Traditionally, Britain has managed to avoid appearing to be a corrupt country, because so much of what any rational onlooker might call graft is actually legal.
The rewarding of party donors with the ear of cooperative ministers, peerages and other honours enables British politicians to be easily and cheaply bought.
This process acts as a short circuit on the democratic process, rendering votes meaningless and leaving the public with a deep and resentful belief that no matter who one votes for, nothing changes.
For five decades, Britain’s newspaper proprietors, now just four oligarchs (Murdoch, Rothermere, Barclay, Lebedev) have exerted a choke hold over British politics, with politicians of both major parties desperate to prove their loyalty and worth.
When in 2015 Labour members voted for Jeremy Corbyn, it was Britain’s now alt-right newspapers that led the coup (along with the right of the Labour Party), to make sure he was deposed and the earth was down with salt. Among other things, Corbyn promised to carry out in full the recommendations of the Leveson Report into press standards and corruption.
During 2020, the Conservative Government and its donors acted with impunity. Contracts worth hundreds of millions of pounds were issued for PPE equipment to businesses that had virtually no capital, had been set up in some cases weeks before the contracts were signed, and the normal processes of competitive tendering were ignored.
The justification for this was that during a crisis, the normal ways of doing things have to be suspended, the unwieldy state needs fleet footed capitalism to help out. The figure of the brilliant business maverick who can see what has to be done and can intervene decisively has been a popular myth in Britain in the past year.
The only problem is that nothing of the sort actually happened. Instead, the British government gave vast sums of money to Conservative Party donors and to friends of ministers who saw a public health catastrophe as a business opportunity. In many cases, substandard and faulty equipment was supplied, whilst poorly paid nurses risked their lives.
This week in Britain, the former environment secretary, Owen Paterson attempted a coup against the parliamentary standards procedures and in doing so has broken the prime directive of British corruption; never make it the story.
British people (perhaps temporarily) are talking about corruption and this is not how the system is meant to work.
Paterson was paid by £122,000 Randox Health to lobby the government for contracts for health and food safety services. This itself is not illegal, though the fact that it isn’t speaks volumes about the quality of British democracy.
The report into his breaches of lobbying rules said:
“No previous case of paid advocacy has seen so many breaches or such a clear pattern of confusion between the private and public interest.”
Paterson faced a 30 day suspension from the House of Commons; a paid holiday is hardly a deterrent against the corruption of British democracy. The fate that he sought to avoid, however, was the recall ballot that would be triggered if MPs voted in favour of his suspension.
Adamant that he would not suffer this indignity, Paterson and his patron Boris
Johnson attempted to tear up the weak parliamentary standards system itself. By Thursday of this week, corruption had become a national news story and had angered the wrong sorts of people; Tory voters.
On the front pages of Tory supporting national newspapers like the Daily Mail were the first angry editorials against the press oligarchs client prime minister ever. When Paterson went on TV on Thursday morning, believing that he had survived the scandal and spoke of his lack of regret, saying he would not have done anything differently, Downing Street decided to throw him to the wolves.
MPs, having previously been given a three line whip to back an amendment that would pause the process of disciplinary action and dismantle the standards system, were now to be allowed a free hand in deciding Paterson’s fate. He resigned before they could.
Corruption only works in Britain if most people think it doesn’t exist. The culture of British exceptionalism tells the British public that corruption happens in far away countries that are backward and uncivilised.
The temporary reaction against corruption is a reaction also to the puncturing of this myth. The government exists in large part to propagate and protect the myths that many British people prefer to hear about their country, its status, its place in the world and ultimately about the society they inhabit. The government will always be rewarded when these myths are repeated and punished if they are interrupted.