Jonathan Meades: Bribery? Pah! The real curse of corruption lies in friendship

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The Independent Online

What is the etiquette attaching to bribery? How does the tiro get to know the form?

What is the etiquette attaching to bribery? How does the tiro get to know the form? Are the parochial and the national levels of bung planting qualitatively different? Or is the only disparity the question of what constitutes a big drink? How well do you need to know someone before you can offer such a drink? How many go-betweens ought there to be between the initial recipient of one's munificence and the goal for which it is intended? A certain distance is, evidently, de rigueur so that both donor and benefactor can deny charges of impropriety. But if that distance is too great there exists the possibility that the bulging brown envelope will fail to make its way to the correct pigeon hole. That's a spatial problem. The temporal problem is this: how long should elapse between the gift to the fund/blind trust/charity/party, and the favour being solicited? What is the correct hiatus between quid and quo?

Too brief: the link is embarrassingly obvious, the recipient is made to feel biddable or, worse, bribable. The defence of the recipient's self-respect is vital and may be achieved with the trusty shield of self-delusion.

Too long: the calling in of such debts is best effected before the recipient contracts elective amnesia, before he or she loses office/authority. But it is clear that bribery is a short-term device. The inducement is made to a specific end. It is also a pecuniarily risky tactic: the compact that is entered into is oblique, largely unspoken, entirely unwritten and uncontracted and so bereft of any guarantee of performance. The donor has no legitimate comeback. Blackmail, squealing to the papers, threats and violence are self-inculpatory own-goals.

Is the UK – which has till lately rather prided itself on the probity that informs the judging of dog shows, the vetting of planning applications, the award of lucrative contracts, the governance of the country – any different to other nations?

Maybe it's that we genuinely forget. Maybe it's that we kid ourselves that each domestic instance that comes to light is atypical, while consoling ourselves with the sure knowledge that the antics of Tapie, Beregovoy, Elf-Aquitaine, the IOC, South African cricketers and countless others are manifestations of an endemic pattern. Bribery is alien.

Maybe it's that we, the audience, share the recipient's capacity for self-delusion, and that for all the officially reviled cynicism that is supposed to afflict us, we still retain the instinct to sweep things under the carpet. We remain loath to acknowledge the truism that while power and riches may accrue in different dirty hands they can be bartered; the two currencies are covertly interchangeable.

But is it a fair exchange? Were a nation's permeability to bribery to be measured in the sums that are paid to such causes as Gannex Canine Care (Cayman Islands) and the Eric Miller Memorial Trust (Andorra) it might be concluded that Britain is clean. That, however, is the wrong gauge. The right gauge is the number of transactions. The fact that the sums that change hands here are lower than those which are paid in other countries ought to suggest that we are too easily bought. Talk about bringing a people into disrepute. British operatives abroad have traditionally been aware of how little they can get away with at home. The architect John Poulson tried to buy Anthony Crosland with a coffee percolator. He failed. But his not-much-more-expansive largesse towards other MPs and towards civil servants was deftly judged. Their cupidity was so unambitious that they risked, and lost, their careers for free holidays.

There is probably a good reason for this modesty. Bribery is so harnessed to corruption that we fail to differentiate the two. But bribery is not a form of corruption that oils occluded enterprise in this country. We have an equally effective lubricant: friendship. It is friendship that is the greatest corruption. It is friendship that foments misplaced loyalty, friendship that determines patronage, friendship that leaves no troublesome financial trail. In an era of small families, friendship is God's apology for the absence of nephews.