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How Corrupt is Britain?

Ben Ryan

How Corrupt is Britain?

David Whyte

Pluto Press, 208pp

This collection of essays is set up with the intention to shatter British complacency on the trustworthiness of our public institutions. The shock factor begins in an introduction that challenges the idea that Britain is any better than Russia or Afghanistan. From there the essays relentlessly turn their fire on a succession of British public institutions; the police, financial sector, government, and media. Such a wide-ranging attack might initially raise concerns that this collection is an hysterical or paranoid rant. One might suspect that it would form part of that anti-establishment and anti-elitist movement that has been building lately, typified by Russell Brand's Revolution or Owen Jones's The Establishment. Those fears, at least, can be put to rest. This is a far more sophisticated and academically rigorous collection than either of those publications. Whyte has assembled a strong list of academic contributors and has developed, particularly with David Beetham in chapter 1, an innovative and challenging model of corruption. The key argument of the book as a whole is that we need to move beyond the World Bank definition of corruption as 'the abuse of public office for private gain' to a broader 'the distortion and subversion of the public realm in the service of private interests'. The scope, accordingly, is broadened from bribery to institutional cover-ups and market manipulation. The most interesting part of the overarching narrative is that the enemy is not so much corruption itself, nor the institutions that perpetuate it, but the underlying hegemony of neoliberalism in Britain today. This is most fully explored by David Miller in the third chapter. This neoliberalism has become dominant to the extent that all public life is envisaged as being essentially a market exchange (the authors assuming a model of economic neoliberalism in which the market becomes the key agent in governance and society). This has led to the individualization and competitiveness of a society that as a result has broadly ceased to have any proper conception of public interest or good. Corruption as a result becomes only a symptom of this doctrine, with individuals and institutions divorced from any legitimate conception of what the public good requires and so institutionalizing their efforts at self-preservation and advancement. It's an intriguing argument and one which would have benefited from being explored more thoroughly in the other chapters. For example, how true is it that the internalisation of neoliberal doctrine was behind the Hillsborough cover-up when neoliberalism was surely not nearly so dominant at that point? It is also a diagnosis which is left without much by way of an antidote. This points to a difficulty with working out what the book is really for. It certainly does not propose many answers to corruption or to challenging neoliberalism. There is no attempt, for example, at proposing a new, better way of envisaging public space as might be provided, for example, by recourse to Catholic Social Teaching (which, with its emphasis on the common good and solidarity has been getting renewed attention as an answer to economic issues recently). Not providing such an answer would be fine if the point of the book were to prove its case that Britain is just as corrupt as elsewhere. But it does not really do that either. It provides a damning list of examples of corruption. They are good examples, albeit that none of them will come as news to anyone (examples include Hillsborough, Jimmy Saville, Stephen Lawrence, Mark Duggan, LIBOR, and a host of other well-known scandals). However, to make that case there needs to be some sort of standard by which these are judged by comparison to other examples of corruption. There is no such comparison, no attempt to explore the difference between the case in Russia and Afghanistan and ourselves. The reader is left wondering, if we step back from the legitimate disgust at some of the examples, whether there is any way by which these scandals can be assessed so as to come to any useful judgements. This is the slight oddness throughout the whole book. It reads as a ferocious, but curiously un-rooted, attack. Example is thrown after example, but there is a lacuna at the heart of each chapter which is a failure to assess what makes this worse than or equivalent to the examples we could readily draw from any other society. The argument about neoliberalism might have provided a basis for this (since neoliberalism is less dominant in other national settings), but it is not employed as such. There seems to be a reluctance to ever actually claim this corruption as being morally problematic. Terms like 'morality' are conspicuous by their absence throughout (with the exception of Wiegratz's chapter, and even there only really as a sort of technical tool). One is left with what reads sometimes like a prophetic denouncement of the evils of our time, and yet somehow manages to stop short of daring to talk in terms of morality, justice or fairness. This only adds to the reader's slight confusion as to the purpose of the book. If it is a critical assessment of Britain's levels of corruption compared with the rest of the world then it lacks a critical tool by which to make such evaluations. If its target is to fix these corrupt practices then it lacks any hints towards a solution. If the target is to reform society away from neoliberalism it lacks focus on that theme. Finally, if it is a great prophetic denouncement it seems to lack a real sense of its own moral basis. There is much in this book which is extremely powerful, it is simply a shame that that power is not clearly translated towards a clear end.