Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Democracy & Corruption


What with accusations in the popular press that MPs and the judiciary are trying to overturn a democratic vote, charges of treason 'against the people' are being bandied around the internet. Setting aside the fact that there is no such things as treason 'against the people' in English law, if it's treasonable to seek to overturn a democratic vote, where does that put the unions and their alleged and recently avowed intent to bring down the democratically elected government? What's good for the goose is surely also good for the gander, yet no-one is screaming traitor in this case. 

Another charge that's doing the rounds is one of corruption at the heart of the EU and the UK government; however, is this actually the case. We're fed stories by the press about increasing corruption, but the fact corruption is willfully hidden makes it very difficult to either monitor or quantify with any meaningful metric. Not only that, but are we talking about corruption in public life or business?

I can find no hard facts on trends in government corruption - i.e. whether the UK (as an example) is more corrupt now than it was say 50 years ago. Even polls on perception of corruption are notoriously unreliable, as opinion is generally informed by the media, whom a) increasingly have a political agenda and b) like to juice things up to sell papers (hence the large number of apologies they have to print).

If I were to posit that the UK is no more corrupt now than 50 years ago, no-one could prove me wrong; neither could I prove myself right. It just seems to me that the corruption narrative suits the agenda while having nothing to back it up - and the agenda is increasingly being set by a partizan media.

Click to enlarge

The above chart from a report by Transparency International into UK corruption shows perceived corruption in various areas of life. Unsurprisingly, politics is perceived as the area where most corruption takes place, and also surprising is that the NHS, despite its massive procurement budget and questionable contracts with the private sector, is seen as having little corruption. I reiterate that this chart is for perceived, rather than actual corruption. Our national love affair with the NHS must feed into this perception.

One thing worth pointing out is that it's less than 200 years since a seat in parliament could be bought or gifted. That, at least, is no longer the case (unless you count the Chelsea council homes for votes scandal). In the 18th and 19th centuries it was an indisputable fact that  politics was rife with corruption - in fact it's doubtful if much (including the Industrial Revolution) could have been achieved without it.

At the heart of corruption in public life is temptation, and nothing is more tempting than having lots of power and consequent control of a very large budget. A large procurement budget is also tempting to those lower in the pecking order charged with spending it. So, logically, big government provides a breeding ground for corruption and small or distributed government reduces the temptation. Here we have a paradox in that the right generally wants a reduction in the size of government (usually at the expense of social care), whereas the left is a fan of big government (by beefing up social care). Thus a left wing government would have more temptation - and opportunity - to become corrupt, but it's perceived as more of a right-wing problem aligned to cronyism.

It's worth bearing in mind that any tradesman who will accept a discounted cash sum rather than issuing a VAT invoice is guilty of corruption, as is the customer who pays that cash and doesn't demand a VAT receipt. How many of us are guilty of corruption?

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