The UK’s hard choices on tackling corruption

Robert Barrington, Professor of Anti-Corruption Practice at the Centre for the Study of Corruption, looks at how the new Biden administration will change the international anti-corruption scene – and what this might mean for the government of the UK.

The election of Joe Biden is a game-changer for the UK government in the global fight against corruption. A mere five years ago, at the London Anti-Corruption Summit of May 2016, David Cameron and John Kerry were setting out an ambitious agenda for global leadership.  Cue Brexit, Trump, China.  Since 2016, neither the UK nor the USA has shown the same leadership on corruption, allowing China and Russia to take tentative steps to fill the vacuum.

In the UK, the momentum from 2016 has gradually petered out in the face of a lack of interest from the government.  Some commitments have progressed, but without political will they lack substance and the chances of long-term success are low.  At the same time, the London Summit’s international focus has come to look outdated: political corruption and challenges to democracy within the liberal democracies like the US and the UK, which the Summit overlooked, are now at the forefront of anti-corruption analysis in those countries.

A Biden re-set on corruption is not merely an aspiration – it is an aspiration backed up by policy statements and appointments to senior offices.  From the Biden manifesto to the first interview with Jake Sullivan, from the appointment of Samantha Power to those in lesser posts, including a former Transparency International researcher joining the White House team, corruption and kleptocracy have been high on the agenda.

This poses an interesting challenge to the UK.  Will it join the US in resuming global anti-corruption leadership – which now comes, courtesy of Biden’s Summit of Democracies, with a focus on domestic political corruption and democracy? Or will the UK cede its place on this issue to other US allies – amongst whom the most clear positioning comes from France.

We will find out soon enough, because there are three big events this year at which the UK could re-establish its leadership alongside the US or fade into the background: the UN General Assembly’s Special Session on corruption in June; the G7 Summit in Cornwall, also in June; and the Summit of Democracies.

What would the UK need to do to signal its intent?  Here are three suggestions:

1.Re-vamp its anti-corruption governance.  The post and remit of the (now non-ministerial) of Anti-Corruption Champion looks out of step with the UK’s corruption challenges.  This calls for a review of the UK’s approach, including examining the options for establishing an anti-corruption agency – as France, Australia and South Korea, all due to attend the G7 Summit, have recently done.

2. Renew the National Anti-Corruption Strategy.  The current – and first-ever – Strategy came out of the 2016 Summit, and runs from 2017 to 2022.  What next?  The government has made no commitment to renewing it, but there have been mumblings about seeing if it can roll over some of the unfinished business – hardly a resounding message of support for the concept that the UK needs to tackle corruption strategically, nor yet an acknowledgement that the goalposts have changed and domestic political corruption now merits inclusion.

3. Covid Inquiry. This may sound less mainstream for the anti-corruption community, but will be important in demonstrating the sophistication of the government’s thinking.  The government has faced so many corruption criticisms and allegations during the pandemic, that these will need to be addressed head on by the promised Covid Inquiry.  Given the over-riding public health issues, it would be both obvious and convenient to focus on the national health response.  But the pandemic has shown that our democracy, institutions, and public trust in government need to be healthy too if a public health response is to be effective.

Other signals will be the language used around corruption in the forthcoming Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Foreign Policy and Development; the strength of anti-corruption commitments in areas such as Free Trade Agreements; the incorporation of transparency into the post-Brexit procurement rules; and a renewed commitment to areas where this government has been weak such as implementing the Freedom of Information regime.

For the past five years, the UK has been able to bask in the after-glow of a surprisingly successful Anti-Corruption Summit, while the attention of the world has been elsewhere.  The UK now has some hard choices to make about its global positioning.  Brexit and Covid provide convenient excuses for the government to decide its priorities are elsewhere.  But that should be a conscious choice rather than a decision made by default.  Global Britain, in the eyes of both Britain’s allies and hostile powers, may look a little less substantial if the UK decides to give up its leadership in this field.

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