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Understanding “soft corruption”… and why we should care

The ubiquitous brown envelope stuffed with cash exchanged for favours comes to mind when we think about corruption.  We might think of companies bribing government officials in order to win lucrative contracts.  We might think of bankers being generously rewarded for market rigging.  We might remember occasions where politicians were bribed to ask questions.  Those of us who have travelled beyond Western Europe may also have encountered corrupt officialdom such as the Russian traffic cops who regard on-the-spot fines for spurious offenses as a legitimate addition to their salaries.  In terms of this “hard” form of corruption the UK does pretty well.

But there is another, insidious “soft” form of corruption that has eaten its way through the very fabric of contemporary British society.  My own encounter with soft corruption came in the 1990s as part of the Defeat Depression Campaign.  The campaign – which set out to raise awareness of depression – was run by a combination of mental health professionals and charitable bodies.  However, it was heavily funded by the pharmaceutical companies that were marketing the (then) new SSRI antidepressants.  Some years later, when safety concerns about the SSRI antidepressants came to light, those involved in the campaign were accused of having participated in a cover up; taking large sums of cash in exchange for playing down the safety concerns and overstating the benefits.  But this was to miss the point about soft corruption.  It is insidious precisely because nothing is asked of its recipients.  Indeed, around the same time, I spoke with a senior civil servant about how they managed charities that criticised government policy.  “I suppose you would cut their funding” I said.  “No,” he replied, “I would give them more money than they could manage.”  This was for the same reason as the pharmaceutical companies were handing out cash – to create dependency.  When half of the staff on a charity’s payroll are there because of someone else’s funding (state or corporate), that charity will inevitably self-censor its message.  The pharmaceutical companies had no need to tell us what to say – we worked it out for ourselves!

Today, soft corruption divides the “one-percent” from the rest of us.  It is what used to be called the “Old Boy Network” of former public school and Oxbridge students each helping the other up the greasy pole.  It manifests in the vast number of ministerial special advisors and temporary “civil” servants on secondment from one or other of the banks or accounting firms in the City of London.  Famously, secondees from the big four accounting firms serve the public by creating new tax rules, then return to their firms where they aid their wealthy clients by helping them avoid/evade those very same rules.  We see a similar process in public procurement, where former secondees provide insider knowledge to the large firms that pick up lucrative government contracts to run public services.

Soft corruption operates best in a society where career progression is restricted.  If people go through university, racking up big debts, they need to get a foot on one of the few career ladders that leads into the elite.  It used to be that careers in law, medicine and education would allow this.  But over the last two decades these professions have been undermined to the point that they cannot be relied upon to deliver a salary sufficient to both pay off student debt and raise a family.  Increasingly in the UK, a relatively small group of mega corporations – mostly in banking and finance – offer the only career ladders that more or less guarantee a ticket at least into the top quintile of income distribution (the only one whose incomes have risen since 2008).

Crucially, when I speak of career progression, I am not simply referring to fresh-faced graduates at the start of their working lives.  Many people in mid-career also seek avenues to an enhanced standard of living.  And this creates the greater danger for soft corruption, because someone in mid-career also understands that she/he must self-censor and toe the line to get on.

It is in exactly this light that we should consider the career moves of the former Prime Minister and former Chancellor into the banking and finance sector.  Given that this pair presided over the biggest economic collapse in modern history, we can pretty much dismiss any thought that they have been employed for their economic sagacity.  It is far more likely that their main use will be in the contacts that they built up while in office, together with their understanding of the political process.

But in large part, the new careers are a reward – not in the “hard corruption” sense of a direct payback for bailing out the banks in 2008 (although this will have been a consideration).   As I point out in my latest book, The Consciousness of Sheep:

“While nothing so sordid as a direct offer of a directorship in exchange for a change in the law is ever made, most senior politicians are already aware of where their long-term best interests lie.  Nor is it a matter of enacting corporate interests irrespective of their political beliefs.  Rather, it is that only those beliefs that correspond to corporate interests are prioritised.”

The key weapon in the corporate armoury is the modern cult of youth that mass media have systematically deployed to undermine any senior politician who might reach retirement age at the end of his or her time in office.  Anyone who remembers that disgraceful orchestrated media campaign against the then 65 year old Liberal leader Menzies Campbell knows how this works, and has some idea of what will be meted out to the 65 year old Jeremy Corbyn in the event of even the remotest possibility of his winning in 2020.  Margaret Thatcher was the last prime minister to reach retirement age (65) prior to leaving office; while no twentieth century prime minister was younger than 55 on leaving office:

“Indeed, when Tony Blair took office in 1997, he was the youngest British Prime Minister in nearly 200 years.  Yet when David Cameron took office in 2010, he was slightly younger.  Had either Nick Clegg or Ed Miliband become Prime Minister in 2015, they would have been younger than any 20th century Prime Minister.”

Chart showing the ages of British prime ministers

“Why the age of political leaders matters in a democratic state operating within a corporate framework is because youth is more amenable to persuasion.  Most senior politicians today can expect to work for another two decades after leaving office.  As a result, the age old offer of a public pension and a seat in the House of Lords has lost much of its allure.  Instead, today’s politicians need to find highly paid work elsewhere if they are to build upon the living standard achieved while in office.  There are few such positions.  Those that do exist are located within the corporations that spend a considerable amount of time and effort lobbying politicians.”

If, a decade from now, David Cameron and George Osborne (unless he becomes prime minister) were turn up as directors or special advisors to one or other of the banking and finance corporations, I doubt that anyone would be surprised.  We will treat those appointments as the run of the mill way things get done, just as we have done with Brown and Darling.  In truth, we should be outraged by the way the cult of youth and the provision of second careers has allowed the corporations to steal our democracy from right under our noses.

As our economy crashes, our supplies of cheap fossil fuels dry up, and the clouds of environmental destruction gather on the horizon, maybe now would be a good time to start re-valuing older political leaders once more… not because these are beyond corruption altogether, but at least because they are not so obviously treating high public office as little more than a stepping stone on the road to a corporate career.

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