Why Newcastle United and anti-corruption in the UK have more in common than you ever realised

2020 is coming to an end. Brexit’s (apparently) been ‘done’. Covid 19 has certainly not been ‘done’, but vaccines are on the way and there is reason to be hopeful that by the end of 2021 it will be a thing of the past rather more than a thing of the present.

Both Brexit and Covid 19 will nonetheless have long-term impacts on politics and policy in the UK (and beyond). One of the many areas where it’s not clear what that impact is likely to be is that of corruption and anti-corruption.

The UK and the Toon Army

Before we can say anything about where the UK is going to go in terms of anti-corruption thinking, it’s worth trying to work out where the country currently sits. Now, that’s not as straightforward as it may appear (although see here and here for good snapshots of what we need to be looking for). Defining what corruption actually is can be tricky, measuring it can be even more problematic. That’s before you even get round to actually enacting successful anti-corruption policies. Given that, where does one start?

Well, when thinking about this recently I began in an unlikely place; with Newcastle United Football Club. Now, I’m not saying that Mike Ashley, the club’s owner, has been up to any particular skulduggery (and that even though his management style is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea), it’s more that Newcastle’s position in the English football pyramid reminds me a lot of the UK’s position in the corruption world. Hear me out on this one.

If you take Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) as your starter for ten, the numbers stack up nicely. In the most recent edition of the CPI the UK is 12th out of 180. Newcastle, meanwhile, are mid-table (currently 13th) in England’s Premier League. If you take the UK government’s definition of elite football as your marker then that translates to being 13th out of England’s 158 elite level football clubs.

The vast majority of English football clubs would subsequently love to be Newcastle. Indeed, a place that high in the football pyramid seems all but a dream for most. The same applies to the UK and its place in the CPI; a place in the top 20 looks a long, long way off for much of the world.

A question of perception

Yet, from Newcastle’s perspective, things must look and feel a little different. There was a time when they were the very best; they are 4 time title winners, 6 time FA Cup winners. But no Newcastle fan realistically thinks those days are returning any time soon. Newcastle look like a club with a rich and decorated history but a future that will see them exist at best as a top flight also ran.

In corruption terms, Britain has never hit the top spot in the CPI. In pre-CPI days the UK certainly did enjoy a reputation for taking probity very seriously. That was never quantifiable, but it was nonetheless widely acknowledged. Is the UK going to be able to turn back the clock and challenge the Nordic countries for the CPI’s top spot? Unlikely.

Losing the love

Furthermore, there was a time when Newcastle United were everyone’s second favourite team. In the late 1990s and 2000s the side played marvellous, attacking football and came close to winning silverware; the likes of Kevin Keegan, Tino Asprilla, Peter Beardsley and David Ginola were not just entertainers, they were more pretty successful. There was lots of good will towards them. No longer. Mike Ashley and the regime he runs has seen to that. Newcastle fans bemoan the lack of investment and they hate the fact that survival in football’s top flight appears to be the only goal.

Read that across to the UK. Once (for many, if not all) an object of admiration, the UK is becoming seen as a something of a chancer that is frequently rather tiresome. The UK used to exude confidence and it had a soft power that was second to none. Four years of ugly Brexit discussions have changed all that. Second favourite team now? Less so than was the case before, that’s for sure.

The same can be said if you bring the issue of finance into the equation. For a number of seasons Mike Ashley has been trying to sell the club and appeared prepared to dip into the murky waters of potential Saudi ownership. The response on Tyneside was muted; potentially bringing in extra cash will always find advocates, but significant questions about the legitimacy of the source were also very much in play. The UK, meanwhile, has increasingly dabbled (and arguably facilitated) the (even murkier) world of global money laundering. It’s no secret that the UK has become a potentially attractive option for those with ill-gotten gains. Two sorry stories.

Finally, even as you get closer to the field of play there are similarities. Whilst political battles take place around the Newcastle boardroom, Steve Bruce, the Newcastle manager, carries on. He’s a competent and under-rated custodian. He’s ‘doing the right thing’ with chaos never seemingly far away. The UK civil service, meanwhile, finds itself in much the same position. Corruption allegations are regularly made against UK politicians, yet UK bureaucrats try relentlessly to keep things on an even keel.

One can, of course, push all this too far. But the similarities do nonetheless seem rather apt.

Dan Hough, University of Sussex

Posted in Corruption and Sport

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