Are we sufficiently concerned about the anger, division, and outbreaks of thuggish and violent behaviour we see right across the country? Are our contemporary divisions destroying trust, cohesion and civic values everywhere and not just in post-BREXIT Northern Ireland?
The temptation is to highlight contemporary bad news and imagine trends, signs of a dystopian present giving rise to a more dystopian future despite our residual nineteenth century belief in Progress and Development. Taking things to their logical conclusion as a way of reasoning has obvious pitfalls; things, thankfully, rarely get to any firm conclusion least of all logically.
On the one hand, we might be experiencing what the German philosopher Walter Benjamin called Jetztzeit, a here and now marked by a major upheaval, an explosion in the dismal continuum of recent British history. On the other, we may be looking at more of the same. We forget too easily past crises, riots and social division, and eventually all may calm down and society return to as normal as we can manage.
An allied question: is there a relationship between the current stresses on civil society and the weakening of proper governance of public affairs, compliance with laws and rules and the accountability of those holding political power? Or expressed more simply, what kind of corrosive damage does a corrupt government cause civil society and civility? Or is a corrupt government just propped up by an un-civil society? COVID has opened up numerous opportunities for gaming the system. British people are in the habit of using public services whilst avoiding paying for them through taxation. Requests for and payments of cash-in-hand are common, and at the better off end there is sophisticated tax evasion by the rich. Maybe, as the Anglo-Irish political scientist, Benedict Anderson says: “We have met the enemy and it is us”.
A lot hangs on what we mean by corruption. In the 1970s, I lived and worked in Nigeria. Embezzlement, kick-backs, fraud and bribery in government office were normal. What of Nigerian civil society? Expatriate academics from communist Poland found those little financial inducements quite natural and handled the university bureaucracy with practised skills. Taking them as her example my wife got the university to install an air-conditioner but without paying off anyone. And she got a round of applause from senior administrative staff who had been following her antics with great amusement. Nigeria encouraged you to believe in a trickle-down theory of corruption. Enormously stoical, resilient and humorous, Nigerian civil society aspired to clean governance but was resigned to the opposite.
In Britain using public office for private gain, or personal gain in political careers, is less common, less acknowledged and less recognised as harmful. It takes place on the poorly patrolled border between the unlawful and the criminal, rank cronyism and ‘chumocracy’. Note how choice of words can soften the impact of much the same conduct. Accusations of conflict of interest don’t get the public onto the streets, though avoiding such conflicts is a fundamental principle of good decision-making and therefore the conduct of public life. The public condemned Matt Hancock and his adviser Gina Coladangelo for their videoed clinch for ignoring COVID rules, and this was the reason he gave for his resignation. No mention of any conflict of interest in his adviser’s appointment as a Non-Executive Director in the Department of Health and Social Care. Ministers still ‘forget’ to disclose relationships pertinent to lucrative government contracts. And donors to the governing Party found their way onto the 2020 government VIP procurement list. Much of this is illuminated by the work of civil society organisations such as the Good Law Project.
In developing countries where a single breadwinner may be supporting many poor relations, the pressures at every level on those with any access to money and power are enormous and the temptations to corrupt practice great. They are much amplified if you can count on not getting caught. Whether the corrupt are likely to be exposed and punished is the touchstone of how bad things will get. It has little to do with inherent differences in moral sentiments between nationalities. Corruption gets a lot worse when a government is accustomed to ‘getting away with it’ and avoiding scrutiny. Nigerians in my experience hate the prevailing corruption but, given the behaviour of their own politicians, are at a loss how to curtail it.
Do we disapprove of the corruption of the Johnson clique enough to do something about it? And if we don’t– taking things to their logical conclusion - are we heading for a dysfunctional polity like Nigeria? Good heavens ‘No’, you will say ‘nothing logical about that and indeed preposterous’. We have Parliament. We have the Common Law. We have an effective and learned judiciary able to subject government’s conduct to judicial review and we have the European Commission and Convention on Human Rights. We have parliamentary select committees. We have the BBC and a free Press. And we should treasure them all. But the long term resilience and effectiveness of all these depend on voters too many of whom seem to feel this is not their concern or even that ‘politicians are all the same’.
It would be good to think Matt Hancock’s resignation is a turning point. But it isn’t. Adultery is neither unlawful nor criminal nor as disapproved of as it once was. Public wrath, transmitted via Tory MPs’ fears into Tory Whips’ political muscle, was directed at the flagrant demonstration that “there’s one rule for them and another rule for us”. The suspected Minister of Health’s cronyism was not the raw meat the tiger Press fed on. And its readers seem yet to make the connection between dishonest government cronyism and their own wellbeing.
Corruption could get a lot worse. Government under Boris Johnson remains determined to get away with it and avoid scrutiny. “I think he honestly believes it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception”, his Eton teacher wrote in Johnson’s April 1982 school report, “one who should be free of the network of obligations which bind everyone else”. A Prime Minister who does not understand how a rule-based society works or the distinction between private and public interest is a threat to the whole of society. As the old proverb says: “A fish rots from the head down”.
See TheArticle 02/07/2021