How corrupt is the UK?

Updated Friday, 28th February 2014
Hackgate, political fraud, Hillsborough: the UK has the potential to be as corrupt as anywhere else in the world.

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A cartoon depicting corruption in Britain There is now a daily diet of corruption scandals hitting the headlines in Britain, from phone tapping by the media to a range of cover-ups at banks, the BBC, and in the police. Our major institutions are repeatedly being exposed as arenas where corruption, if not rife, is present in far greater quantities than many of us first thought. 

Britain previously claimed a proud, if naive and largely mythical tradition of fair play and of open politics but is now daily being humbled by sensational stories of scandalous behaviour. Humble Britain, or so we thought, could never compete with explosive scandals that plague other countries.

The World Bank's definition of corruption, probably the most widely used, is simply 'the abuse of public office for private gain'. This is the definition used by the major anti-corruption NGO Transparency International which annually produces what it call the world corruption index.  

The latest Global Corruption league table, for 2012 ranks Denmark, Finland and New Zealand equal top (or least corrupted) of 174 nations. The UK is joint 17th along with Japan. The most corrupt countries are many of those torn apart by internal conflict or subject to western armed intervention – Iraq is 169th, Sudan 173rd, Afghanistan equal bottom with North Korea and Somalia.

But the recent historical experience of Britain shows that the definition given above is far too narrow to allow us to understand the problem completely. It is a definition that has its origins in thinking about the problem of corruption as something which affects developing or economically 'backward' societies that fail to respect the liberal division between 'public' and 'private' domains. 

'After the collapse of Enron and Worldcom, Europeans and Americans cannot assume that grand corruption is something that belongs primarily to the non-Western "Other" or to public-sector officials in defective state bureaucracies can also be found in the very heart of the regulated world capitalist system,' argues David Whyte, who organised a conference last year into corruption in British life with the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.

'If we have corruption in British public life, we have always been told, it is only at the margins of our public and private institutions', he argues. 'Thanks to the daily reporting of major newspapers getting involved in phone taping and pay offs to police officers, the seemingly endless examples of the falsification of police statements in some of our highest profile cases such as Stephen Lawrence and Hillsborough, LIBOR rate-fixing, personal protection insurance mis-selling, horsemeat in our burgers, arms companies bribing foreign governments, drug companies illegally paying other drug companies to keep accessible medicines off the market, politicians being paid to ask questions and fixing expenses claims and so on and on and on, this whopping great myth is no longer plausible.

'There is now more than enough evidence in the public domain to show that corruption is endemic in our political institutions, our businesses and our police and security forces. We live in a world in which the boundaries between public and private power are increasingly blurred. Corruption appears to be spread through British public life using increasingly complex systems which show no respect for the boundaries between public and private domains.'

We now live in an age where the disconnect between mainstream politics and the electorate is becoming increasingly more acute. What is urgently needed is a dialogue between campaigns for police accountability, tax justice, executive pay, political and corporate accountability, and the transformation of the financial sector.  

Such a dialogue already exists (see How Corrupt is Britain?). I urge you to engage with it.

  • Content of this blog is taken from How corrupt is Britain? by Dr David Whyte of Liverpool University, who guest-edited the proceedings of a conference on corruption held at the University of Liverpool in May 2013 and organised by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, of which The Open University's Centre for Comparative Criminological Research is a partner.

This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it. Find out more about the blog and the team.
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Please note: The opinions expressed in Society Matters posts are those of the individual authors, and do not represent the views of The Open University.




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