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How Corrupt is Britain?

0 Comments 🕔18.Aug 2016

Liberal democracies like Britain are not meant to have corruption. Thanks to the safeguards of Parliamentary sovereignty—in which fairly elected politicians represent the interests of their constituents, but whose work is scrutinized by a second chamber—British public and political life is secured through a series of checks and balances. If Parliament fails in these duties, then the judiciary, police, media, and other interests are at hand to ensure due diligence. Corruption, meanwhile, encompasses a set of fraudulent or illicit activities that occur somewhere else.

This pithy, accessible, and fascinating edited collection exposes these assumptions, as well as the associated narrative, as a dangerous myth. With the absence of corruption a key characteristic that is central to the legitimating British imaginary, this book makes a stark claim: corruption, broadly defined, is a routine practice for maintaining the power of elites in British society. Consequently, corruption in British society can no longer be excused as an aberration. It is instead fundamentally embedded into the way in which society operates.

It is safe to say that the underlying definition of corruption used in the book would be considered by some to be somewhat controversial. After all, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, in which the UK ranks 14 out of 177, in comparison to Russia at 127 and Afghanistan at 176, problematically operationalizes corruption as the perception of corruption (3-4). The World Bank, meanwhile, defines corruption as “the abuse of public office for private gain” (6-7). Yet, as the book demonstrates, why should corruption be equated with the personal gain of office holders? David Beetham’s chapter, in which he defines corruption as “the distortion and subversion of the public realm in the service of private interests,” is therefore much welcomed.

This definition provides a means to include a whole range of activities undertaken by private actors that could and should, according to editors and contributors of the book, be categorized as corruption. Following a lengthy and detailed introductory chapter from editor David Whyte, the majority of the book is comprised of short and punchy chapters that provide case studies of this kind of corruption. These include chapters on corruption in police (such as the “plebgate” scandal and the Hillsborough football disaster), politics (such as institutional child sexual abuse scandals and the rise of Private Finance Initiatives), and finance (such as the UK’s role in the rise of tax havens and consumer banking scandals).

The argument of the book is outlined in the introductory chapter. The book develops a political economy argument that explains the recent spate of corruption scandals in British society as a result of the neo-liberal social and economic order, in which market exchange is an ethical obligation capable of guiding all human action (59).

The chapters reflect and support this argument to varying degrees. Chapter 10, for instance, argues that the valorization of business that is associated with neo-liberal ideology has resulted in a “revolving door” in the UK civil service, which is partially absorbed into a corporate elite (139). Chapter 9, meanwhile, details how New Public Management reforms, in general and Private Finance Initiatives in particular, create a market-like situation for public services whereby incentives to cheat and opportunities for corruption emerge. Corruption is therefore not simply an effect of power, because it also a means of power (27). Rather than an exception to the rule, corruption is instead a constitutive part of it.

This political economy approach to corruption is interesting and innovative, but it is also exploratory and, at times, speculative. Political scientists looking for rigorous causal analysis will be disappointed, as will those craving some form of historical or cross-comparative analysis to support the claim that a neo-liberal social and political order is fundamentally more corrupt than others.

But then again, this book is not aimed at that sort of audience. Rather, it is a call for arms and a myth-buster aimed at engaging with an audience wider than academia itself. This excellent and engaging collection will therefore be of interest to anyone with a desire to make sense of the recent spate of scandals in British life and relate those to a wider web of social and political power.

Reviewed by Liam Stanley, University of Sheffield

How Corrupt is Britain?
Edited by David Whyte
University of Chicago Press
Paperback / 200 pages / 2015
ISBN: 9780745335308


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