In the current series of BBC crime drama Line of Duty, a policeman at war with corruption is unhappy with how things are going at the top of government. “God give me strength . . . a bare-faced liar, promoted to our highest office! When did we stop caring about honesty and integrity?” Ted Hastings asks his commanding officer. Line of Duty has handled current affairs without shoehorning in hackneyed Brexit or Donald Trump allegories. But Hastings’s rant clearly had Boris Johnson in its sights.
Something is very wrong with standards in British public life, with an almost constant stream of contracts-for-friends stories from government. By this point, official procurement rules seem to exist mainly to add layers of expensive bureaucracy to the cronyism that’s going on anyway.
The latest such story came with revelations that former prime minister David Cameron successfully lobbied the current Tory government for expensive favors to his new finance bosses, when rules were relaxed due to the coronavirus outbreak. But this time, the scandal has been pursued more energetically than usual by journalists — because it just keeps getting worse.
The State, Class, and Greensill Capital
In March, finance firm Greensill Capital filed for insolvency, in turn threatening thousands of jobs in the beleaguered UK steel industry. Its founder, Lex Greensill, is an old banking colleague of former civil service chief Jeremy Heywood, and was first made a government adviser in 2011, early in David Cameron’s spell as prime minister. Greensill quickly moved to the heart of Cameron’s new health supply chain finance scheme, which was backed by his former employer Citigroup. Greensill was also placed in a network aimed at ensuring government is getting the “best value for taxpayers,” lauded by government chief procurement officer Bill Crothers. Crothers, while still a civil servant, became an adviser to Greensill Capital’s board.
Greensill Capital completely took over the National Health Service’s pharmacy supply chain finance scheme shortly before Cameron joined the firm as an adviser in 2018. Cameron met with his former Conservative cabinet colleagues on Greensill Capital’s behalf, traveled to Saudi Arabia with Greensill shortly before the pandemic hit, and lobbied German officials overseas when Greensill Capital came under fire in Berlin. In April, Cameron began lobbying Chancellor Rishi Sunak and other government figures, pushing for Greensill Capital to be involved in government-backed coronavirus crisis loans. He also asked for access to NHS staff data to facilitate selling the NHS a payday loan app for desperate and underpaid health workers. The soon-to-collapse Greensill Capital was quickly made a lender for the government’s Coronavirus Large Business Interruption Loan Scheme. Cameron failed to declare himself in the register of lobbyists his own government had created; claiming his twenty-five-day-a-year contract makes him an “employee,” as if he was hired for skills unrelated to his political career.
The case is particularly egregious. But it is also just one detail in a tapestry of elite networks around the state routinely swapping favors on the public purse with little regard for performance. During this episode, Greensill also met with Dido Harding, the Conservative life peer who failed out of her private-sector role at a telecoms company and into running the UK’s £37 billion unmitigated disaster of a coronavirus test and trace system. Meanwhile rules were waived to procure PPE during the pandemic, which would have been a reasonable response to unprecedented circumstances if it had actually gotten results rather than funneled absurd quantities of cash to cronies for substandard equipment. The Greensill affair broke within a week of news of prime minister Boris Johnson’s more literal affair with entrepreneur Jennifer Arcuri, who also benefited from thousands in public money. If you had a pound for each of these incidents in the last year alone, you could probably afford the £12,000 for a seat at the Conservative donors’ dinner involved in a similar recent scandal, where a tycoon had the housing secretary railroad planning authorities into approving a previously rejected development and dodging a £45 million payout to one of the UK’s poorest urban areas.
According to Martin Williams’s Parliament Ltd, in 2015, around 2,400 companies had politicians on their boards, and parliamentarians were taking £1 in external income from every £4 they earned as politicians. Two hundred ministers and senior civil servants took up lucrative lobbying jobs in 2018 alone. Such figures out of context might be benign; in the context of industries from mining to arms that lobby aggressively for favorable tax and labor policy, basically endemic tax avoidance, elite schools that still provide most senior public figures, porous boundaries between the state and private sector, and huge and opaque political donations, they point to state capture by elite networks with collective interests and overlapping dependencies. While this is all entirely legal; would it be surprising to suggest that such an environment provides a breeding ground for corruption?
“The Most Corrupt Place on Earth”
In David Cameron’s time as prime minister, there seemed to be at least some accountability for brazen grifting in public life, up to and including resignations. One feels somewhat sorry for operatives who once diligently covered up financial misdemeanors and now probably feel they need not have bothered; scandal after scandal explodes with seemingly zero repercussions. But the Cameron administration, as the Greensill affair shows, played its part in a long sequence of events leading to today’s age of lurid unaccountability.
Leaving aside very simple cases of blackmail or stealing for direct personal gain, much of what we call “corruption” is a fairly modern understanding of phenomena that have always defined Britain’s government and politics. The country has always had a numerically small and socially distinct elite, educated together before being conveyed seamlessly into the commanding heights of government, politics, and industry. Only relatively recently did politics and the economy become diversified, expansive, and widely owned and contested enough to warrant a more rigorous and objective framework of rules around relationships involving government.
But even as Britain modernized, new incentives emerged for elite cooperation around government behind closed doors. Margaret Thatcher’s privatization program shifted vast wealth and assets — accumulated with public money — to business in a swift time frame, driving incidents like the Westland affair. A command-and-control method of administration was gradually replaced with (undemocratic) decentralization; a shift “from government to governance,” in the words of Antonino Palumbo and Richard Bellamy. New Labour extended this shift with its obsessions with “choice” in public services. British neoliberalism both increased the role of profiteers in the design and delivery of public services, and created vast and complex bureaucratic infrastructure (often under the guise of cutting red tape!) to manage commissioning and oversee “competition.” All of this created difficult-to-understand systems that do a poor job of delivering actual results but are easy for a small number of experts to game. Indeed, even the logic of “best value for taxpayers” itself incentivized cronyism, as specialist private firms lost out on government contracts to all-purpose giants like Serco Group and Carillion who could lowball prices, develop close dependent relationships with ministers, and rarely be held accountable for failure.
Outside formal politics, the environment was even worse. As a deindustrialized Britain became ever more dependent on high finance, and its elite became smaller, richer, narrower, and too important to hold to account. Even the 2008 crash and high-profile cases like that of Fred Goodwin, whose comic levels of irresponsibility at the head of Royal Bank of Scotland and role in its collapse led to the stripping of the knighthood New Labour had granted him, did not fundamentally change the prevalence of misconduct or the casino economy it took place in.
This has been confirmed in recent years. The Libor rigging scandal underlined the scale of outright fraud bankers could carry out; only a few were properly caught. Huge firms with close relationships with both major parties encouraged and oversaw industrial-scale global tax avoidance. Britain’s sponsoring of the world’s tax havens through its overseas territories came to light in the Panama and Paradise papers, which implicated politics, business, and celebrity alike. London’s financial centers and overheated property market became a vast sink for cash of indeterminate legality, greased by a system that basically facilitates money-laundering, prompting a mafia expert to judge it “the most corrupt place on Earth.”
The Left and Anti-Corruption
When the casino economy ran out of chips in 2008, the Conservatives (then in opposition) deftly manipulated the situation. They shifted anger at a bipartisan parliamentary expenses scandal into a general narrative that “the state” or even “all of us” had spent too much. Political misconduct was used to pin the blame for a global crash on Labour, and then justify austerity and privatization. Such tricks continued once David Cameron was in government. After railing against Labour’s “quangos” — the orchestra of governance organizations charged with overseeing but not running public functions — he began simply stacking them with his own people.
Anti-lobbying laws aimed at curbing private influence in politics were used against charities criticizing inequality and climate change, as well as trade unions. Cameron was then out-Cameroned by the Brexit campaign’s spivs and millionaires, experts at railing against a system they had profited from and condemning the establishment, only to double down on the same processes. By 2020, the Conservatives had completed a sharp ideological shift, and their onetime savior Cameron was reduced to hanging around outside the Treasury with his new paymasters’ begging bowl.
The Conservatives have remained hegemonic for over a decade, in spite of everything. But public attitudes are malleable and conflicting. People think politicians are self-serving and on the take, and they mistrust most public institutions; however, the UK remains just shy of the top ten on the Corruption Perceptions Index. There is an inherent sense of fair play that sparks outrage at incidents of individual misconduct like that of ex-Johnson aide Dominic Cummings’s lockdown-breaking adventure, but large-scale cronyism or mismanagement stories rarely spark the same level of anger. Whether the Greensill affair “lands” remains to be seen.
Labour are pursuing it reasonably doggedly but avoiding political critique. As party leader, Jeremy Corbyn repeatedly pointed out that the aggressive outsourcing and privatization of the NHS provides boundless opportunities for corruption at worst and a raw deal for the public at best. When he presented undeniable evidence of the scale of planned privatization, the media responded by accusing him of being handed the evidence by Russia. Labour’s new leadership are instead sticking to a technocratic argument that may be more acceptable to columnists, but will probably be less likely to cut through to people.
Some advice for the Left can be drawn from all this. First, tackling the behavior of elite networks together is an area where currently loose concepts like a “transatlantic Left” can be operationally useful, defined by more than activists comparing notes. The current sell-off of UK doctors’ surgeries to an American private health care giant is one small example. Second, activists often fear vocally talking about corruption. This is because we argue, rightly, that there is little to distinguish illegal and legal capitalism in terms of negative impacts on people’s lives. We also fear the misuse of “corruption” in ideological battles; whether it’s right-wing tropes about trade unions as cartels, liberals placing every problem at the foot of dark money and Russia, or the new hard right’s “drain the swamp” rhetoric, which is usually a short jump to racist conspiracy theories.
Yet this is precisely why we ought to battle corruption. If individual venality is a lesser function of systemic issues, the reverse is also true: systems that incentivize venality will concentrate a lot of it around the corridors of power. If too many people watching these scandals draw the conclusion that there is only an issue when the law is broken, or that corrupt individuals are the root of all problems, or that “taking money out of politics” is achievable through a few restrictions on lobbying alone, then that is an argument for championing the anger at incidents like Greensill and setting them in context. If we do not, the hard right will; Viktor Orbán, Narendra Modi, Jair Bolsonaro, and Trump all came to power by weaponizing widely held perceptions of a rotten political establishment and seeding them with arguments for racism, austerity, war, climate denial, and handouts for the rich.
Let’s set the Greensill affair in context: a former prime minister used the outbreak of a deadly pandemic to acquire preferential financial treatment for his bosses, while billions were being handed out to government-linked businesses who seem to have charged us up to £800 per protective overall. Meanwhile, the health workers fighting a lethal virus while wearing trash bags for want of proper PPE are now being offered a paltry 1 percent pay raise. From refusing to raise sick pay to corralling people into offices when the virus was still running riot, policy decisions were made by and for elites. Neither individual greed and stupidity nor structural flaws can explain this disaster completely; they have combined to produce something more rotten than the sum of their parts.