I once was brazenly corrupt.
Driving a friend’s car in a country I won’t name — its politics are malign, its reach long and you never know — I was pulled over late one Friday night. The traffic policeman said he smelled alcohol (I had not been drinking), and waited. This was the bribe pause — then set for foreigners at about $50. I was infused with a civic sense that a stand must be made, and the pause lengthened. Annoyed, he took me to his station, where a clearly drunk doctor breathalyzed me, and said I was the intoxicated one.
The policeman said this was very serious, that I would be detained till Monday. The car would be impounded. A blood sample would be taken. My friend needed his car. I had a busy weekend. There was another pause, long enough for virtue to be asphyxiated. I asked, “Is there another way?” He brightened. “There is another way!” The other way was $150, flouting the established order costs.
It was a small insight, a story for friends (or columns). But it proves a larger point. Corruption, in its many guises, is impervious to all but the most determined correction. Twenty-one years ago, the Financial Times wrote an editorial naming 1995 as “the year of corruption.” It’s got worse since then.
An example beyond my own: A recent survey showed that Ghanaian truck drivers are stopped 16 times a day by traffic police extracting bribes at roadblocks. The drivers are put between a rock and a hard place: be stopped, or pay up. Better the hard place: pay the bribe, and get on; pay the bribe, and get the necessary document; pay the bribe, and get treatment for your child. Most people in developing or traditionally corrupt countries do this routinely.
Nor is corruption necessarily confined to poorer parts of the world. As British Prime Minister David Cameron prepared to host a groundbreaking anti-corruption summit in London last week, his former policy chief, Steve Hilton, took to Twitter to describe the United Kingdom as “fantastically corrupt, too.” (Hilton’s comment came after Cameron was overheard telling Queen Elizabeth that “leaders of some fantastically corrupt countries” — specifically, Nigeria and Afghanistan — were attending the meeting.)
The summit saw the creation of a Global Forum for Asset Recovery to discuss returning stolen assets to countries from which they were taken – often by their own ministers and officials. Cameron also promised that the British government would force foreign firms that own London property – investments that just go up, in a city that is one of the world’s great laundries for filched funds – to declare their assets in a public register.
Cameron, under pressure over corruption since the Panama Papers named his late father, Ian Cameron, among the leaked list of clients of a Panamanian law firm that provides offshore services, could not, however, rest on a pose of the conspicuous virtue that his family financial arrangements had sullied, and which he sought to address by promising new legislation to charge companies with criminal liability if any employee aids them in evading tax.
Former Cameron adviser Hilton thinks that politics that are “propped up by money from special interests” increasingly leaves politicians open to charges of corruption.
It will be presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s weakest point in the months ahead, though the charge that in using a private server while secretary of state she may have mishandled classified State Department business could be a criminal offense. The public is more concerned about her fabulous fees from Wall Street banks — some $1.6 million for eight speeches, according to statista.com.
When her Democratic rival, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), won the West Virginia primary, he said, “working people are hurting.” Yes, and more than in their pockets: in their trust in those who claim to speak for them.
To be so obliged to private interests is to create the appearance, and court the reality, of an inability to curb capital’s crimes and misdemeanors. To have a system that forces elected representatives to spend months raising money is to thin out the political field.
In the United Kingdom, the money-politics axis is naturally more genteel, but scandalous in its own way. The big donors are given medieval titles — barons, baronesses — and membership in the House of Lords, the upper chamber of parliament. These noblemen and women are often expert, publicly engaged and hardworking — and live in a bubble of privilege and deference, worth, apparently, a hefty contribution to party treasuries. Which gives them a large influence — though not a veto — over legislation.
In the United States and the United Kingdom, the state supplies little or nothing to the parties. In France, Germany and Italy, the state is a major funder, which leaves the parties to find the rest. Yet, there are scandals, especially around former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, now readying himself for a second bid, that he accepted illegal funds, including from former Libyan dictator Muammar Gadaffi, for campaigns in 2007 and 2012. Sarkozy strongly denies the charges.
In Germany, the former Chancellor Helmut Kohl was found, in 2000, to have run secret accounts to receive money from supporters. In Spain, the ruling center-right Popular Party suffered a wave of arrests, resignations and revelations linked to corruption last year and this. The rule of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, prime minister three times between 1994 and 2011, was a history of sex and money scandals, court cases and theatrical crises.
In the European Union, a report two years ago by the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Cecilia Malmstrom, found a “breathtaking” amount of corruption linked to EU funding in member countries. “The political commitment to really root out corruption seems to be missing,” she said sadly.
This isn’t to suggest equivalence. There is major and minor corruption. But Hilton is right. So long as politicians and wealthy members of the establishment court each other to conclude opaque deals, a more suspicious electorate living in a more transparent world will see the world as rigged. And respond, often, by doing their best to follow suit. (Hilton’s start-up, Crowdpac, is an attempt to work round, even to crush, parties, and thus their need to raise funds by fair or foul means. May he succeed.)
Politicians who inveigh against corruption in countries where it’s chronic will lose credibility. Slice by slice, an increasingly global system of privilege and of both petty and large-scale thieving is erected – impenetrable, self-perpetuating and corrosive of trust.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Senior Research Fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including "What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics"; 2004. He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.