Andreas Whittam Smith: British public life remains relatively uncorrupt

You have only to compare us with, say, the United States or France or Italy
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The Independent Online

It may appear counter-intuitive to state that British politics is remarkably uncorrupt when the Tessa Jowell business is swirling around us. And indeed I am as much a puritan as anybody. But let us pause and acknowledge how relatively trivial are most British cases. You have only to compare them with what is common currency in, say, the United States or France or Italy to see that.

Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, for instance, has been tried seven times for corruption and found guilty on four occasions, and he is facing similar charges right now. Try substituting the names Tony Blair or John Major or Margaret Thatcher for Silvio Berlusconi in the preceding sentence. We would be incredulous, and if it were true, we would draw the conclusion that the practice of British politics as we have known it for 150 years was at an end.

Consider the charges that have been made against the Secretary of State for Culture, Tessa Jowell. They concern at worst a failure to disclose some of her husband's financial transactions. What about David Blunkett? A consuming love affair clouded his judgement regarding a passport application for his lover's nanny and then, having been given a second chance in ministerial office, he idiotically got caught up with some business promoters. A third recent case concerned Peter Mandelson, who borrowed a large sum of money from a ministerial colleague to buy an expensive house. He likewise blew his political rehabilitation. This was because of allegations of misconduct concerning passport applications by Indian businessmen, though afterwards he was exonerated.

The Jeffrey Archer case, which resulted in the former MP receiving a prison sentence, was more to do with prostitutes and evidence given in a libel case than with politics itself. Jonathan Aitken, when Minister for Defence Procurement, perjured himself when rebutting allegations of impropriety and was sentenced to 18 months' imprisonment. Even the case against Neil Hamilton MP - that he had accepted envelopes stuffed with cash from the Harrods boss Mohamed Fayed in exchange for asking parliamentary questions - was never directly proved, though Mr Hamilton did lose a libel action he brought to clear his name.

What does this account of British politicians' misdeeds during the past 15 years amount to - one or two cases of non-disclosure, some foolishness, two cases of lying to cover up foolishness and a non-proven case of genuine political corruption (cash for questions). That is by no means a perfect record, but glance across the Atlantic to see something much worse.

For over 100 years, the phrase "pork barrel" has been used in the US to refer to legislation that "brings home the bacon" to a legislator's constituents. That practice was always liable to make members of Congress vulnerable to bribery. Meanwhile the system has been continuously refined so that now federal expenditure in individual districts and states is secured by "earmarking" major spending projects with special requests. There were 15,000 earmarks last year, up from 1,200 10 years ago. And this trend has, in turn, led to dramatic cases of political corruption that are now beginning to come in front of the courts.

The first big one of the current series reached a conclusion on Friday when Randy Cunningham, who sat for the northern suburbs of San Diego in the House of Representatives for eight terms, was given a long prison sentence for taking bribes from military contractors. He used a "bribe menu" which itemised degrees of influence and their cost. A military contractor could buy favours from Mr Cunningham in exchange for, say, a sports utility vehicle.

In France, a new film, L'Ivresse du Pouvoir ("The Intoxication of Power") by Claude Chabrol, with Isabelle Huppert in the role of an examining magistrate, is essentially an account of the Elf scandal (in which the former Foreign Minister, Roland Dumas, was implicated) with all the names transposed and a light fictional veneer applied. So emphatically does the magistrate always address the corrupt patron in the affair as Monsieur le President, curling her upper lip as she pronounces the title, that audiences are led ineluctably to think of Jacques Chirac and what may await him when he leaves the Elysée and the legal immunity which his office provides.

What keeps the British political system relatively uncorrupt is that the structure of British politics, whatever its faults, doesn't encourage corruption. A drawback, for instance, to the admirable French arrangements, which allow an easy interchange of senior people between business and politics, is that this very familiarity can lead to cosy deals. And the British system is also clean precisely because we become so heated over the slightest infractions of the rules. Here, led by a persecuting press, the Augean stables are swept out every day.