Professor Robert Barrington looks at the crisis of values engulfing the UK’s foremost business lobbying group, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), and offers some personal reflections on encountering the CBI’s lobbying techniques.
The CBI “meet with senior politicians and officials every day” to lobby on behalf of members. Yet we have learned from its own Chair that it has hired “culturally toxic people” who were “promoted too quickly […] to protect our cultural values” and more generally “paid more attention to competence than behaviour”. Moreover “commentators concluded that the organisation was cold-hearted and toxic”.
Not all of the CBI staff, by any means, are ‘toxic’. We do not know the scale, although in addition to other staff, the Director General himself was ‘removed’ following unspecified allegations. The discussion on the CBI’s culture and values has rightly focussed on the immediate allegations of sexual harassment and rape, but that casts a wider shadow on the CBI’s culture and values. What does it stand for as an organisation? In other words, what values underpin its vast lobbying apparatus?
This challenge to the CBI’s values will come as no surprise to anti-corruption campaigners. After all, it was the CBI that lobbied against the UK Bribery Act in 2010/11, with the Director General at the time declaring it was “not fit for purpose”. The CBI’s argument was that, despite bribery already being illegal, the new Bribery Act would disadvantage British companies – in other words, they could happily live with the ineffective and unenforced old anti-bribery laws, but should not be expected to live with a modern law that might prevent companies paying bribes, or continuing to bribe, to win business. Of course, it was not quite phrased like that but, despite being dressed up as a technical objection, the sub-text was clear from other conversations, statements and media articles.
This argument was a) implying that the CBI’s members would be justified in not adhering to the law, not just in the UK but in multiple other countries; b) in direct contradiction to the UK’s international obligations as a signatory to the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention; c) out of line with most FTSE-100 companies’ ESG statements at the time (or CSR/sustainability statement as they were generally known in those days); d) last, but not least, what might be politely termed as free of values.
On what basis was the CBI making this case in its frequent, secret, meetings with government? We do not know. Were its member companies telling it to say this – and if so which ones? Was there a debate in the CBI with companies that might disagree? What was the evidence that it would disadvantage British business, and how was this weighed against the harm that bribery does to the societies in which the bribes are paid?
At the time, as the person at Transparency International in charge of running the campaign to try and secure the Bribery Act, I could find none of this information. The CBI did not publish its evidence base, nor basic details like who was sitting on its internal Bribery Act group or which Minister and officials it had spoken to. I could find nothing on the CBI website. In the several meetings I held with the CBI and its working group on the Bribery Act, there was plenty of assertion but no evidence, generally put forward by the lawyers of a small group of FTSE100 companies (including BAE Systems – the very company whose own huge bribery scandal had forced the government into passing the Bribery Act in the first place). On this issue at least, the CBI was a values-free zone. Actually, it had one value: to use its frequent secret lobbying meetings with government to put forward a viewpoint that it felt was representing its members. It represented business not society, and certainly not anything like integrity or good governance.
The Open Access database tells us that in the five years between 2018 and 2022, the CBI met government Ministers 265 times. That is a lot of lobbying – and those meetings were just the ones with Ministers. By contrast, I recall meeting Ministers to discuss the Bribery Act perhaps two or three times under the Labour government, and not at all under the Coalition government. Indeed, Ken Clarke, who was the Minister responsible for implementing the Bribery Act and notionally the government’s Anti-Corruption Champion, steadfastly ignored or refused requests to meet Transparency International, while at the same time meeting industry groups and delaying the Act at their behest.
The argument in favour of lobbying being permitted in a democracy is that it is an important part of the democratic process. All viewpoints should be represented to Ministers and officials. Those Ministers and officials are better informed, and evidence-led policy-making can result. But if one group has privileged and secret access, and is far better resourced, then it is not hard to guess whose opinion is likely to prevail.
The good news is that the CBI lost the argument over the Bribery Act. The law was passed, and not repealed, and I have not heard of a single British company that went out of business as a result. Of course, if a company can only survive by breaking national laws and international conventions, a values-based assessment might be that society is better off without such companies.
So what wider lessons might be drawn from this? First, that there is a huge inequality of arms when business is lobbying. Second, this is compounded by a lack of transparency that tips too far into secrecy. Third, that member companies are far to slow to act when a trade body acting in their name has a significant dissonance with the values they claim lie at the heart of their own businesses.
Whether the CBI is reformed and survives, or whether it is replaced by other bodies, the spotlight should be on the members to make sure that their representative bodies live up to some semblance of ESG values. That does not just mean no more sexual harassment: it means responsible lobbying and finding means to reconcile the needs of society (who also happen to be employees and customers) with the needs of business. This is a timely re-think for the CBI and its members.
Frank Vogl, Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University, co-founder of Transparency International, Chairman of the Partnership for Transparency Fund and author of “The Enablers – How The West Supports Kleptocrats and Corruption – Endangering our Democracy,” reviews a recent article by CSC Director Professor Liz David-Barrett.
Sussex University’s Professor Elizabeth Dávid‐Barrett’s new article – State capture and development: a conceptual framework– is published at a time when the leaders of democratic governments are grappling with the mounting challenges of autocracy and nationalist populism. Too often, these topics yield overly broad and general discussions without adequately delving into critical aspects of the core natures of the non-democratic regimes that abound today. This new article takes us towards a better understanding of the behaviors of governments that abuse their public offices as they serve themselves at the expense of their citizens.
To start with, the Professor’s definition is one that should become widely accepted and used. She writes:
“State capture is similar to regulatory capture but broader in scope. What is captured is not just regulation but core state functions, including the ability to shape the rules of the game through constitutional and legislative reform, but also the power of patronage which facilitates appointments to key power-holding or scrutiny bodies, and the power to distribute state assets and public money, and powers to regulate the space in which other oversight bodies such as the media and civil society act. State capture occurs when those who are entrusted with these powers abuse them consistently to shape the rules, appointments, allocation of state funds and rights in ways that make them less public-interest serving and more tailored to benefit narrow interest groups.”
The importance of the article is underscored when it is recognized that approximately one-half of the world’s population live under regimes that pursue state capture. These are what the Economist Intelligence Unit describes as “hybrid regimes” and “authoritarian regimes” (see table below).
Looking at the operations of governments through the lens of state capture, as Professor Dávid‐Barrett encourages us to do, quite directly highlights who the victims of corruption are and how governments use diverse means to impoverish so many citizens as they seek both to increase their own wealth and secure their power. Too little research has focused explicitly on the impact of state capture on development and the section in this new article should serve to stimulate further substantive work with benefits for all development practitioners.
Such an exploration might take into consideration a wide range of issues not detailed in the new article, but that no doubt are prominent on the Professor’s agenda for further research and more publications. For example, I have long been fascinated by the question of why some regimes have managed to secure themselves in power and promoted state capture over decades, while others have only managed relatively short periods of successful state capture. Consider, for example, that Teodoro Obiang has been President of Equatorial Guinea in West Africa since 1982, or that Yoweri Museveni has been President of Uganda in East Africa since 1986, while Alexander Lukashenko has served as Belarus’s President since 1994. These long-term captors of their states contrast, for example, with others who for only a handful of years used their powers to plunder their nations such as the now jailed former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and South Africa’s former President Jacob Zuma who faces criminal charges today.
The degree of state capture and its duration under a single group of leaders depends in part on the extent to which those in power have captured all of the state’s institutions of justice and manipulated the judiciary to, in effect, permit the national political leadership to enjoy full impunity. I suspect this is not the whole answer. In many countries, from Tunisia in 2012, to anti-Zuma protests from 2017 in South Africa, public protests have at times been so overwhelming that they have been the prime engine for ousting oppressive national leaders. With the rise of social media as a tool for organizing protests and the increased skills of civil society activists, the number of powerful protests by citizens has been formidable, as evident from the findings of the Global Protest Tracker developed by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. This is an increasingly important aspect of state capture and Professor Dávid‐Barrett, who discusses civil society in her article, may wish to expand on this in the future.
Another feature of state capture worthy of deeper research and debate concerns the roles that the military plays in some countries. The military has been the power behind the governments of Pakistan for many years, stepping in to take control at times when it has considered appropriate to secure stability and its own real power. Egypt has long been under the iron fist of military rule, as have numerous other countries – and in every case the military has acquired businesses, developed its own enterprises to secure public procurement contracts, and taken control of state-owned enterprises.
Professor Dávid‐Barrett draws attention to the close ties between business and political elites in conspiring to secure state capture. In many countries, it is useful to consider how the business elites attained their powerful positions in the first place. Professor Louise Shelley in her books, “Dirty Entanglements: Crime, Corruption, and Terrorism” (2014) and “Dark Commerce: How a New Illicit Economy Is Threatening Our Future”(2018), provides evidence of the close ties in many countries between business elites and organized crime. The late Professor Karen Dawisha in her book “Putin’s Kleptocracy – Who Owns Russia?” (2014) and journalist Catherine Belton in her book “Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West People” (2020), both detail the formidable roles that organized crime played in Russia in the 1990s in aiding and abetting businessmen and politicians to attain state capture.
Indeed, this new article by Professor Dávid‐Barrett is likely to trigger much further research on state capture and prove to be a scholarly landmark that provides inroads to understanding not only the nature of hybrid regimes and authoritarian regimes, but the challenges that the victims of corruption confront in so many countries today.
Professor Robert Barrington reviews three reports into the Met, and finds that there is confusion around the term corruption – and whether the Met is or is not a corrupt institution.
Last week’s Casey Review on London’s Metropolitan Police force mentions the word ‘corrupt’ or ‘corruption’ twenty-two times in its 363 pages, most of which are incidental – for example, noting there is an ‘Anti-Corruption and Abuse Hotline’. What follows here is a detailed discussion on definitions, specific words, and some key phrases from recent reports on London’s policing. Switch channels now if that is not your cup of tea. To make it easier, you could just read the summary and conclusion, which are at the start rather than the end.
The Casey Review says that the Morgan Panel says the Met are ‘institutionally corrupt’.
The Morgan panel actually says that there was ‘institutional corruption’ in the Met.
The HMICFRS review of the Morgan Report said that Report had concluded that the Met is ‘institutionally corrupt’ but the HMICFRS itself concluded ‘we would not describe the MPS as institutionally corrupt’ following an earlier report that concluded ‘corruption is not endemic in the police services’.
What does it all mean?
It’s actually quite hard to work out whether the three independent reviews are or are not saying that the Met is institutionally corrupt, and what they might mean by that. In any event, they appear to disagree with each other.
There seems to be no clear reason why new definitions need to be created by these reports, and that further confuses the picture.
Contradictory terminology is used apparently interchangeably.
It is unclear whether these reviews have been carried out by those who are expert in institutional corruption, or familiar with the academic literature on institutional corruption.
Problem definition and analysis are considered as key by those who propose or design anti-corruption solutions; muddled definitions can lead to muddled solutions.
From the anti-corruption perspective, the several reports on the Met have a confusion over terminology. To scholars in the field of corruption studies, as in any field, certain words mean certain things. Legal scholars also have their own vocabulary around corruption, but by and large there is a convergence of view over key terms. The reports on the Met use a number of terms, apparently interchangeably, and without apparent reference to what they mean in various areas of academic literature.
We can distinguish between ‘transactional’ and ‘systemic’ corruption. Transactional is fairly simple: an individual act of corruption, such as the payment of a bribe. Systemic corruption ‘[d]escribes environments where corrupt practices have become commonplace, institutionalised, or normalised‘ (Dobson Phillips, 2023). Neither of these terms are used in the reports, though they are both implied.
‘Institutional corruption’ is a loaded term, with lots of debate about what it really means. Theories around this have been developed since about 2011, and one of the better known definitions is that of Harvard professor Laurence Lessig: ‘… manifest when there is a systemic and strategic influence which is legal, or even currently ethical, that undermines the institution’s effectiveness by diverting it from its purpose or weakening its ability to achieve its purpose, including, to the extent relevant to its purpose, weakening either the public’s trust in that institution or the institution’s inherent trustworthiness‘ (Lessig, 2013).
The variant of ‘institutionally corrupt’ might seem to mean the same as systemic corruption, but may also be used in the sense of an institution – i.e., senior personnel – colluding with transactional corruption; it is an open question as to whether this is the same as institutional corruption, particularly as used in the three reports on the Met.
‘Endemic’ corruption may be considered akin to systemic corruption.
Why it matters
Police forces are prone to corruption; we know this from regular research and investigations, from the Knapp Commission to TI’s Global Corruption Barometer.
Police are the most immediate and high-impact point of connection between ordinary people and the power of the state; police officers have sufficient entrusted power that they can use their personal discretion to deprive individuals of their liberty.
The Met is a large and influential organisation with a long history of problems, but apparently with a difficulty accepting that it has problems (even after the coruscating Casey Review, the Commissioner would not accept the tag of ‘institutional’ to describe its problems – and that was probably not because of quibbles about definitions).
Problem diagnosis is critical to solutions. This is well captured in a seminal paper by Paul Heywood (2017), who describes the need to focus (both on what type of corruption is at play, and in what unit of analysis – country, sector, etc) and to derive policy recommendations from a satisfactory analysis.
The independent inspectorate HMCFRS is about to undertake a new review into ‘the police service’s progress on vetting, misconduct and counter-corruption’, which is a timely reminder that any future reviews and reports should be on a proper footing – with a thorough understanding of what corruption means in this context, and which terms do and do not apply.
Analysis – Casey Review, Morgan Report, HMICFRS review
The Casey Review was not set up to examine corruption specifically, but it is unambiguous in its conclusions about the areas it was examining:
p.257: ‘The Review finds the Met to be institutionally homophobic’.
p.285: ‘The Review finds the Met to be institutionally sexist and misogynistic’.
p.329: ‘We have found institutional racism in the Metropolitan Police’.
It is not clear whether there is a distinction between ‘institutionally’ (homophobic, sexist, misogynistic) and ‘institutional’ (racism), but in terms of corruption, that may be a relevant distinction, as we will see.
Perhaps the Casey Review’s clearest link between the subjects it examines and corruption comes in the section (p.278) on ‘Abuse of Position for a Sexual Purpose’. This contains the chilling assertion that:
‘As we have noted, the fact that police officers are given powers over their fellowcitizens makes it likely that policing will attract people who want to abuse that power.’
In other words, a classic abuse of power or abuse of office definition.
This is in line with other reports that link sexual activity to abuse of position - in the words of Transparency International ‘[s]exual extortion or “sextortion” occurs when those entrusted with power use it to sexually exploit those dependent on that power‘.
Although the Casey Review does not deal substantively with the issue of corruption, it does refer back to ‘The Report of the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel‘ on the subject of corruption. The Casey Review mentions this as (page 231): “the report [which] declared the force ‘institutionally corrupt’…”.
This struck me as interesting, as I did not recall the reference to the Met being ‘institutionally corrupt’ from the Morgan Report. In fact, on checking, I only find reference to ‘institutional corruption’ – although in a report of such length – 1,256 pages - it is possible that, even with various searches, I have missed the reference to the Met being ‘institutionally corrupt’. Suffice to say, if it is there, it is hard to find.
This raises the question of whether there is a difference, intentional or unintentional, between ‘institutional corruption’ and being ‘institutionally corrupt’. The Morgan Report may not say the Met was ‘institutionally corrupt,’ but is clear that there was ‘institutional corruption’. For example, Para 60 of the introduction:
‘Concealing or denying failings, for the sake of the organisation’s public image, is dishonesty on the part of the organisation for reputational benefit and constitutes a form of institutional corruption’.
The Morgan Report talks at length about different forms of corruption, especially the cover ups in and around the original investigation of Morgan’s murder, as well as corrupt relationships with the press. It was not able to find evidence of widespread corruption that may have led to the murder itself, and ultimately its findings on corruption therefore relate mostly to the cover up. There is a strong emphasis on ‘lack of candour’ in the Morgan Report, and in subsequent briefings and statements, and it seems that it the absence of being able to prove other forms of corruption (always an unenviable task), this was something provable on which the Panel could pin the label corruption.
In fact, the Morgan panel’s terms of reference specifically included ‘the role played by police corruption in protecting those responsible for the murder from being brought to justice and the failure to confront that corruption’ and the Report has a whole chapter on the subject – ‘Chapter 10: Corruption: Venality to lack of candour’.
For reasons that are not stated, the Morgan Panel decided to create its own definition of corruption, in section 2.2. This might be considered a bit risky, as there is a danger that a definition might be retrofitted to the facts to prove that they were corrupt. In this case, although the Morgan Report definition draws broadly on other existing definitions and rules-based approaches (for example, the notions of dishonesty, benefit, omission, proper exercise of powers), there is an inescapable sense that the Panel has struggled with the interplay between what it senses is corruption and how it therefore needs to define corruption. Its rules-based approach is consolidated by a list of nine ‘failings’ (paras 26 and 27) which the report states constitute corruption if they are not incompetence. Interestingly, there are a number of existing definitions which might have done the job, encapsulating many if not all of the notions that the Morgan Panel definition is aiming to cover. The difference is perhaps that most definitions are shorter and more general, and thus widely applicable – the Morgan Report definition is unusually detailed and seems very specific to the circumstances that the Panel was examining. The Morgan Report definition, plus the failings, comprises fifteen points – it is complex and frankly a bit hard to understand:
“The Panel has adopted a broad definition of corruption for the purposes of its work. The definition below is based on the key elements of dishonesty and benefit, and allows for the involvement of a variety of actors and a variety of forms of benefit:
The improper behaviour by action or omission: i. by a person or persons in a position of power or exercising powers, such as police officers; ii. acting individually or collectively; iii. with or without the involvement of other actors who are not in a position of power or exercising powers;
for direct or indirect benefit : iv. of the individual(s) involved; or v. for a cause or organisation valued by them; or vi. for the benefit or detriment of others; such that a reasonable person would not expect the powers to be exercised for the purpose of achieving that benefit or detriment.
The Panel has used this definition to consider the conduct of the police officers involved in the investigations of the murder of Daniel Morgan”.
What is notable about this definition is that it covers very fully the notional of transactional corruption – individuals or groups of officers acting corruptly – but does not really help in an understanding of institutional corruption. Yet that is the big charge that the Morgan Report pins on the Met:
Para 242: “When failings in police investigations are combined with unjustified reassurances rather than candour on the part of the Metropolitan Police, this may constitute institutional corruption. The Metropolitan Police’s culture of obfuscation and a lack of candour is unhealthy in any public service. Concealing or denying failings, for the sake of the organisation’s public image, is dishonesty on the part of the organisation for reputational benefit. In the Panel’s view, this constitutes a form of institutional corruption”.
Para 292: “These cumulative failures amount to institutional corruption on the part of all three organisations’ – referring also to the failures of others to investigate the Met“.
Chapter 10 concludes with a further complexity that there are “symptoms of institutional corruption“:
Para 502: “The Metropolitan Police placed the reputation of the organisation above the need for accountability and transparency. The lack of candour and the repeated failure to take a fresh, thorough and critical look at past failings are all symptoms of institutional corruption, which prioritises institutional reputation over public accountability. Most people become police officers to serve the public, not to engage in corrupt activities. They do very difficult and, at times, dangerous work without compromising their integrity. It is accepted that the management of policing is a very complex process, but there has been a failure over decades to tackle police corruption effectively and to resource anti-corruption work properly“.
The Morgan Report paints a bleak picture of corruption and the Met, but ultimately one that is confusing. There is a form of institutional corruption, symptoms of institutional corruption and – due primarily to a lack of candour – there is institutional corruption. But is that in the sense the Lessig meant, or in some other sense that is not defined? Is the Met in fact ‘institutionally corrupt’ in the same sense that the Casey Review claims it is ‘institutionally misogynist’ – and again, what does that mean? And why do both the Casey Review and the HMICFRS review state that the Morgan Report said the Met was ‘institutionally corrupt’ when it does not use that term?
A further difference from the Casey Review is that the Morgan Panel emphasises that “most people become police officers to serve the public” whereas the Casey Review takes the less optimistic view that “the fact that police officers are given powers over their fellow citizens makes it likely that policing will attract people who want to abuse that power“. It is a change of emphasis rather than scale, but an important change – not least because it gives a sense that there may be a higher likelihood of institutional corruption in the Lessig sense (diversion of purpose) if police officers are attracted to the Met for the purposes of corruption.
After the Morgan report was published, the Home Secretary commissioned the independent inspectorate HMICFRS to undertake an “inspection of the Metropolitan Police Service’s counter-corruption arrangements and other matters related to the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel” which was published in March 2022. This specifically addressed the question of ‘institutional corruption’ but seems to make no distinction between that and being ‘institutionally corrupt’:
“The institutional corruption label
The Panel concluded that the MPS is “institutionally corrupt”. In essence, the Panel defined this type of corruption as one where an organisation protects its reputation, rather than where any individual benefits from a corrupt act….we would not describe the MPS as institutionally corrupt based upon the evidence we have seen. This should not for a moment be understood to be a finding that there are not serious areas of concern which have been, and continue to be, present in the MPS. It is essential that the MPS should be more open to criticism and prepared to change where necessary, including by implementing our recommendations. A further failure to do so (without good reason) may well justify the label of institutional corruption in due course“.
It is unclear from this why the Met/MPS might not be labelled as institutionally corrupt at the time of the report’s writing, but if it does not change, might later be labelled as institutionally corrupt. To add to the confusion, an earlier review by the predecessor body, HMIC, had concluded that “[c]orruption is not endemic in the police service“, introducing the additional concept of endemic corruption.
Inevitably, those who write such reviews are unlikely to be experts in corruption, or well versed in the copious literature that surrounds such terms. Notably, the HMICFRS does not have a definition of corruption in its list of Definitions and interpretations (though it is surely elsewhere), although it does have a literature review from 2015. This review summarises the thinking at that time on police corruption but uses the term ‘institutionalised corruption’ in its conclusion with no related definition.
What does this tell us?
Given the analysis by Heywood (2017) and others about the importance of problem definition, the precise use of language for this complex field might be helpful both to understand what is happening and to plan ways forward. However, the least that might be expected from the authors of such reports is a) that important terms are defined if they are to be used b) they are used consistently.
What we can see from these reports on the Met is that no real distinction is being drawn between transactional and systemic corruption, and there is therefore a confused notion of what is meant by institutional/institutionalised corruption or institutionally corrupt – and this is even without any analysis of the territory into which Lessing draws the definitions when he talks of “diverting it from its purpose or weakening its ability to achieve its purpose” and “weakening either the public’s trust in that institution or the institution’s inherent trustworthiness“. It is a sobering thought that if the Lessig thinking on trust were applied, the Casey Review would essentially be staying that there is institutional corruption in the Met. That would seem to argue in favour of really fundamental reform, of the type seen in Northern Ireland, or even Georgia.
Moreover, if definitions, like that of the Morgan Report, are essentially based on rules (rational choice), then it is likely that solutions will be built around rules, enforcement and incentives. But the Casey Report, looking at other areas than corruption, suggests that the wider problem is one of culture – to which a norms-based approach might therefore be applied.
In sum: new definitions do not need to be created. Such reports do not need to contain a mini-treatise on the intellectual and historical underpinnings of the definition they use. But we do need to know what is meant by the terms that are being used, and for the analysis to make sense, such terms need to be used consistently. If existing definitions had been used, and used clearly, we would have a much clearer idea of how to view corruption in the Met, and therefore what needs to be done.
Dobson Phillips, R. 2023. “Systemic corruption”, in Dictionary of Corruption. Newcastle: Agenda Publishing (forthcoming).
Heywood, P. 2017. “Rethinking Corruption: Hocus-Pocus, Locus and Focus”. The Slavonic and East European Review 95(1): 21–48.
Lessig, L. 2013. “’Institutional corruption’ defined”. The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics 41(3): 553-555.
Professor Robert Barrington, Professor of Anti-Corruption Practice at the Centre for the Study of Corruption, University of Sussex
The UK has had a precipitous fall in this year’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), the most widely used and cited ranking of countries in the field of corruption. The UK has moved from 11th place down to 18th, its score going from 78% to 73%. Is that significant? Small falls in the score, or large drops in the ranking when several countries are tightly bunched, can be largely written off as statistically insignificant. But regrettably for the UK, this year’s decline in score and ranking are statistically significant.
This should come as no surprise. The US position took a similar tumble in the Trump era. The measurement period for this year’s result largely coincides with the tenure of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister. As I have written elsewhere, there was more corruption and corruption risk in and around the Johnson government than any British government since the second world war. Although former PM Sir John Major had already delivered his verdict that the UK was ‘politically corrupt‘ it can be hard to state this with conviction, when there are a series of apparently isolated incidents, some of which are clearly corrupt, some on the borderline, and some are disputed.
The Johnson government was notable for having barely a month without some new scandal related to standards, probity or integrity – and at times, out and out corruption (of which the Owen Paterson case and certain PPE procurement cases have most usually attracted that label). Viewed as individual incidents, each one might be written off as untypical, or the result of a rotten apple, or open to more benign interpretation. However, at some indefinable point such scandals aggregate into a larger picture of corruption, and the experts whose opinions feed into the CPI have now delivered their damning verdict.
Perhaps it does not matter. One index from one NGO, when much else is happening in the world. Actually, it does matter. The CPI has been heavily critiqued by academics, but after nearly thirty years of existence, is still closely watched by those who analyse political risk, by the media, by the business community, and by other governments. It affects reputation, confidence and investment. And it is usually an indicator of other sets of problems – political instability, democratic decline, and rising inequality between a venal political elite and the interests of ordinary people. That will be the likely conclusion that the wider world draws from this year’s result.
The government will find it difficult to ignore this. Although many countries routinely criticise the CPI’s methodology when they perform badly – a standard response from Russia, China and Venezuela – the UK government has previously used the CPI as one of the measures of its success in tackling corruption. Moreover, there may be worse to come: CPI scores that are linked with ongoing scandals tend to get worse before they get better.
We need not undertake a detailed analysis of the Johnson government to know how the UK got here. Even now, we still see the fallout of a Prime Minister who casually set aside the standards of public life, reflected in the Zahawi tax affair and the claims that the then Prime Minister’s appointment of a senior banker to chair the BBC was linked to his own financial affairs. Investigations continue into PPE procurement, Tory donor Baroness Mone, and even into Johnson himself. The Johnson era did not just feature endless scandals and credible allegations of unambiguous corruption, it was accompanied by attacks on the constitutional checks and balances that provide institutional safeguards against corruption: the media, the civil service and the judiciary. The UK looks much more like Viktor Orban’s Hungary than the Scandinavians, Singapore and New Zealand, who head up the CPI table.
The last time the UK did this badly in the CPI was in the aftermath of the BAE Systems scandal around fifteen years ago. At that time, the Brown government took swift corrective action: it introduced the Bribery Act, responding to the prime reason for the UK’s declining position. Of course, the CPI does not actually tell us the reason for a country’s score: but just as the correlation between the previous decline and the BAE Systems case was inescapable, so it is with this year’s correlation with the actions of the Johnson government.
What should Rishi Sunak do? There are three obvious things, and then a more structural change to consider. First, he should accept in full and immediately the 34 recommendations from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which reported in November 2021 to a resounding silence from the government. Conveniently, those recommendations have already been put into a Private Members’ Bill sponsored by Lord Anderson – the Public Service (Integrity & Ethics) Bill – which the government could decide to support. Secondly, he should appoint an Anti-Corruption Champion, a post which has been vacant since the last one resigned in disgust in the dying days of the Johnson premiership. Finally, he should publish a new national Anti-Corruption Strategy – the previous one expired in December – and placed at front and centre of this strategy should be an acknowledgement that the UK now has a problem with political corruption.
Even if Sunak were to do these things – and there is little sign to date that he will fulfil his proclaimed goal of ‘integrity, professionalism and accountability’ – the UK still has an underlying problem with what might be described as the governance of corruption. What the Johnson government demonstrated is that the UK system of standards, integrity and defences against corruption can be fundamentally undermined by the person at the apex of all decision-making – the Prime Minister. For the UK to restore its reputation, it needs a system which acknowledges the threat that comes from those who are themselves corrupt getting into positions of power.
France and Australia are among the countries that have recently created anti-corruption agencies, which have previously been rarely part of the institutional set up in developed economies. Such countries have tended to take a multi-agency approach, with lots of different bodies doing different things. The UK has sixty-six different bodies responsible for corruption, plus the police. That may have worked in the past, but the UK now needs a system which incorporates independence and coordination alongside a mechanism that has the teeth and remit to prevent corruption in and around government. The result of this year’s CPI is telling us that the current system for the governance of corruption in the UK has failed: serious consideration needs to be given to updating it with institutions that are fit for purpose, and this should be a high priority for any government that values integrity, professionalism and accountability.
On the back of a troubling performance in this year’s Corruption Perceptions Index, Professor Dan Hough, examines the UK’sperception of itself and its anti-corruption credentials, and draws some lessons from Everton’s unenviable descent to the English Premier League’s relegation zone.
Fans of English football will have noticed that a (relatively) new kid on the block is leading the way in the 2022-23 English Premier League (EPL) season. Arsenal, a team with a famous history and a global profile, have won English football’s top prize 13 times since it was first awarded (to Preston North End, seeing as you ask) in 1889. The last of those triumphs was nonetheless back in 2004 and few people expected the club to be putting that right in 2022-23. As the days draw longer, Arsenal are in a great place to do just that.
As January turned to February, another league table made (at least some) headlines. Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) was published on 31 January. As with the English Premier League, much of it was eminently predictable. It wouldn’t have taken much expertise to have predicted that the Nordic countries would do well just as even the most casual of observers would expect the likes of Manchester City, Newcastle United, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur to be fighting for spots representing England in next year’s European club competitions (Champions League, Europa League, Conference League).
At the bottom, it was a similar story. South Sudan (13 out of 100), Syria (13) and Somalia (12) come in with the worst scores on the CPI and whilst there’s been movement in some places – the likes of Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania have all made noticeable improvements through 2022 – the story is generally a sadly familiar one. No one was surprised that conflict-ridden places struggled to make improvements in terms of their CPI scores. Predicting which sides are going to be at the bottom of the EPL is perhaps more challenging, but the fact that Bournemouth and Nottingham Forest are in battles for their top flight survival won’t be a massive surprise to many. Some things really are quite predictable.
Context, momentum and planning
Why mention the CPI and mid-season positions in the English Premier League in the same breath? Football, much as is the case with fighting corruption, is often perceived to be about momentum. Get off to good start, have a clear idea of what you’re doing and the momentum can quickly begin to carry you forward. For two decades, Arsenal were the veritable country mile from being the best football side in England, yet Mikel Arteta, their young and talented coach, has carefully put together a squad and a plan that has been effective at helping him achieve his goals (i.e. winning football games). The experience of winning matches and knowing how to get through challenging situations (such as, say, an away game at your local rival, Tottenham Hotspur; Arsenal won 2-0 at the Tottenham Hotspur stadium on 15 January) has seen Arsenal develop a momentum that fans and opponents alike think might take them all the way to the league title in May.
If you’re going to get anti-corruption right then much of Arteta’s thinking – and the momentum you can generate as things start to change – travels well. Anti-corruption is understanding your context, it’s about bringing in (and empowering) actors to believe they can make a difference and it’s about being realistic in setting your goals and indeed working out how to achieve them. Anti-corruption activists, just like football managers, need to live in the world of the doable, not in a fantasy parallel universe where they can do whatever they want whenever they want.
Arteta joined Arsenal in 2019; he didn’t immediately say that the club was going to win the league that year (read across to the anti-corruption actor who needs to be clear that eradicating corruption is just not feasible). He thought about where the club was, he worked out a plan, he developed a realistic strategy for getting there and he then began executing it. Only then does the momentum moving you towards positive outcomes really become evident.
The UK and the wish to be Arsenal
That’s all well and good, but there is another angle on Arsenal’s path to success and indeed on the reasons that others might fail to emulate them. And it is not perhaps a story that too many in Whitehall’s corridors of power will like embracing.
If you listen to many of the cheerleaders in and around the UK’s Conservative Party then they’d like you to believe that in terms of trying to tackle corruption the UK has much in common with the current premier league leaders. The UK’s anti-corruption thinking looks on the surface like it is pretty well-organised. The country has an anti-corruption plan and indeed an anti-corruption strategy. It’s frequently talked a good game, whether that be in the form of bringing in powerful bits of legislation (i.e. UK Bribery Act in 2010), hosting an international anti-corruption summit in 2016, or in actively trying to think about how to tackle money laundering. The UK sees itself as sitting very much at the top table when it comes to leading the global anti-corruption drive and whilst there aren’t league titles to be won in anti-corruption, it’s not hard to imagine why, if pushed, Arsenal might be seen as a decent comparator.
Yet many outsiders looking in are more likely to see something very different. They won’t see Arsenal. They’ll see the talk and the action that’s come out of the UK and they won’t dismiss it out of hand, but they may well draw altogether different conclusions as to where the UK sits. The UK’s anti-corruption plan and indeed its anti-corruption strategy are now dated. Countless corruption and ethics-related scandals have befallen successive Conservative administrations. Enablers of corruption play outsized roles in helping some of the world’s worst people invest their money in the UK. Those outside anti-corruption observers may well, in other words, see much less the Arsenal here and much more of, say, Everton.
Everton are one of the grand old names of English football. The club is rich in history. It has been in the top flight of English football for 119 of the league’s 123 seasons. Everton have won the league title nine times and indeed have been successful on the European stage. Over many years they have been able to compete with the best and they subsequently have a name that still resonates the world over.
Yet Everton, much like the UK more broadly, have been poorly run for a number of years. They get through managers almost as quickly as the Conservative Party does Prime Ministers. Everton can and do spend large sums of money, but they often do so poorly and without any real strategic thought. There is plenty of actionism and little tangible strategic direction. Internally, their supporters protest loudly about things going wrong. There’s not much evidence that those at the top listen.
Everton currently they sit in the relegation zone of the EPL. The club hasn’t ended up in this perilous position on the back of a run of bad luck; complacency, mismanagement and an unwillingness to sort their deep-rooted problems out has, over a number of years, led to the club peering dangerously over the relegation precipe.
Everton may well soon find themselves out of the top flight and in the Championship, the second tier of English football. The UK, sitting 18th in the CPI at the moment, could also itself itself doing much the same thing; a country that suddenly wakes up to find that it’s in a new corruption reality that it spent too long trying not to recognise.
It’s not too late for either Everton or the UK to change things. But time is most certainly ticking. Quick fixes are only going to be one part of stabilising both ships. In terms of the need to fight corruption, that means the UK at least admitting that it is much less Arsenal and way more Everton than it perhaps cares to admit.
Professor Robert Barrington looks at Transparency International (TI)’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) and questions why commentators use the term ‘corrupt country.’
What does the annual CPI, launched this week, tell us about corrupt countries? Absolutely nothing. There are two reasons for that.
First, the CPI is an index of perceptions of corruption in the public sector. It tells us nothing about the private sector, or the role of financial institutions or professional enablers – usually located in countries with good CPI scores – in facilitating global flows of corrupt capital. The CPI does what it says on the tin: it is an index of perceptions of public sector corruption. That’s what it aims to measure, and not the many other aspects of corruption that there are.
Secondly, and more importantly, there is simply no such thing as a ‘corrupt country’. Yet the term is widely used. For example, Boris Johnson, when accused of corruption as Prime Minister, responded “I genuinely believe that the UK is not remotely a corrupt country”. You can guarantee that many of the headlines around this year’s CPI results, as in past years, will be along the lines ‘Most corrupt countries in the world revealed‘. Likewise, many lists will appear, based on the CPI, with headings such as ‘These are the world’s most – and least – corrupt countries’ – that particular example being from the World Economic Forum. Even TI itself has in the past fallen into the trap of using such terminology.
What is wrong with the notion of a ‘corrupt country’? Well, it is a term that has no meaning – it is just a convenient shorthand, which no sensible commentator on corruption, or student, should ever use. It implies that a country is itself corrupt. What does that really mean? Assuming a country is composed of citizens, institutions, sectors and government – precisely which of these needs to be corrupt, and how much, for it to be a ‘corrupt country’? Does the corruption extend to all, or the majority of its citizens? Or is it that the public and private sector and government institutions are all or mostly corrupt, but not the citizens? Or is the claim that there is just a lot of corruption everywhere, such that it is part of the country’s DNA?
In reality, life is unfailingly very much more complex than an entire country being corrupt. There can be differences between regions; between specific institutions, where one Minister is a reformer and the other is on the take; between public and private sector; and most often, between a government elite that is harvesting money for its own purposes, and the citizens and companies from whom it is harvested. Other surveys show that it is those citizens who in general feel most strongly about the injustices of the corruption of which they are the primary victims, illustrating why it is inaccurate to label them as constituting a ‘corrupt country’ without differentiating the victims from the perpetrators.
This might sound like pedantry, but it’s actually quite important. If you believe that tackling corruption successfully requires a good understanding of the problem, then the blanket notion of a ‘corrupt country’ is likely to be a very poor starting point. For instance, if a country is corrupt, it might seem reasonable to avoid sending it aid or (in the case of Ukraine) weapons. Whereas if the health ministry is corrupt, you might try to channel aid directly to citizens, or if a particular branch of the military is corrupt, you might want to focus arms transfers to other branches.
There are alternative descriptions that give much better insights, and do not write off in two words a country’s citizens or culture as being inherently corrupt. For the CPI itself, perhaps the best would be:
‘There are high rates of public sector corruption in country x’ (or for the pedant, ‘experts perceive there to be high rates of public sector corruption in country x’).
Of course, this does not take into account variances in the public sector, or the blurred lines in some economies between public and private sectors – for example outsourced public services – but it does reflect the CPI’s results more precisely than saying ‘x is a corrupt country’.
At a certain point, if most of a public sector is thoroughly corrupt, it is a fair conclusion that this is reflective of extensive, perhaps systemic, corruption in government (for example, Russia). There is no obvious cut-off point in the CPI scores at which this can definitively be said to be the case, and of course it does not reflect the fact that there might be a recently-elected reforming government (for example, Ukraine). But for those at the lower end of the CPI scores, sensible alternatives to ‘corrupt country’ might be:
‘The government of country x is characterised by corruption’ – or in more extreme cases, ‘the government of country x is systemically corrupt’.
What else might be said? About the CPI, perhaps not much: it is a blunt instrument whose purpose has moved over time more towards communication than analysis. But importantly, the CPI is only one of several indices and surveys. In fact, the field of corruption measurement is having a bit of a renaissance, not least due to the work of my colleague Liz David-Barrett and a UNODC project led by Alina Mungiu-Pippidi. One obvious conclusion is that given the number of sources that are now available, it is possible to get a better insight by considering several sources together. From which you might be able to say:
‘There is a high prevalence of corruption in country x’ or
‘There are corrupt(ed) institutions in country x, such as the police or judiciary’ – or ‘the police and judiciary are institutionally corrupt in country x’.
This latter example takes us from the country level to specific institutions, and in terms of a real understanding of the problem of corruption, the more granular, the more helpful. The CPI-style approach does tend to lock us into looking broad brush at country level, however accurate you try to make your terminology.
The CPI has been around for nearly thirty years, and during that time has attracted a great deal of criticism – while still being the most widely-used and often-cited index of corruption. To its credit, TI has responded to much of the criticism, especially around methodology and transparency of the underlying data. In its early years, when it was the only game in town for corruption measurement, it is entirely understandable that both TI and others should use it as a proxy for a country’s overall levels of corruption. And where it is a government that is corrupt, that falls within most general definitions of the public sector, and it is easy to see why a government may have been taken as representative of the whole country. But time and thinking have moved on, and perhaps the most relevant remaining criticism of the CPI relates to how it is misapplied, with loose terminology such as ‘corrupt country’ exemplifying how an index that is actually doing one thing can so easily be misrepresented as something else.
At minimum, TI has a responsibility to avoid adding fuel to the fire of misrepresentation, as Harvard professor Matthew Stephenson periodically points out, by being punctilious in its own analyses and press releases. But perhaps more could also be done by TI and others to make sure that the CPI is used and cited based on what it says, not on the basis of what it does not say.
So when you look at the headlines, and lists, and press releases around this year’s CPI, don’t slip into lazy thinking such as ‘country x is more corrupt than country y’ or ‘z is obviously a corrupt country’. I’ve no doubt that I have done that myself at times, but nobody should be doing so – we stop and think about what that really means, and then speak or write words that match the meaning rather than using a shorthand that is ultimately meaningless.
The International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC) took place in Washington DC from 6-11 December 2022. The CSC’s Dan Hough reflects on an intriguing week.
The International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC) is the calling card of the international anti-corruption community. In December 2022 over 2,000 participants from all round the world came together in Washington DC for this biennial event. The key questions driving discussions at the 2022 jamboree were ones that anti-corruption activists everywhere will easily recognise; which anti-corruption policies, approaches, strategies and tactics work in affecting change? Which of these have had less success and why might that have been the case? What needs to be done differently? How best can the anti-corruption agenda (continue to) be meaningfully mainstreamed?
The questions that were asked through five days of at times lively discussion are certainly intellectually challenging. Implementing any answers is also practically far from straightforward. Be that as it may, those questions have relevance round the globe – corruption remains far from a preserve of any one set of countries – and that was reflected in the fact that participants had travelled from far and wide to be there.
Those participants were generally activists, although there was also the usual smattering of academics, lawyers and members of various governmental organisations. Although this particular academic has been thinking about corruption and anti-corruption for longer than he cares to remember, it was my first in-person experience of how an IACC works in practice. It was an enlightening one.
The thing you immediately notice is the enthusiasm and energy that so many activists bring to the event. There is an infectious sense of impatience and indeed a need to ‘do something’. The feeling of bamboozlement at the many acronyms evident in the conference programme soon gives way to an awareness that organisations both large and small are trying their best to make the world a better place. For regular participants in big political science conferences where methodological disputes are par for the course, where your statistical approach of choice often becomes the key discussion point and where process often seems to be much more important than outcome, the feeling of relevance and real-worldness at the IACC came as a real breath of fresh air.
The panels inevitably focussed on some themes more than others. The challenge of getting beneficial ownership legislation right was a constant topic, as was the issue of de-kleptification (a term that even those who spend their living thinking about it admit is decidedly clunky) and the nexus between climate change and corruption. Examples of folks engaging with all of these things were much to the fore.
Plus, of course, one of the key purposes of an event like this is to bring people together so that they can take discussions forward informally. The IACC offers a forum to (horrible though the term is) network, see if ideas might fly and to compare notes on how much progress is being made. The world of Zoom undoubtedly adds something to our lives, but meeting, chatting, discussing and pondering also happens offline in the corners away from the conference rooms. IACC really is an excellent forum for doing all of that.
And yet. Much as the event was both interesting and at times positively inspiring, I couldn’t help but feel that a few tricks were being missed somewhere along the line. Three things in particular spring to mind.
Firstly, as noted above, academia (particularly in the USA) can have a fixation on methodology. Discussing which type of multivariate regression analysis to use really can be the main point running through papers given at conferences organised by bodies such as the Midwest Political Science Association (MPSA) and the American Political Science Association (APSA). No one can accuse participants at the IACC of falling into that particular trap.
However, at times things did go too far the other way. Anecdotes and stories obviously have their place, particularly in terms of talking about lived experiences. Stepping back and injecting (just a bit of) analytical rigour does nonetheless help in coming up with more sustainable solutions. Method and theory matter not because they appear to some to add a veneer of academic respectability. It’s more that they add more backbone to the explanations and they offer great opportunities to develop solutions that aren’t relevant to one (often quite) specific context.
Secondly, there will always be some issues that get less airtime than they others. That can be for a whole load of eminently understandable reasons. Many of those who bemoan the absence of something can also actually be saying that what they *really* want is more of what they themselves research on/engage with. That’s a circle that conference organisers will never be able to completely square.
Yet it seems odd that a conference on corruption that’s being held in Washington DC engaged very little with the role that money plays in all of this. Lawrence Lessig famously talked of Congress – a building little more than three miles from the conference venue – being the home of institutional corruption. Politics ‘inside the beltway’ is the politics of influence-trading, lobbying and financial gain. That there are corruption stories to be told there would have been obvious to more or less all participants …. yet there was very little specifically on any of that. I’ve little doubt that some of this comes down to the conference organisers creating a programme around the suggested panel topics that were put to them. Maybe there just wasn’t the willingness to talk about these things. Perhaps this is where the organisers might need to go out and approach the experts to come and get involved. Either way, it felt odd that this got so little traction.
One example illustrated that quite nicely. Anthony Blinken, the US Secretary of State and an all round big hitter in the Washington world of politics, spent two hours at the IACC on Friday evening. He acted as a question-master in a (rather oddly named) fireside chat with three (impressive) anti-corruption activists. All fine. But maybe someone in Blinken’s position could have been asked to say something substantive? It would probably have been unreasonable to have expected Blinken to subject himself to a rigorous Q & A from what could have been an unpredictable audience, but to get him along and then for him to say, well, basically nothing seemed rather odd somehow.
Finally, corruption is about power. Discussions of power lead you inexorably to discussions of politics. As Mark Philp persuasively argued back in 1997, your understanding of corruption will be indelibly linked to what you understand the appropriate nature of politics to be. For some, politics is about deal-making and finding ways of getting things done. For others, those same deals and the same drive to get achieve goals can be symptoms of a system where corruption is very much in the game.
Why does that matter? It matters because purity of principle was much in evidence at the IACC. And that is in many ways to be lauded. But enacting change involves engaging with folks who you might not necessarily want to engage with. It involves compromise. It involves forgoing some things in order to achieve broader aims. In other words, moving the anti-corruption agenda forward involves engaging in politics.
There was very little at the IACC on how to get things done. We heard lots about protest (and that’s good), we heard lots about awareness-raising (and that’s good, too). But how do you get those turkeys (in power) to vote for Christmas (a Christmas that might well see them lose portions their power)? Constructive engagement has to be a part of the armoury, and more analysis of how that sort of constructive engagement might pan out in practice would have been really enlightening. To be clear, the IACC is a super event and it has a lot going for it. I’m certainly looking forward to the next one (scheduled for 2024 and taking place in Lithuania). In the spirit of nothing ever being perfect, I do nonetheless think that it might well be possible to make a good event even better.
It feels like quite a responsibility to be taking on the podcast which heads the list in CIPE’s run-down of top ten anti-corruption podcasts. Created in 2019 by Harvard law professor Matthew Stephenson, and Nils Kobis and Christopher Starke of the Interdisciplinary Corruption Research Network (ICRN), Kickback has quickly established itself as the turn-to podcast for in-depth thinking on corruption.
Kickback is not a current affairs commentary, so episodes from three years ago by luminaries such as Susan Rose-Ackermann, Paul Heywood and Alina Mungiu-Pippidi are as relevant today as when they were first broadcast. In contrast to some podcasts with several hundred episodes in frequent short bulletins, Kickback’s style is more long-read editorial than twitter thread. Serious experts, looking in depth at corruption, corruption theory and approaches to tackling corruption – but presented in an accessible way.
The best non-commercial podcasts series like Kickback are community efforts – in this case, produced for a community of scholars and practitioners by a community of scholars and practitioners. If you add together all those in government, business, academia and civil society with a professional interest in corruption, you probably have a community of some tens of thousands of people worldwide. We want to serve that community as best we can.
Looking at the stats, we can see that most regular listeners are in the USA, followed by the UK and Europe, with clusters around university cities. We want to continue to cater for these audiences, while increasing the listenership in other areas of the world, notably Africa and Asia. We can also see that episodes which have been promoted via other channels, such as the CIPE competition, have the highest number of listeners. So we are interested in partnering with others to increase the distribution.
What are we planning for Kickback? First off, we’d like to hear from anyone who has a good interview to suggest. Who would you most like to hear talk about corruption for 45 minutes? Please write and let us know. Secondly, we want to keep the mix of practitioners and academics, from all disciplines – the heritage is both the ICRN and Harvard Law School, and that has given a great range of insights and experiences. Finally, we may vary the length and style from time to time as we try to keep up with the ever-changing world of podcasts. But for those who like Kickback as it is – rest assured, changes will be evolution not revolution.
Let me finish by celebrating what a great few years Kickback has had under the superb stewardship of Matthew Stephenson, Nils Köbis and Chris Starke. What a great job – and a hard act to follow! Our own CSC team will consist of Liz David-Barrett as the lead interviewer, with a supporting cast of Robert Barrington, Dan Hough, Sam Power (that’s the Sussex one, not the head of USAID) and Tom Shipley. You can hear most of us already on previous episodes of Kickback, talking about state capture, sports integrity, the UK Bribery Act and political corruption.
One notable absence amongst the Kickback episodes is interviews with Matthew, Nils and Chris themselves. We’ll be remedying that over the coming months – starting with Liz David-Barrett speaking to Matthew Stephenson about what he has found most interesting in Kickback’s 83 episodes to date.
To get in touch with suggestions about who you would most like to hear, contact email@example.com.
A recent fan-led review of football governance has come up with wide-ranging and widely-supported recommendations. In the fourth installment of our series, Dan Hough, Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex, discusses the Johnson administration’s part in getting the ball rolling, assessing that the hard bit – implementing reforms – clearly starts now.
When talking about Boris Johnson’s legacy it’s unlikely that many people would start with a discussion of football. The man himself claimed to be a football fan but was hardly renowned as a genuine supporter of the ‘beautiful game’; after all, it was Johnson who once claimed he “supported all London clubs” and when asked in 2013 if he’d ever like to be Prime Minister, used a rugby analogy, commenting that “if the ball came out of the back of the scrum he’d have a crack at it”. Drinking a pinot grigio at Twickenham would subsequently seem much more Johnson’s natural terrain than standing on the old Shed End at Chelsea or the North Bank at Highbury.
A fan-led review and an independent regulator
Be that as it may, Johnson’s government inevitably found itself engaging with discussions of football. In the UK, it’s hard for it to be otherwise. The 2019 Conservative Party manifesto promised a fan-led review of football governance and indeed that review, ultimately led by Conservative MP Tracey Crouch, became a cornerstone of the government’s thinking in this area. It aimed to “to support and explore our analysis of the issues in the game, and to provide views on what might be done about them” and promised to make a significant contribution to righting some of football’s wrongs.
The recommendations were published in November 2021 (see here for a good summary) and the UK government was rhetorically supportive of them. Back in March 2022 Johnson was unequivocal in his support for one of the most eye-catching of those recommendations; the creation of an independent regulator for English football over and above the Football Association (FA). The regulator would make a significant contribution towards helping put the game’s finances on more of an even keel and to oversee who owned clubs and indeed the corporate governance structures that they then presided over.
Johnson, speaking in Parliament on 23 March 2022, again stressed “that we should indeed have an independent regulator for football” and he once more confirmed that in comments made at the most recent English professional club to go bankrupt, Bury FC, on 25 April.
In the Queen’s Speech on 10 May 2022, his government reiterated the importance of protecting clubs’ long-term financial sustainability as well as the broader interests of both clubs and fans. The expectation was that the regulator would do this and indeed that he/she would be in place by the end of the calendar year.
Liz Truss, the saviour of English football?
There’s therefore plenty of evidence of Boris Johnson and his government making positive noises about reforming football governance. Three years on from the 2019 election triumph, however, the noises have – in the cold light of day – still not built up to very much.
The big question is now whether Liz Truss is up to the job of, as the respected chief executive of Fair Game, Niall Couper, put it, “sav[ing] our national game”. Being positive, it’s mooted that a White Paper will be published in October although there is already talk of bandwidth concerns and the government’s in-tray being simply too large to be able to deal with this now. Furthermore, there are also rumours that plans for a Premier League transfer levy – something that the fan-led review explicitly recommended – will be quietly ditched. If that goes, one can’t help but wonder what else might go with it.
Talk is one thing, but action?
Given that, it’s not unreasonable to ask whether Johnson’s legacy will be as familiar in this area as it is in many others; plenty of bravado and belligerence that inevitably, sooner or later, turns into little more than bluster and bluff.
The fact that he couldn’t complete the reforms he promised means that the buck now passes to his successor. Truss has more football-supporting credentials than Johnson (for example, since becoming an MP in the area she’s grown to be a Norwich City fan and has indeed been seen at games) but there are already indications that neither she nor her advisors have any real interest in changing the way that the game is run. Bringing in governance reforms that powerful players within the game may well oppose is highly unlikely to be at the top of her to-do list.
Truss’s next steps will become apparent in due course, but in terms of Johnson and his legacy the cynic might say that this is the way that his administration generally rolled. That might be convenient (and in this case essentially untestable), but it would also be a little unfair. The fan-review did come up with widely respected recommendations and Johnson was out on his ear before they could realistically be implemented.
However, setting up a commission and offering it rhetorical support was always going to be the easy bit and Johnson will in all likelihood have known that. The more pressing question is how you deal with the politics of implementing the recommendations. Whether Liz Truss’s regime has the resilience to face down the vested interests and make at least a small contribution to bringing some financial sanity to the way football works remains the big challenge.
CSC Director Liz Dávid-Barrett has previously evidenced worrying patterns of behaviour from the Johnson administration, from attacks on accountability institutions to the installation of political allies in key public appointments and excessive use of secondary legislation. In the third installment of our series, she highlights the key areas that will indicate whether or not the Truss government is likely to shore up the UK’s increasing institutional vulnerability to state capture.
Under Boris Johnson, I have argued, the UK started to slide into a condition known as state capture. This is where a narrow interest group seeks to consolidate its power through improperly changing therules of the game and influencing the implementation of those rules, while at the same time disabling institutions that seek to hold them to account. I set out the evidence on Johnson’s moves towards state capture in the keynote speech at this years’ Constitution Society conference, highlighting the way that he eviscerated parliament’s ability to scrutinise legislation, parachuted political allies into key regulatory roles, and treated the media and judiciary as illegitimate obstacles.
Will the change of Prime Minister lead to a reversal of this trend? This is an important question. The problem of reversing state capture is something that many are grappling with around the world. In South Africa, for example, where the captors are now out of power and Ramaphosa is trying to re-build. But also in Hungary, where opposition groups are thinking about how best to restore the integrity of institutions that have been gutted and politicised, should they get the opportunity to do so.
In the case of Truss, it’s not clear that she sees Johnson’s record of capture as a problem or wants to reverse it. Overall, it’s too early to say, but here are some things to look out for in her first few months in office.
First of all, the appointments that a new PM makes are a key early indication. Do cabinet appointments appear to be based more on merit and expertise, or on loyalty and reward? The former indicates someone who values competence, while the latter betrays someone who wants to use their patronage power to build alliances. And how deep do changes in the civil service go? Is the new PM willing to preserve continuity by trusting civil servants who served previous administrations or rather keen to impose more loyal allies, even at the cost of losing institutional knowledge?
Truss’s initial steps here are somewhat concerning. She has awarded key cabinet roles to long-time friends and failed to retain expertise where it is embodied in individuals who may represent a challenge to her authority.
Some of the people she has appointed to the most senior roles are those who were fully signed up to Johnson’s approach. Her chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, has made a number of comments about judges “interfering in politics”, and, when Owen Paterson MP was found to have engaged in paid advocacy, cast aspersions on the independent Commissioner for Standards. Meanwhile, the new Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, has signalled a wish to leave the European Convention of Human Rights, another potential indicator of a government looking to ditch limitations on its powers.
The firing of Tom Scholar, permanent secretary to the Treasury, further suggests that Truss does not value skills and experience, and wants to install someone more likely to look favourably on her tax cut plans. Of course, the very practice of firing someone from a supposedly non-political appointment sends a strong message to other civil servants about how they are expected to behave.
Second, observe how Truss deals with the accountability institutions that are supposed to check her power. What we should hope to see here is a willingness to allow parliament time to fully assess her legislative agenda, or to see her and her team engage openly with the media to encourage discussion of their plans.
Again, worrying signs during the leadership campaign included an announcement that she does not need an ethics adviser, along with her cancellation of a planned final debate with opponent Rishi Sunak and a failure to respond to an ITV request for an interview. To be fair, these were before she took on the role of premier and by contrast, she received good reviews for her first performance at PMQs, with some commentators remarking on her willingness to engage with and answer questions.
Third, look out for how Truss responds when the first integrity breaches or scandals concerning her own government emerge. These are difficult to predict, but when instances of misconduct come to light, it is critical to see how she handles them. Will she allow the institutions to do their job, or seek to ignore or undermine them as Johnson did with the Independent Adviser on Ministerial Interests and with the Owen Paterson case? Indeed, a first test case here might be how she reacts to the results of the Privileges Committee’s current inquiry into whether Johnson acted in contempt of the House of Commons.
Under Johnson, many of the institutions proved resilient under pressure and pushed back. I concluded my Constitution Society keynote by arguing that the UK was not yet captured, but it was more vulnerable. Will Truss help shore up those institutions, or hasten their demise?