The Owen Paterson scandal underscored the corruption at the heart of our government
Photo: Tommy London / Alamy Stock Photo
Is there a politics of corruption, or is there a corruption of politics? Politics simply means ‘us’; from the Greek word polis, the city-state and its people. Politics extracts the essence of ‘being led’, and combines it into a formula and system of thinking and doing.
We choose the politics, or the leadership we wish to see leading us. Most of us want to be left alone, so we choose a politics of disengagement, or limited engagement. Hence marking our cross on the ballot is often all that we do politically.
The only other big political thing we do is ‘buy’. Buying is deeply political in the sense that what we buy, how we buy, greatly influences the politics of our world. The traders that tempt us to trade with them throw off the monies that combine with the monies that we make through our labour, or receive through our benefits, to fund via taxes the platform for politicians to parade and perform.
The basis of all politics is public money. The spending of it. The distribution of it; the usefulness of it. Corruption of politics is often around how public money is passed around and spent. And the advantages gained from government contracts.
We have been through a beanfeast of public money spending during the pandemic. No ‘gravy train’ has been as big as the one that arrived after March 2020. And there has been corruption thrown up around that. Government contracts based not always on the skills and value being offered by private companies, but on who’s got the ear of the money spenders in government.
It is an enormous responsibility to have billions to spend, with many hands reaching out for it from the private sector: often people who usually loathe ‘big government’ and government spending. Often advocates of the ‘free market’ and laissez-faire capitalism.
But these are people who relish, who thirst for the little inside tip or contact that puts them in front of others who wish to get their hands on this enormous pool of money thrown up by trade and the taxes we pay.
Should we continue to allow the same government who decides where public money should be allocated, to actually spend that money? Isn’t this too much of a responsibility to leave in the hands of governments who may have friends, former colleagues – former prime ministers – petitioning them for a bit of the action? Are we not putting temptation in the way of people who may not have the moral fibre to refuse?
When I was a child the Minister of Transport would cycle past my parents’ council flat on the way to Parliament. He was obviously chosen to be minister of transport because he knew about transport. But when road and bridge contracts were handed out, was it wise for his own family company to get so many of the contracts?
When a former prime minister, or a minister, or even a well-connected MP, can to their benefit influence who gets the contract, then you are in the realms of corruption. The rot of public life. The rot of what politics means. The corruption of politics and the politics of corruption.
Yet the government seems to have largely absorbed, without further repercussions on the Prime Minister, that big display of corruption in Parliament last year, when it was advocated by government that the rules that would trap an Owen Paterson for lining his own pockets be rescinded and reformed, allowing the offender under the existing rules to be reformulated as snowy white. A more blatant piece of rottenness I cannot recall. And that it was turned into a big temporary fuss and allowed to slide from consciousness beggars belief. If you want to nail the nastiness of corruption, do it on big issues like public money passing wrongly into undeserving hands.
But we of course have had bigger fish to fry. Not the corruption of government spending and the abuse of our precious taxes, but who is ‘celebrating socially’ while the rules prevent others from so doing? It reminded me of the posh West End hotels of the Second World War who were serving black market grouse and salmon to the wealthy, washed down with champagne, while the rest of the populace were on rations of an egg a week and a pork chop every second year.
This is corruption, but of a different stamp than that of former prime ministers and ministers and well-placed MPs feasting off public money. A corruption that could rot all that is good, and has been good, about our continuing passage through the saga of the pandemic. All those wonderful outbursts of kindness and social tenderness. Corrupted, yes, by some ‘ginning it or prosecco-ing it up’ in government gardens, but also determinedly undermined by the corruption of public money. And its abuse by those with the strings and the pulleys of power.
Let us separate those actually doling out public money from those that decide what the money needs spending on. After all, it is the role of our kind of political system to ask our leaders to decide where the next flood barrier, train line, industrial complex should be built. But should we put the poor, often silly, lovies in charge of who gets the big job and the big juicy cheque?
Let’s remove temptation from them so that even the hint of payola is simply not a possibility. How you separate that is a new can of worms, but one worth considering. We may need the modern equivalent of eunuchs, who guarded the harems of the ancient emperors – the incorruptible. That is, if such a sub-species of us exists.
John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.
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