What is it with the British?

Before we start beating ourselves up, it's worth remembering that money for favours is a way of life for ruling classes everywhere
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Indy Politics

As the Hinduja brothers watch from India the cataclysmic fall-out from their assiduous networking in London, it is a good bet that comments along these lines must have passed privately among them: "What is it with the British? Surely in the grand scheme of things, a passport kickback for a million quid given to a public project is not so reprehensible. Look at any other country ..."

As the Hinduja brothers watch from India the cataclysmic fall-out from their assiduous networking in London, it is a good bet that comments along these lines must have passed privately among them: "What is it with the British? Surely in the grand scheme of things, a passport kickback for a million quid given to a public project is not so reprehensible. Look at any other country ..."

And they might have a point. For a start, the ethical postures adopted in the Commons sit oddly with the behaviour of Britain's businessmen overseas. In the Arab world, for example, Britain needs experts who can oil the interlocking wheels of government and commerce. "We don't just have PhDs in corruption, we are professors of corruption," one Lebanese academic boasted recently. And our own captains of commerce need equivalent qualifications, especially when dealing with the crÿme de la crÿme of Saudi officials, often closely connected to their royal family, who deal in defence contracts.

It's a bad, bad, bad, bad world, and everyone is a part of it. Even in Africa, the West is a huge cog in the corruption machine. The civil war in Angola has brought decades of suffering to millions, but serves the interests of the two protagonists, President Eduardo dos Santos and the enemy he cannot do without, Jonas Savimbi of Unita. Western oil companies pay billions of dollars to the government for the right to explore and exploit Angola's waters. And the government spends it on weapons, or stashes it in overseas accounts.

The Nigerians have long been Africa's professors of corruption, but there is a strange whiff of fresh air blowing across the land. The televised hearings of Nigeria's Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission have had the nation glued to their TV sets long into the night. The cast of stars in this "soap" - started by President Olusegun Obasanjo and intended to bring closure to the era of the villainous dictator Sani Abacha - has shown feared former generals weeping in court and hugging their accusers. But one MP cautioned against reading too much into the exercise. "This time we had The Generals Also Cry," he said, in a reference to the popular soap The Rich Also Cry. "But there will not be any psychological relief because you know the person in the courtroom is lying."

To most Chinese people, the Mandelson scandal would be incomprehensible or ludicrous. Like the whole of Chinese society, the bureaucracy operates on a basis of favours given and favours owed among individuals. The generous Hinduja brothers were very familiar with such concepts. In China, this client-and-patron network of personal and institutional relationships is highly complex - and rotten to the core. Some Chinese economists estimate that in the two decades since China opened its doors to capitalism, government officials have embezzled up to US$3,600bn in government funds and public assets.

In much of Latin America, if you scratch a government bureaucracy, you'll often find some sort of kleptocracy. Political elites vie for clout with the military or wealthy narcotics traffickers, with kickbacks for all.

France is currently revelling in the trial of the former foreign minister Roland Dumas, who is accused of securing his mistress a non-job at a state-run oil company and living off the fat of the land at the company's expense. And there are interesting parallels between Peter Mandelson's case and the biggest political scandal in post-war Germany. Both Mr Mandelson and Helmut Kohl claimed to have pocketed not one penny of their dubious proceeds, while Mr Kohl's gifts, which he stashed in party coffers, were also from people involved in the arms trade.

When Romano Prodi took over as European Commission president in 1999 he stressed the need for reform after the biggest ever scandal in its history - the entire college of 20 commissioners had just resigned in disgrace over sleaze allegations.

In the US, however, it is the political system itself that is corrupt. That, at least, is the contention of those pushing hard for campaign finance reform, notably Senator John McCain. In the 2000 election, US$4bn was spent by the parties and candidates on campaigning. Most of that money comes from large corporations, which in return exert a direct influence on legislation passed in Washington. Ralph Nader of the Green Party ran a one-message campaign last year: the corporations have bought American democracy. Few would disagree.

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