A Very British Disease?
David Whyte, author of a new book How Corrupt is Britain? argues that this very British disease also infects Scottish institutions.
For as long as we can remember, news outlets have been virtually force-feeding us a diet of corruption cases involving key British institutions across the public and private sectors. Supermarkets ripping off suppliers and customers, banks conspiring to fix any lending and exchange rates they can, media companies bribing police for access to everyone from the royal family to ‘c’ list celebrities, tax avoidance schemes run by accountancy firms and banks, the umpteenth Met corruption investigation announced by the IPCC, the Bank of England investigated by the Serious Fraud Office, cash-for-access revelations involving key members of 4 of the major parties contesting the UK election….and on and on and on it goes, like a conveyor belt of endless cases of corruption in some of our most highly esteemed and trusted institutions. And this is just in the last 6 weeks!
Yet the subject of corruption has barely registered as an issue in pre-election debates. Yes, there has been some comment and debate on particular headline cases such as the ongoing HSBC scandal. But as a manifesto issue, the corruption of British public life is barely on the radar of the main political parties. Precious few politicians have dared to make a links across the various forms of corruption that permeates business, the police and the way that politics works in this country.
Quite simply, the problem of corruption in Britain is not something that we can sort out by rooting out particular individuals or even by reforming particular institutions such as the Met or HSBC. Corruption is replicated across the key decision-making institutions in British politics, business and public service. Corruption, as How Corrupt is Britain? shows, is not just an unfortunate or peripheral side-effect of the British system of government, but is a central means by which institutions wield power. How Corrupt is Britain? also shows how the concentration of power in particular institutions (in politics, in particular policing and security agencies and in the City of London) has enabled a wide range of interconnected forms of deceptive and illegal practices to thrive.
Yet it would be naïve to assume that this social phenomena is confined to the institutions that are run from the UK’s capital.
In Scotland, the concentration of power in the police means that scandals similar to the recent stop and search fiasco will be more and more likely. More is spent on policing and there are more police officers in Scotland than ever before. One measure of its expanded influence is that stop and search rates are 4 times the rate in Scotland compared with England. Moreover, as recent events revealed, this is an organisation that doesn’t feel particularly impelled to bother recording and reporting what it does with very much propriety.
The Scottish-based banks that threatened to relocate following the 2014 referendum have been every bit as implicated in corruption over the years as those domiciled in England. RBS is a clearly serial fraudster, having been forced to admit guilt for its orchestration of LIBOR-rate fixing in 2013, and for FOREX exchange rate fixing in 2014. Judging by the size of the fines imposed by US authorities, LloydsTSB were amongst the worst of the UK banks that have caught for persistent and serious money laundering in the US. Even if banks like RBS and Lloyds did not re-locate before or after independence, harbouring organisations that are routinely involved in such a litany of crimes and misdemeanors would be entirely inconsistent with any agenda for economic and social equality.
In Scotland, although it may be on a different scale, politicians are infected with precisely the same fetish for impressing business as they currently are in England. Salmond’s humiliating flirtations with crooks like Trump and Murdoch may look like and media titillation, but they are indications of a rudderless political approach to developing sustainable relationships with business. For all of its nods to workers’ rights and plans for a fairer welfare settlement, the SNP’s flagship policy vis-à-vis business is a 3% tax cut! A tax cut on a rate that is, not incidentally, already one of the lowest in the world. The UK’s leniency to private corporations, and the conditions that breed a culture of impunity for business may possibly be intensified in an SNP-led succession.
Meanwhile, the mechanisms that are supposed to protect us from institutional power fail us time and time again. It was reported recently that, despite almost 150 Scottish police officers being reported to prosecutors for alleged corruption, only six have been convicted. In the 7 years since the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act has been on the books, not one Scottish company has been prosecuted. In the last recorded year (2013/2014), only one company in Scotland was convicted for pollution offences. Prosecutions for high-level financial fraud remain just as rare. In January, business Secretary Vince Cable railed against RBS fraudsters, demanding to know why none had been jailed when there was ample ‘prosecutable’ evidence. Well, he should know. After all, he is the Business Secretary in a government that has taken significant steps to shore up the structure of impunity that enables private corporations to go about their business unhindered by ‘red tape’ or costly legal restrictions.
It is the wholesale failure of our checks and balances – the mechanisms that are supposed to prevent corruption in our institutions – that enables the police, political organisations and the business world to remain virtually untouchable. And this means that any politician that wishes to remove the structure of impunity that still exists for prominent people in British and in Scottish public life has a major job on their hands. Regardless of whether we are ruled from Westminster or anywhere else, our steady but sure slide into an irreversibly unequal society can only be halted by dismantling the structures of impunity that protect Britain’s corrupt institutions.
David Whyte’s new book How Corrupt is Britain? is available here.