The rise of the kleptocracy: Sleaze is a symptom of a wider malaise that heralds the end of party politics, argues Neal Ascherson

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When the tide goes out, hidden forms of life are exposed to view. All kinds of spiny, greedy, slimy creatures scuttle for cover and fight to get under the nearest flat stone.

All over the world, there is a low-water spring tide in politics. The flat stones are being turned over, and every kind of corruption is coming to light. This week, as John Major's government struggled with 'sleaze', the Independent's foreign staff have surveyed political corruption in the United States, Italy, France, Japan and, today, Spain. Their reports show that the grand uproar over the abuse of money in politics is more than a European phenomenon, and more than a copycat media fashion. A change has taken place in the whole global environment of politics. This is a moment of history.

There are two underlying reasons for the falling of the tide. One is the world recession, which set in at the end of the free-market boom in the Eighties. The second is the end of the Cold War.

It can be no coincidence that so many of these scandals and revelations began to appear in the late Eighties. It was in 1989 that Jim Wright, the Speaker of Congress in the United States, was nailed for accepting illegitimate gifts, followed by an apparently endless run of other exposures. The 'Recruit' affair in Japan, which destroyed a prime minister and set off a landslide that has transformed Japanese party politics, began at about the same time. The attack on the Italian tangentopoli began a little later, in the early Nineties, like the onslaught on French politicians, but the judiciary in both countries had been stockpiling ammunition for several years. In Britain, the stench had been gathering around the Government since the last years of Mrs Thatcher's administration, and it was only a matter of time before the flat stone was lifted.

Recession dragged the tide down in several ways. Cash for political donations began to dry up. Party managers grew desperate; their search for funds led them to ring doorbells which once they would have avoided (the bells of Asil Nadir or Mohamed al-Fayed, for example). At the same time, as state budgets were slashed and the opportunities for buying government contracts grew rarer, businessmen began to ask themselves what they were getting for their money. But the greed of politicians for kick-backs and commissions grew, if anything, more intense (one of the causes of the Italian explosion was that ministers increased the rate of rake-off in the early Nineties). Scared by falling profit margins and vexed by official rapacity, the great entrepreneurs grew more ready to sneak on one another to journalists and prosecutors.

The end of the Cold War began a steady disruption of politics in the West which is still going on. The cosy world in which business routinely lined the pockets of right-wing parties suffered badly, especially in Europe. For nearly 50 years, especially in Italy and France, industry and the financial houses had staked right-wing and centrist parties in order to keep the native Communists safely in the ghetto of opposition.

The removal of the 'Soviet threat' and the rapid decline of French and Italian Communism allowed business to re-think its targets of political funding. The younger generation of entrepreneurs is more eclectic and much less discreet about 'sponsorship'; some have put money behind new far-right parties like the National Front in France, while in Japan the 1992 Sagawa scandal arose from the attempt of a transport corporation to finance the breakaway of a new party from the ranks of the Liberal Democrats.

But if recession and the fall of Communism pulled the tide out, they do not fully explain the rush of the beachcombers - those who turn over the stones.

It was not rival politicians who denounced the corruption of those in power.

Exposure came, instead, from two other groups on the political fringe: the prosecutors and the journalists. In many continental legal systems, there is a separate prosecution service (not in England, although Scotland has a more 'European' legal structure). The juges d'instruction in France, the Italian prosecutors, and the German Staatsanwaltschaft are bodies with their own distinct morale, often staffed by young and ambitious men and women eager to make a reputation with some giant-slaying trial that seizes headlines.

A prosecution service is relatively independent; trial judges in contrast, like the French parquet, often owe their jobs to political patronage and are much less inclined to rock boats. What took place in France and above all in Italy was nothing less than an insurrection of radical prosecutors, who took the sensational decision to attack the whole political machine of their countries in the name of the constitution.

In Britain and the United States, where no such legal rebellion was possible, journalists have done most of the exposing. The enormous rise in the power and confidence of the media, usurping so much of the deliberative and critical role that used to belong to elected parliaments, has many causes. One precondition, so obvious that it is easy to overlook, is that media power can only flourish under the rule of law. The past few years have seen the murder of journalists in France and Italy who found out too much, just as Dmitri Kholodov was murdered this month in Moscow for investigating corruption in the Russian Ministry of Defence. But even the boldest journalist needs more than rat-like cunning and a bullet-proof waistcoat. He or she needs the leak - the beans-spilling financier, the 'deep throat' within the establishment - and above all a public mood which is hungry to know what the journalist wants to reveal.

The leaks and the hunger are there in abundance now. And, very significantly, they are as abundant in Britain, a country where public life is still relatively clean and where the state has traditionally been trusted rather than despised, as in Italy or Spain. This seems at first puzzling.

But it points to another fundamental force which is driving the tide of sleaze revelation out so far: the decline of politics itself.

In one of his angriest essays, Hans Magnus Enzensberger suggests that we should be sorry for politicians. They should be seen as just one more marginal group on the social fringe, like drug-abusers or fundamentalist sects: cut off from the real world, self-obsessed, blindly attached to the past, irrelevant, headed for extinction.

What is true, beyond Enzensberger's satire, is that party politics and party loyalty - great hierarchical structures demanding mass affiliation and conferring a sense of identity - no longer fit the new kind of society which is emerging. This society is diverse, unpredictable, atomised; composed increasingly of individuals who are forced to rely on themselves and to take their own decisions in order to prosper or survive. People find it harder to recognise themselves or their needs in the crude divisions imposed by traditional parties. They are ceasing to respect a centralised state which delivers less and less, or to identify with a form of democracy which offers one vote for a representative every five years. They ask, at last: who do these politicians think they are, and what can they do that justifies their privileges?

Corruption, in the broad sense, is as old as politics. In the past, it has made a crude sense: a leader was expected to shower rewards on the relations and backers who helped him into leadership. Much later, in democratic times, the rich funded parties of property in order to keep the mass of have-nots out of political power: class loyalty was so strong that bribes were scarcely required to maintain the bond between the middle class and its politicians.

Elements of both systems survive: in jobs-for-the-boys in South Wales, or the packing of quangos, or the operations of Aims of Industry. But the decay -simultaneous - of class identity and state authority now encourages the 'client' to pay for one job at a time, to purchase an MP or bribe a minister, rather than fork out for party funds. Why buy a cow when you can pay the milkman for a pint?

All power corrupts, but impotence corrupts even faster. In the old Italian tangentopoli, ministers were bribed as much to do nothing as to do something -to overlook fraud, tax evasion and organised crime. In Britain, the public do not yet regard democracy as kleptocracy; ministerial corruption still shocks, and there is still faith that government can be clean. But as the tide of deference ebbs all over the world, the British, too, are revolted by the introverted arrogance of those they pay to represent them. Politics to benefit a class they can understand. But politics simply to benefit politicians? The limit has been reached, and the whole system - not just its weak points - must be changed.

(Photograph omitted)