First published 22 April 2021
“When did we stop caring about honesty and integrity?”
A line from a BBC crime drama went viral recently after viewers began listing ways in which the dialogue uttered by the head of a fictional police anti-corruption unit, resonates in real life.
Considering Westminster’s all-party public accounts committee has concluded that the mind-boggling 37 billion pounds of tax-payer money spent by the UK on an incomplete test and trace system last year “made no measurable difference” to the pandemic’s progress, Boris Johnson’s government has had a remarkably easy ride on allegations of graft and incompetence.
Media coverage of the plethora of cronies and relatives found to have benefited from PPE, test and trace, and other contracts last year has often seemed muted.
The pandemic provided Boris Johnson with an added layer of protection to add to the buffer provided by his government’s large majority. As if that is not enough, the mere threat (since withdrawn) of “Big 6” Premier League clubs joining the breakaway ESL instantly united the nation in opposition, while giving Johnson a platform on which to be seen railing against greedy monopolists.
Perfect timing for the government, as the collapse last month of Greensill Capital, a finance firm founded by a past adviser to former PM David Cameron, reinvigorated press interest in investigating allegations of corruption.
In part, this is due to the dramatic nature of the collapse, which had the knock-on effect of bringing Liberty Steel, the nation’s third largest producer, to the verge of bankruptcy, while exposing its owner, Sanjeev Gupta, to fraud allegations; Sunday Times reported this week on a “circular money trail” by which Gupta profited on borrowing funds from Greensill, to sell steel to himself.
The other factor is the hubris of David Cameron, revealed to have lobbied for his former adviser’s firm on the promise of tens of millions in share options. It is easy to recall that in 2010, as he famously campaigned on a slogan “to mend broken Britain,” he also predicted that lobbying and a “cosy relationship between politics and money” was “the next big scandal waiting to happen.”
Characteristically, Cameron is shrugging off the fuss by claiming he did nothing wrong by talking to and texting friends and acquaintances, adding for good measure that he never made millions anyway, because Greensill collapsed. Johnson has duly announced enquiries, but presumably hopes public interest will wane or go away; there are far more successful and bigger contracts which can be linked to his own government’s ministers and hangers-on.
A few overexcited opinion-mongers have suggested that a return of 1990s style “Tory sleaze” headlines is bad news for Johnson. This underestimates, however, the size of the electoral mountain the opposition must climb to win an election.
Not to mention the inexplicably Teflon nature of the Johnson brand. Whilst it is a truism of British politics that “all political careers end in failure,” it seems premature to apply this to Johnson just yet.
Venality knows no party. Over the decades, Conservative and Labour politicians alike have fallen prey to financial scandals. And multiple governments suppressed the Serious Fraud Office’s report into the “facilitation payments” that greased the wheels of the UK’s mammoth $40 billion plus Al-Yamamah “oil for arms” deal with Saudi Arabia in 1984.
The “revolving door” culture of senior politicians and civil servants rewriting rules to move in and out of lucrative private sector jobs, which would not be legal for their juniors, is nothing new either.
But it is still true that, were the opposition in a stronger position, “Tory sleaze” headlines could hurt Johnson’s government. Voters do not usually want to indulge a “chumocracy” culture of cosy backroom deals, so are unlikely to be forgiving in the long run.
Meanwhile, opportunities for further scandals to arise are growing every day. Ideologically driven cuts to the size and resources maintained by the state (including even magistrate courts and police numbers) create a cycle where services become harder to deliver, in turn making it easier to justify paying more private contractors and management consultants.
At higher rates naturally. Austerity for the many, “trebles all round” for the few.
To take just one example, without 10 years of Conservative-imposed cuts (which, despite much talk, are not fully reversed by Johnson), the NHS could have been ready stocked with PPE last year, removing the excuse used for hasty overpriced contracts.
When you think about it, the five words “when did we stop caring” can be applied across all spheres of life.
I am certain for instance, that in 2013, millions of people all around the world wanted to do much more to directly help victims of Rana Plaza, but as the eighth anniversary passes, I suspect this is probably foremost only in the minds of those most directly affected.
This is difficult to accept because people as individuals, across families, and within communities, are endlessly capable of enormous acts of compassion, solidarity, and love.
Yet, it seems, as large organizations and nations, societies made of the same people also tend towards the lowest common denominator of whatever they can get away with.
Hopefully by the time you read this, the European Super League proposal will be fully dead in the water, but remember it did not emerge out of nowhere.
Fans who wish to debate when football sold its soul can draw on pastor Martin Niemöller’s lament. Was it when Qatar 2022 went through, or when profitable fan-owned Barcelona first let commercial advertising on its shirts, or does it go all the way back to the first fans who paid over the odds for merchandise and subscriptions?
Whatever your view, it seems the answer to the question “when did we stop caring” is usually a long, long time ago.
Or never quite enough. And sometimes perhaps, we never really did.