June 07, 2015

Showing Corruption the Red Card

On the back of the Fifa corruption scandal, David Cameron has urged that we tackle corruption more widely.

Whilst his intentions seem entirely laudable, Britain’s own history suggests the way to achieving this may not be straightforward and that an essential part of the process is a debate, at times an uncomfortable one, about what constitutes corruption.

During the course of its evolution as a major European and imperial state with a leading economy, Britain experienced a protracted debate about what corruption was, what caused it, and how to tackle it. That debate lasted at least three hundred years and arguably longer.

The Fifa scandal has highlighted many interesting issues, but two in particular have historical parallels. The first is that corruption can infect non-governmental institutions just as much as the state. This suggests that the definition of corruption currently used by the World Bank and others – that corruption is the abuse of public office for private gain – is too narrow. A more useful one is ‘the abuse of entrusted power for private gain’, the definition used by anti-corruption lobbying organisation Transparency International. Clearly Fifa officials were not public officials in the sense of occupying an office of state; but they were public officials in the sense that they had entrusted power, from local footballing associations and even, in a wider sense, from football fans. This circumstance was the norm in pre-modern Britain, when the officered state was incredibly small and many institutions of power were semi-private. The Bank of England, for example, was not originally a state institution but a set of private investors who loaned money to the state. Thinking about corruption in terms of the abuse or breach of trust might be a useful one in the modern world too, since it is a concept that spans the state, financial institutions, communities and even individuals.

The second issue raised forcibly by the Fifa scandal is how behaviour can seem corrupt to some but not to others, and Britain’s own history is full of examples of this double vision. One justification of Fifa’s activities has been that the organisation has still promoted the public good: significant investment has been made in the footballing infrastructure of developing countries. We do not need to believe that every delegate to Fifa was receiving back-handers to explain why Blatter was able to garner so many votes for his albeit-temporary re-election. Yet to those of in the West, Fifa’s activities appear highly self-interested and to have breached anti-corruption laws. Blatter himself, from this perspective, is represented as monstrous.

The ambiguity about whether behaviour is corrupt and the resulting double-sidedness of those in public office leads to the same individual being seen very differently by different groups. We might remember figures from our own history, with whom we apparently have a good deal of sympathy, who seemed sure about the propriety of their own actions despite the condemnation of others. Take, for example, the diarist Samuel Pepys, about whom I wrote an article last year. As an administrator of the navy in the 1660s Pepys was in a good position to take back-handers for lucrative navy contractors and his income in that decade increased by a staggering 600-fold, clearly not just the result of official pay. Yet although Pepys condemned corruption in others, he did not see himself as corrupt. He called those who paid him sweeteners his ‘friends’ who were repaying ‘favours’ he had done them; and he clung to the notion that the key thing was whether his activity advanced the king’s service. If it did, then it did not really matter too much if he himself gained along the way.

pepys National Portrait Gallery image of Samuel Pepys

Pepys was nevertheless attacked in print for his corruption. A pamphlet, published whilst Pepys was incarcerated in the Tower of London because of his alleged complicity in the ‘popish’ policies of the future James II, listed at length the luxury items that he was said to have taken or been given. Here, then, is another parallel issue between pre-modern Britain and the Fifa scandal: who is responsible for exposing and then cleaning up corrupt behaviour? Should it be the press, the agencies of the law, Parliamentary or international representative bodies, or the mass of the citizenry?

The press in Britain’s history of ‘anti-corruption’ was an important tool; but it was seldom successful on its own and in any case many thought that the press was itself a corrupting factor (the spectacle of newspaper groups convicted of phone-hacking venomously attacking the corruption at Fifa has been an interesting one). The justice system was also significant, bringing many to book; but the law did not always reflect public opinion about what was corrupt behaviour. Warren Hastings, the governor of India who many regarded as corrupt, was nevertheless acquitted in 1795 after one of the longest corruption trials in British history. Parliament itself was hardly in a position to crusade against corruption when, prior to the reform acts of the nineteenth century, the process of electing MPs was itself highly corrupt. In turn, one MP in the first decade of the nineteenth century blamed the corruption of Parliament on the electorate: if voters were not so grasping, MPs would not have to offer them so many blandishments. In other words, in that MP’s mind, the people were themselves corrupt and there were plenty of those who saw corruption not as a judicial or administrative issue, but as a moral or even a religious one affecting the mass of the people. The culture of greed and the desire to ‘make a fortune’ (itself a phrase invented in the late sixteenth/early seventeenth century) were, some claimed, the result of the decline of piety and the replacement of Christian selflessness with the self-interested values of the market. Deciding on what authority might remedy corruption therefore involved far-reaching questions about how far the law reflected public attitudes to what constituted corruption; about how far institutions such as the press and Parliament were suitable tools for reform; and about how far any rule changes might be effectual if they were not accompanied by a more general cultural and social re-examination of individual behaviour and values.

All this has made for lively debate in Britain for a very long time. This was something which stirred national debate, advanced through the press but also through popular pressure in the form of mass-petitions, protest meetings and even riots. Fear of serious unrest was one of the key factors pushing through the Reform Act of 1832. The current PM calls corruption ‘the enemy of democracy’; yet active debate about corruption was one of the factors that actually helped the democratising process and helped to refine the values of accountability that we now invoke. The debate about corruption in the past was a lively, messy but also reasonably inclusive and popular one, not just one for politicians in Parliament, an institution which until the nineteenth century was itself plagued with accusations of being corrupt and itself in need of reform (a call that has some resonance with popular perceptions today). If the Prime Minister is serious about the need for tackling corruption today, perhaps we need some such national conversation again. But it might not be pretty.


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The Monster of Corruption, a detail from a satire of 1819

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