If you’re a fan of the current UK government – and particularly the Eton mess whose name shall not be spoken – I suggest you stop reading now. For my part, I consider them a corrupt regime equal to that run by the Cheeto-in-Chief across the pond for four years, and I can only hope that our democracy rights itself as theirs has done. Corruption is actually remarkably easy to spot because the definition is so straightforward: Transparency International defines it as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain”. Sure, you can subdivide it into kleptocracy and extortion and embezzlement and so on, but that central tenet holds true: if you use your position of entrusted power to feather your own nest (and the nests of your friends and family) – including by buying support so that you stay in office for longer, for further feathering – then you’re corrupt. As my niece would have it, with attendant teenage eye-roll, “end of”.
And yet the media seems reluctant to use a word that is so clear. Instead, they talk of cronyism, or a chumocracy, or sleaze – all of which are revolting, but none of which is a crime. Is it because the UK has spent so many decades – perhaps centuries – wagging its finger at other corrupt regimes that it would be too embarrassing to admit that it has come home to roost (in that nest so comfortably feathered by a store that is not the skip-furnishing John Lewis)? But by shying away from naming it as corruption, we give those involved the opportunity to deny it to us and to themselves.
A while ago I watched an absorbing documentary called “The $50 Million Art Swindle”, about Michel Cohen, an art dealer who conned people in the art world out of US$50 million before going on the run. When the documentary maker puts it to him that what he did was wrong, he shrugs. It was not theft, he contends: they were loans that I have not yet paid back. Eighteen years later. It’s all a matter of what you call it – and telling himself that people gave him the money willingly and it’s just a matter of paying it back means that, in his mind, he’s not a criminal.
And it’s the same in the world of money laundering. If we let people call it clever accounting, or tax efficiency, or complex structures that you couldn’t possibly understand, we’re giving them permission to deny responsibility for their crime. Sometimes a spade is clearly a spade.
(And if you’re as sick to the back teeth as I am of the UK government sticking its fingers in its ears and going “Na-na-na-we-can’t-hear-you” whenever anyone asks for a bit of transparency, you might like to follow/support the work of the Good Law Project – dedicated to holding power to account.)