Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Corruption is now endemic in our political culture

Monday 25 February 2008 01:00 GMT

I wonder if dishonesty at high levels is now so embedded in the British political culture that those who indulge in it truly don't consider it a wrong, consider the odd financial naughtiness nothing more than that or a treat they occasionally give themselves.

The hefty Michael Martin, Speaker of the House, may well be nonplussed and mystified that small change – a mere £4,280 – claimed from the public purse for taxi trips by his fragrant wife, Mary, should have got the Sunday papers quite so over-excited. She went out only a few times from their grace-and-favour apartments for a little shopping, as you do, taking with her their housekeeper whose wages, I trust, are paid for by the Speaker himself. Being hunted like a fox by the high-riding media will feel most intrusive and hurtful. Hounds have already been sniffing over his payments for his Glasgow home, which has no mortgage, and also office costs in that city to which he may not strictly be entitled.

He takes his position very seriously, does this Glaswegian overseer of MPs and their courtly conduct, less so, it has to be said, of some of their murkier dealings. During the kerfuffle over the Tory cheat Derek Conway, who was paying his son for invisible "research", Martin could call up no conviction at all; his condemnations were as weak as decaf tea. Perhaps we now know why.

The world has, over centuries, come to believe that public figures in Britain are impeccably upright and honourable, the odd bad apple chucked before any rot sets in. My whole school life in Uganda was a paean to pure and perfectly-run Brittania. "Corruption" is what you get in Third world Nations and Eastern Europe.

Relatively speaking , of course, that is true. There isn't an automatic expectation of bribes at every level, nor does any British PM have illicit billions in Swiss accounts. But there is now an acceptance that participation in the nation's affairs can give you advantages you must grab, even if old-fashioned rules get broken.

Meanwhile nepotism is considered best practice in most powerful and influential bodies and professions. Lovers (including mistresses and ex-rent boys) have been given "jobs" in the Commons by their amorous MPs while others bring in kith and kin. Britain has become more sleazy and there is little shame when illegitimate acts are exposed.

Even more alarming is the casual disregard of more serious corruption and highly questionable actions across several different areas. Rich people can, with impunity, have offshore accounts, protect their loot to evade taxes. Non-doms, like Ron Sandler, are rewarded, put on boards and government quangos. The largest ever number of ex-ministers – Labour – have gone on to the boards of private-sector establishments for loadsa money. Blair is joined in the excellent career move by the always pontificating Denis McShane, the smooth Alan Milburn, bruiser man of the people, John Reid, school ma'am Patricia Hewitt, and various ambitious others.

It gets worse. Tony Blair was never officially interrogated about his surely illegal intervention to stop the court case against arms traders BAE Systems, accused of taking bribes from Saudi Arabia, and the Government has never explained why it has facilitated US "rendition" flights with suspect terrorists being exported to torture chambers.

Mohamed Al Fayed's rant last week on the bent ways of the establishment sure entertained us all. A real crazed Arab, nothing funnier. What he said, though wasn't all mad, nor funny. Millions of folk around the country are in danger of giving up completely on our precious democratic system because they can't stand the way people in high office sidestep the laws of the land.

The Speaker's spokesman, Mike Granatt, erstwhile respected government communications director, resigned this weekend over the taxigate scandal. He is a civil servant down to his marrow and, like most British civil servants, believes in a clean and accountable ruling class. Of them we must be proud, the last bastion, almost lethally debilitated in the Blair era by amoral special advisers who despised propriety, checks and balances. They were the rude kids on the block, ready to kick away boring, time-consuming conventions that have served this nation well. Some Britons argue we get more revelations about big shots behaving badly and that all of this has always gone on. They forget John Profumo, the sense of shock and shame that engulfed the nation when that scandal broke.

Michel Brunet, a Canadian historian, said in 1973: "there is corruption in any government – there is always corruption. It's bad when it is more than 15 per cent." We are way over that figure. The last decade has taken us right into the pits. I am not sure we will ever scramble out again.


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