warwick University in 2016. “Notions about what is unfair, unjust or immoral change over time.”
As a small, centralised country with a huge capital city, Britain has for centuries been run by elites with overlapping memberships and interests, and offered a wide range of services to foreigners with dubious fortunes. It has also offered a wide range of services to foreigners with dubious fortunes. To attack this system as corrupt is to risk being called unworldly – and experience feelings of deep frustration and futility. From the House of Lords to the City of London, the capital is lined with ancient institutions that anti-corruption campaigners have failed to cleanse.
Yet there are periods when the charge of corruption suddenly acquires potency. Having struggled for two years to find an effective way of criticising Boris Johnson’s government, Labour seems finally to have discovered one. “Corruption,” said the party’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, on Monday, “is rife right through this Conservative government.” Keir Starmer, often too measured, has become just as blunt about the issue.
Johnson’s response – “I genuinely believe that the UK is not remotely a corrupt country” – has been floridly unconvincing even by his standards. Most voters disagree with him. According to YouGov, 80% think there is “a lot” or “a fair amount” of corruption in British politics, and only 1% think there is none . Since the corruption controversy took off, the Tories have dropped in the polls.
The word corruption sometimes suggests something past its peak and beginning to decay. And despite their efforts to pretend otherwise, the Conservatives have been in office for a long time. But more often corruption suggests something spreading, swelling, mutating, becoming monstrous. The constant acquisition of power and resources by Johnson’s Tories and their corporate allies has those qualities: from the appointment of cronies to public office to the funnelling of state funds to Tory constituencies to the awarding of government contracts to friends, relations and supporters – a practice for which the Omicron variant may open up more opportunities.
Previous governments have done sleazy things, but few have done them so systematically and blatantly. WhenTony Blair was prime minister, the anti-corruption group Transparency International gave the UK scores in the 80s (out of 100) in its annual index: good, but not outstanding by the group’s standards. Under Johnson, the UK scores in the 70s.
Appropriately for an administration that shows contempt for parliamentary democracy, the British ruling culture that Johnson’s increasingly resembles is a pre-democratic one: the once-infamous Old Corruption of the 18th and 19th centuries. Government jobs were routinely sold and public money was distributed to people with political leverage. As the state grew, expanded by wars rather than a pandemic, new functions were carried out by private companies whose ability to win contracts and extract profits far exceeded their operational effectiveness. The prime minister sat contentedly at the centre of this system. A satirical cartoon from 1740 shows Robert Walpole – an Old Etonian like Johnson, who governed for more than 20 years – as a giant figure “stretched over ye Doors of all ye Publick Offices”, waiting for supplicants to kiss his exposed buttocks.
Johnson is like an 18th-century politician, with his shamelessness, elaborate but untrustworthy rhetoric, and enrichment of favourites. And, like his style of government, at first Old Corruption seemed immune to criticism. It took a century of campaigning by radicals such as the journalist and MP William Cobbett for the system to start being dismantled.
We live in faster times now. Johnson’s ascendancy has lasted little more than a 10th as long as Walpole’s, and already there are signs it could be ending. The exposure of corruption may be particularly damaging for this government because Johnson has so emphatically promised to spread resources and opportunities more widely – not to hand them to an even narrower circle. Setting up “VIP lanes” for companies with Conservative links is hardly levelling up.
Such inside-dealing is part of a bigger Tory project that predates the Johnson government. During George Osborne’s period as chancellor, his “grand strategy”, according to his biographer Janan Ganesh, was “the calculated use of [government] policy” to change Britain in his party’s favour. Austerity was intended to shrink one of Labour’s main bases of support: public sector employees. Under Johnson, patronage of certain firms is intended to create an even more Tory-friendly private sector.
The coherence and cleverness of all this should not be overstated. The Tory governments since 2010 have often been haphazard, with last-minute policies and limited capacity for longterm thinking, as the frustrated departures of more ambitious strategists such as Dominic Cummings and Steve Hilton have indicated.
Yet one of the lessons of the past 11 years is that even mediocre Tory governments can be transformative. They act as conduits for powerful forces, such as corporations wanting to run state services. The Johnson government’s corruption stems as much from modern Conservatism’s emptiness as its over-confidence.
Labour’s response to all this works as a political message. With the rectitude of a former prosecutor, Starmer promises “a truly independent anti-corruption and anti-cronyism commission”. A Starmer government would almost certainly be much less sleazy.
But after a reshuffle that left the shadow cabinet with few fundamental critics of our economy’s incestuous workings – and one of them, Ed Miliband, effectively demoted – any Labour anti-corruption drive feels likely to be limited. The Johnson government may end in disgrace, but Britain’s insiders will keep prospering.
Andy Beckett is a Guardian columnist