Britain’s role in the world… of corruption

Corruption is in the news again in the UK.

PPE contracts during the pandemic, the Greensill Capital scandal, and eye-watering local authority finance scandals, all serve to dent the historic public perception that politics and government in the UK is in the main ‘clean’.

In the early 1990s at a private lunch with senior civil servants I attended, one of them offered the view that the public’s perception of a broadly clean governance system in the UK, has been ‘the world’s most successful long-term government propaganda operation of all time’.

In my global project work, dealing with corruption at senior levels is just something you have to find a way of handling. Many times I have had to employ ‘forensic international accountants’ to trace missing tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. It just goes with the territory. In some cases I have found corruption linked back to the UK; kickbacks for visas, a market for ‘blank’ British passports, kickbacks for projects and so on.

However the effort required to acquire hard evidence amidst the physical dangers involved, mean that unless there are well connected backers, pursuing the matter to a conclusion is fraught with difficulty. Most of the time one has to be sanguine, but sometimes not. More than once I have been threatened; and three times in different countries I have been advised to leave the country the same day for fear of ‘being dealt with’.

I did however work on a large World Bank public admin reform project which involved defining corruption, and comparing legal frameworks for corruption and enforcement in key countries. This was an immensely complex task; a key conclusion from which was that the vast majority of what the public would define as ‘corruption’ is entirely legal, and in this I include the UK.

One thing I have noticed about the UK is the extraordinary reluctance of institutions and the media to suspect or even mention corruption; a custom not shared by the general public (and thus something of a political opportunity). Take a random sample of critical Public Accounts Committee or NAO report detail. When you read through them, any reasonable person would conclude that there is at least a prima facie basis for concluding major corruption has occurred. But almost always it stops there.

From MPs expenses scandals to crony contracts, what we see is only the tip of the iceberg. The embedded system of ‘corruption’ in the UK occurs within governmental organisations, including the Civil Service. The ‘political stuff’ is just visible above the water line. For example, government managers having two conflicting jobs, the public has just learned, is legal.

There is a hilarious UK ‘approval system’ for outside appointments via ‘ACOBA’. Typically if a senior civil servant leaves to join the board of a company on which billions has been spent, with a multi-million Golden Handshake, they will be ‘prohibited from lobbying’ for contracts… for 3 months! This is laughable; lobbying in this sense cannot be precisely defined, vast technical contracts can take months or years to formulate, and in any case there is almost zero enforcement. Official secrecy and exaggerated ‘commercial confidentiality’ further protect the beneficiaries.

Over a decade ago I did get a motion through Liberal Democrat Conference on the matter, focused on strengthening the UK legal frame. At the time PM Cameron was proposing legislative changes for the civil service, and new procurement rules, which promised to deal with such issues, but in the end the anti-corruption proposals were stripped out.

After May 6th the Liberal Democrats should build on this work to examine the subject at length and become the leaders against corruption in the UK. It is difficult. It is complicated. It is risky. But it is LIBERAL and it will be worth it.

* Paul Reynolds works with multilateral organisations as an independent adviser on international relations, economics, and senior governance. He is a member of the Lib Dem Federal International Relations Committee and an Executive member of Liberal International (British Group).

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  • Helen Dudden 26th Apr '21 - 10:52am

    I fully agree with you. Totally support the need to clean up the sleaze within government. Only by being transparent can you be respected for spending the tax payers contribution to the running of this country.

  • More power to your elbow Paul Reynolds, something needs to be done and now is as good a time as any, while the subject is dominating the headlines.

  • David Evans 26th Apr '21 - 4:04pm

    An excellent post Paul. And I agree we should make it our own by being prepared to call it out loud and clear in parliament and elsewhere. The only question is, and I am asking this in the hope of a proposal from someone setting it out, how we get our leaders to take notice and agree to do something while there is still time. Labour sleaze in Liverpool, Conservative sleaze in No 10 Downing Street and rampant sleaze in the SNP.

    How should we do it?

  • @ David Evans People need positive reasons for voting Liberal Democrat.

    There’s an old saying about ‘people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones’. This party and its predecessors should tread with care.

  • John Barrett 26th Apr '21 - 6:53pm

    An excellent article.

    I have a great deal of sympathy for anyone tackling corruption in the UK as it is very true as the article states, “the public’s perception of a broadly clean governance system in the UK, has been ‘the world’s most successful long-term government propaganda operation of all time’.” and this has resulted in a complete inability to tackle corruption at home, far less abroad.

    When all parties have a long track record of formerly elected representatives desperate to get into unelected positions, which also produce a regular and sometimes substantial income, it is no surprise that the public sees corruption where those involved in government or politics do not.

    We have a well established system where those involved, both in party politics and as civil servants or the forces, can easily move on to financially rewarding appointed positions in private companies and in public service, with hardly a murmur from anyone.

    Nobody in any party wants to rock the boat, as many of our present politicians and civil servants look forward to doing exactly the same in the future, so there is little prospect of any change any time soon.

  • Paul Fisher 26th Apr '21 - 9:40pm

    Another excellent insight from Paul Reynolds. Wholeheartedly support more focus on this systemic malaise; first stop, the LibDem Party itself. Eyes and motes come to mind. Cleanse thyself.

  • Excellent article Paul this country needs to be shaken out of its complacency. The Libdems are the party to do so. Look at Beveridge

  • Well said, it seems to me, by everyone so far. But why so few responses, I am wondering? Is it simply that this forum’s purpose is, rightly, for discussion, which must entail contention? Apart from winning elections, what else can we each do about such depressing recognitions of national political dishonesty at the expense of the people?

  • Paul Reynolds 27th Apr '21 - 10:19am

    Thank you for your comments…. and encouragement. If ‘corruption’ however defined, is prevalent across the UK bureaucracy, national and local, it’s a fair assumption that all political parties in power in some way are affected. (Of course ‘affected’ is something of an euphemism). But my central point is that the heart of corruption and conflicts of interest in the UK is in government institutions, a culture which leaks out into the political sphere. This is to an extent the opposite of the public perception, whereby politicians initiate corruption and public servants go along with it. Defining the problem precisely (and defining corruption precisely) is important since it inevitably leads to hypotheses and analyses about the solution. The UK Lib Dems could either decide to go it alone or take a cross-party initiative. Either way we have to accept that in the process we will have to clean up our act too, which will be delicate. I already have detailed ToRs and timed plan for the work needed, but they need a home. More than a decade ago I couldn’t persuade the Party to take up the issue but maybe 2021 is different, folowing the PPE, local govt. and Greensill scandals. I believe Federal Policy Committee and party Conference have formal jurisdiction, but after what happened a decade ago I think it is down to FPC; but it has a very full programme of work already.

  • How things change. Forty years ago I went to live in a country where corruption is considered a way of life. Now when I return to Britain I find it is full of fraudsters.

  • Paul, I for one would welcome seeing your proposals, ToR etc and a brief potted history of what happened last time.

    Perhaps a way forward is through Local Parties and Regional and Welsh and Scottish conferences. The North West should be easy, with a bit of work, and I am sure other Lib Dems have great examples in their own areas.

    Do you have any other suggestions?

  • When Blair intervened to stop the SFO investigation into BAE bribery and Saudi Arabia it was clear just how ingrained this all is. A vast system of corruption that has underpinned the UK state for decades facilitated by the Bank of England and UK Government over generations.

    As Paul points out there is the revolving door. Is it any wonder that every bit of kit ordered by the MOD is so over budget and late. When the Generals/Air Marshals/Admirals and senior officials have seats and jobs when they retire with those same firms.

  • Paul Fisher 28th Apr '21 - 8:06pm

    Spot on Simon. You don’t know half of it. If my experience is anything to go by, it can only be described as a cesspit.

  • Peter Martin 28th Apr '21 - 10:58pm

    Corruption can involve other than financial issues. The Hillsborough cover up showed how corrupt our legal system, including the actions of the police, has become. If we needed reminding about that we have the recent case of the many Post Office managers who were convicted on the flimsiest of evidence that can by no stretch of the imagination be considered to have been proof of guilt beyond reasonable doubt.

    It has been the so-called “progressive left” which has been instrumental in tearing up what have been established legal principles over the course of centuries. Blackstone’s rule states that it is better that ten guilty persons go free than one innocent is convicted. This has been effectively abolished and even reversed. Otherwise why would so many separate trials of Post Office managers have resulted in the same incorrect guilty verdicts? How many others were acquitted as they rightly should have been?

  • Peter Martin 28th Apr '21 - 10:59pm


    If this hasn’t been enough, the Progressive Left has supported the introduction of Double Jeopardy trials. At one time a not guilty verdict was the end of the matter. Now thanks largely to the Blairite New Labour government, the obviously corrupt police and judicial system has been given the power to have another go when any jury has the temerity to deliver an “incorrect” verdict. All they need to do is take another look in the evidence bag, find a sample of DNA that somehow they had overlooked previously and hey presto! The innocent quickly become the guilty and are banged up for life sentences.

    The laws on harassment can be used to silent any dissent that used to be perfectly legal. If anyone is saying anything which is causing the establishment something of a problem they can be hit with a charge of harassment. There doesn’t even have to be a conviction or even a hope of obtaining one. The flimsiest of cases can be brought to court which are immediately dropped in the courtroom. No evidence is presented and the defendant is acquitted. BUT section 5A of the Prevention of Harassment Act is then invoked which gives power to the Judge to impose a restraining order to prevent what was being said from being re-said under a penalty of a long jail stretch. Even though there was never any law to make what was being said illegal in the first place!

    The system is rotten but we can’t just blame the ruling classes and the political right. The centre left have recently made it much worse and seem intent on making it even worse still as they push for rights to be further stripped away from defendants in criminal trials.

  • Peter Hirst 1st May '21 - 1:08pm

    It’s only when all elected are unscrupulously honest and the system is tenaciously transparent and accountable with huge fines that corruption will disappear. It just needs the political will.

  • Peter Chambers 2nd May '21 - 8:11pm

    There is an old joke in politics. A canvasser is asked by a voter about sin. The canvasser replies, “We have discussed this. We are against it.”
    This was a funny teaching story back in the twentieth century. Who would be against sin, and why would any one party try to claim it as a campaigning theme?
    Today Paul Reynolds points out that not every party is against sin, and it may be a campaigning theme that cannot be borrowed equally. It might be worth another look.

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