Prime minister Boris Johnson likes to show off his classical education so he may be familiar with the great political voice of Cicero. “Corrupti mores sunt depravatique admiratione divitiarum” he wrote, “Conduct is corrupted and depraved by the lust for wealth”. Although Cicero intended this as a warning, Johnson and his clique seem to be attracted to this as political philosophy. But cash for influence and misuse of public funds are sicknesses for a democracy and Sussex is at the heart of its study.
Just this month, a massive scandal in the banking world has been uncovered, in which Credit Suisse has been shown to have sheltered huge sums for crooks and alleged kleptocrats, who have diverted them from the developing world where they are so badly needed for good purposes. Not only do the crook and the corrupt bank benefit from having the funds, but there are always victims who can ill afford the loss.
“Prominent supporters were rewarded with contracts to supply ministries with goods or services or for public works. Others benefited from the granting of public positions, often by untrained and incompetent individuals… The greatest institutionalised corruption was the use of the state apparatus for private benefit… during which period the people had to undergo incalculable suffering.”
Johnson’s Britain, you think? Actually Franco’s Spain, described by the historian Paul Preston; but a mistake it would be too easy to make in light of the evidence we have for how Johnson operates.
Corruption: British style
There were contracts for PPE supply given to friends in preference to competitive bidders. There were lucrative appointments to high positions without open recruitment for those who supported Johnson’s disastrous Brexit.
We now read about how industries provide “free” services for All Party Parliamentary Groups, influencing their agendas. Look at how energy companies’ windfall profits and dividends are protected by the government while the rest of us must pay our energy bills. Not forgetting how Johnson had his flat’s decoration funded.
Let us remind ourselves too how Johnson ennobled the son of a Russian billionaire and any number of party donors; how thousands of wealthy Russians have been granted golden visas, legalising donations to the Conservative Party; and how some £1.5bn of suspect money has been allowed to be invested in London’s property market by foreigners, all when hundreds of thousands of tax-paying workers had their lives disrupted in the name of taking back control of borders.
All are about doing favours for already wealthy backers rather than for the good of the country. This is a corrupt government, which has given enemies of democracy a message of welcome.
Corruption: there are consequences
But, you may ask, if it works, why not? Franco led a stable government for 35 years. We got the PPE. The wealthy bring their laundered cash into the economy. Parliamentary committees have their work supported without cost to the taxpayer. Johnson gets his flat decorated. What is not to like?
Apart from the fact that corruption is generally and for good reason against the law, it has consequences. Corruption infects both briber and bribed. Both put greed above duty, whether the participants are individuals or organisations – even governments. The corrupted inevitably prioritise their love of money or power over any moral imperative or public duty. The fact of selling influence or access must compromise the person selling it.
While UK was merrily issuing golden visas to hundreds of hyper-wealthy Russians, who then made investments of dubiously come-by wealth in London property and mingled in the highest echelons of society, Putin’s proxies invaded and occupied parts of Ukraine, with no effective comeback from the UK government.
Johnson postures about sanctions
Appeasement? If not, at least a signal that Putin could act with relative impunity, thanks in part to the influence of roubles on the British Establishment. Since Unexplained Wealth Orders were created to police the sources of such money only four such orders have been applied.
Even since the invasion of Ukraine, Johnson merely postures about sanctions on oligarchs while dragging his feet, letting assets be moved before they can be frozen. In Johnson’s Britain, corruption has become accepted, unexceptional, normalised, as in Franco’s Spain. He both receives it and dispenses it.
And it has consequences for other people too. As Prof Robert Barrington at the University of Sussex points out: “Alongside the legal rights and wrongs, we should remember that there are victims of money laundering, kleptocracy and grand corruption – they are in distant lands, so their voices are all too easily drowned out by lawyers in London acting for kleptocrats and oligarchs. This week a stark warning is being sent to the legal profession: it’s time to clean the stables.”
Johnson should not be allowed to get away with it. It is our money, our rules, our decency, not his to abuse. Let us wish that in future our Sussex experts in corruption will have less work to do close to home.