Matthew Norman: Corruption in Britain? Surely not...

Everywhere in the world there are dodgy politicians and bent coppers. Only here is each revelation a shock
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Some 700 immigration officials were accused of taking money from would-be British settlers last year; a detective is alleged to have sold information to a suspect's father keen to thwart the Stephen Lawrence investigation; the country's top jockey appeals against his ban after being charged with race fixing, the Deputy Prime Minister is censured for failing to declare hospitality and gifts from a billionaire after the rights to the country's first super-casino, and the Prime Minister crosses the Atlantic to pay homage to Rupert Murdoch while nervily awaiting his interview with Scotland Yard over the sale of peerages ... Thank God this is the straightest country on Earth, or a week like this one might make you wonder.

The lazily and incessantly reiterated claim that Britain, alone among her peers, is miraculously immunised against the various sorts of corruption that plagues less noble lands is one of the wonders of the age. Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, one was over-exposed to a slew of misguided and indelibly smug verities, mostly under the header "best in the world" and seemingly designed to protect our self-regard against the ravages of economic strife and post-imperial decline.

The police were the best police in the world, and the NHS its best health service. The Royal Family, bless 'em, constituted the world's finest monarchy, and nowhere on the planet was there a more reliable insurance market than the one provided by Lloyds of London. The BBC was the world's best broadcaster, and Britain was indisputably the least corrupt country in the world.

Of the above, we have bravely got over all but the last two. Even as their global pre-eminence was being lauded, we later discovered, police officers were routinely persecuting black people, while the fiscal dealings between senior members of the vice squad and their supposed prey would have embarrassed Chicago in the Twenties.

Whatever the state of the NHS, we now know that health services in Scandinavia, middle Europe and especially France are superior in almost every regard. The magic of the House of Windsor, much as we enjoy the merriment, has been not so much damaged by the odd beam of daylight as irradiated by the gamma rays of public scorn. And Lloyds of London proved itself a gigantic con.

The solitary institution to emerge with its reputation intact, largely thanks to the ceaseless counterbalancing attacks on its integrity from either side of the political spectrum, is the BBC. Immeasurably boosted by Alastair Campbell's attempts to destroy it, the Beeb alone remains the source of national pride.

How the more nebulous faith in the fundamental incorruptibility of our political system and public figures has also survived is tribute as much to the measliness of British corruption as the national genius for self-delusion. When the French do it, they do it with such ostentation that the population shrugs and murmurs C'est la vie, while the Italians happily elected Berlusconi with eyes wide open to his connections and past activities.

The depressing thing about corruption here is not that it exists as systemically as elsewhere, but that it comes without a shred of style and panache. It's all so grubby and cheap, because those involved never seem to understand the value of what they're selling.

John Prescott traded what influence he had in the destination of that casino licence to Philip Anschutz for a Stetson, a cowboy belt and a couple of nights in his opulent Colorado ranch, when he could have taken a suitcase full of enough readies to stock the South Fork car pool with vintage E-types. Tony Blair took a party donation of £2m from the steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal to help fix a deal in Romania that proved to be worth billions. He would happily have stumped up 10 times that amount. So would Richard Desmond, who had his lucrative takeover of the Express newspaper group waved through unchallenged, as it certainly should have been considering his other publishing ventures, after giving Labour a pitiful £100,000. So would Bernie Ecclestone, who must have done a jig in his built-up shoes when he realised the bill for reversing policy on tobacco advertising in Formula 1 was a mere million.

Somehow, there seems something more noble about Uday and Quday Hussain turning up in broad daylight at Baghdad's central bank a few days before the Americans arrived to withdraw a cool $1bn in US notes than Cherie Blair giving US lectures as "the First Lady of Downing Street" and using her husband's name to bleed Australian children's cancer charities dry; or Alan Milburn and David Blunkett going straight from their government desks to directorships of companies willing to make up the loss of ministerial pay in return for using their inside information and Whitehall contacts.

As for the old Parisian practice of the van doing the rounds every Friday handing out wads of notes to various dignitaries, by comparison that brazenness almost warms the heart. It's certainly preferable to that bit of our unwritten constitution which insists that any new Prime Minister's first official duty on being elected, even before kissing the Queen's ring, is to kiss Rupert Murdoch's.

What more insidious form of corruption could there be than allowing a foreign national to dictate British policy on Europe, and tossing him such trinkets as exclusive live coverage of domestic Test cricket on Sky TV, in return for the votes his newspapers are believed to deliver?

Everywhere in the world there are dodgy politicians, criminally minded immigration officials and bent coppers. Only here is each fresh revelation greeted first with an ague of shock, and then with a torrent of protestations that, while there might be the odd bad apple, Britain remains a beacon of propriety to the world. Even now, despite almost 10 years of unrelenting evidence to the contrary, the odd leader article will wheel out the clause: "While of course there can be no doubting the Prime Minister's personal integrity ..."

Regardless of the specific nature of the corruption, nothing does more to perpetuate it than the nostalgic refusal to accept its ubiquity. When evidence emerged of match fixing in Italian football, prosecutors acted quickly and savagely against the four clubs involved. Here, Lord Stevens's inquiry into Premiership managers taking bribes - a practice to which blind eyes have been turned for at least 30 years - will rumble on interminably until the Premiership and the Football Association inevitably conclude that there is no case to answer. After all, every one of the five clubs identified by Stevens as serial bung-takers has had a British manager, and corruption has never been the British way.