openDemocracyUK: Opinion

British politics is an oligarchs’ cocktail party. Tory ministers are the waiters

The recent onslaught of government sleaze shows once again why the UK has been called ‘the most corrupt country in the world’

Adam Ramsay
12 November 2021, 12.00pm
Recent front pages have been dogged with accusations of sleaze in Boris Johnson’s Tory party
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Daniel Leal-Olivas/Pool via REUTERS

With the shenanigans of Owen Paterson and Geoffrey Cox making headlines, politicians and pundits are finally starting to use the ‘C’ word. It’s about time. It’s now five years since the Italian mafia expert Roberto Saviano described the UK as “undoubtedly” the most corrupt country in the world.

His argument has gained momentum since then. It’s not that the UK is particularly prone to the sorts of middle-class extortion or nepotism familiar in discussions of much of the Global South. Police here aren’t much known for accepting bribes. Civil service jobs are allocated on the basis of exams, not family ties.

No, the corruption is a level up from that. “I mean in terms of money laundering,” Saviano would later explain. “There is no control of the flow of money.”

“Panama,” he said, “used to be the money-laundering capital. Now, it’s London.”

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When he says London, he doesn’t exactly just mean the Square Mile and Isle of Dogs – though that is certainly the hub. He also means its connected network of British Overseas Territories, Crown Protectorates and quasi-colonies: places like Gibraltar, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands; Guernsey, Jersey and Mann.

Saviano first made the statement in answer to a question at the Hay on Wye book festival in May 2016, shortly before the Brexit referendum. What’s become increasingly clear since then is that this corruption in our financial system has infected our politics.

After all, if you want to keep using the UK and its territories to hide or clean up your money, you need to ensure that the British government – or, for that matter, the EU – doesn’t introduce pesky regulations to shine a light on your activities.

Politicians must want to take on the corruption of the powerful, not try to get on their payrolls

In the past five years, the world has seen three great leaks from its major secrecy areas: the Panama Papers, the Paradise Papers and, most recently, the Pandora Papers. And all of them have revealed the truth of his argument: when corrupt presidents, plundering oligarchs or mafia bosses want to stash their cash, British territories are their jurisdiction of choice.

And yet, in this time, there has been no serious regulation by the British state. In fact, when the EU started to talk seriously about introducing such rules, the UK promptly left the bloc, in a referendum drowned in floods of cash from people with connections to those same tax havens.

As we look at the Owen Paterson scandal, the Geoffrey Cox affair and the slew of other stories, which will inevitably continue in the coming days, it’s important to remember that these things aren’t the exception. They are the rule. British politics is an oligarch’s cocktail party, and our governing class are the waiting staff. Over a couple of generations, the UK’s aristocracy has transformed itself from rulers of the world to the service providers to the oligarchs of the planet.

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Getting serious on corruption would mean telling places like the Virgin Islands, Bermuda and Gibraltar that they must follow Britain’s domestic transparency laws or declare independence and lose the diplomatic and military protection of the British state. It would mean requiring the Metropolitan Police to understand that most of the crime that happens on their beat occurs on the top floors of glitzy skyscrapers, not on the streets between low-rise estates. And it would mean building an economy that’s designed for something more useful than accountancy to the mafiosi of the world.

But achieving that would require politicians from the governing party to want to take on the corruption of the powerful, rather than trying to get on their payrolls. It would rely on a press that wanted to challenge power, rather than one owned in large part by those very same oligarchs. It would need us to have a democratic system where it is the people who set the rules, not an unwritten constitution that’s made up by the governing class as it goes along.

And Britain has none of those things.

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