In light of recent scandals involving the British royal family, Professor Robert Barrington examines whether it is appropriate to use the term corruption.
Monarchies are no strangers to corruption. This does not just mean the Tudors or the Habsburgs or the Romanovs. Look around the word today and you will see allegations about the royal families of Spain, Sweden, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and Dubai, to name but a few. So what should we make of recent stories involving the British royal family? Is there corruption at the heart of the British establishment as some in the media claim, or have we seen some one-off poor behaviours from individuals who are too cut off from the world to know better? And, perhaps most crucially, does it matter?
What we are seeing with the royal family is behaviour which is on the borderline of corruption – as well as being potentially criminal. We are certainly seeing absolute failures of integrity. It matters if you think the monarchy matters to the UK, either in terms of national reputation, or as part of the country’s constitution, or perhaps less tangibly as exemplars for the nation’s sense of itself.
The UK has long had an ambivalent relationship with the concept of corruption: happy to point out that it happens abroad, but reluctant to admit that it might happen at home. I will not examine here the long-running theoretical argument that having a rich and privileged unelected monarch alongside a democracy is a form of corruption hardwired in to the constitution- that is a catch-all argument frequently rolled out by those who wish to discredit or abolish the monarchy for other reasons. The focus here is three recent cases:
· Prince Andrew and under-age sex – although in Prince Andrew’s case, there are multiple stories that could be selected, such as the inflated price agreed for the sale of his home to a Kazakh oligarch.
· The Duchess of Cornwall (Camilla)’s nephew and Conservative Party donors.
· Access and honours for donors to Prince Charles’s charities.
In each of these cases, we can apply the definition of ‘abuse of entrusted power for private gain’ to give a sense of whether there has been corruption. There is certainly entrusted power in the monarchy. So we will need to probe the issues of abuse and private gain, and whether the entrusted power extends beyond the Queen and the immediate heir to the throne.
The Prince Andrew case of alleged sex with a trafficked minor would without doubt qualify as abuse. And if you assume that private gain includes personal gratification then you would seem to have a case of corruption (if the allegations are true). But the question of corruption hinges on the notion of entrusted power. If Prince Andrew was having sex, as alleged, was this in his capacity as a person with entrusted power? On the one hand, a Prince (and the associated power) does not stop being a Prince when he takes his clothes off. What might not be corruption as an ordinary citizen, such as for Epstein’s other paedophile friends, might become corruption when an office-holder does the same thing. But on the other hand, even for a public figure, there must be some point at which they are acting in a private capacity. It can still be badly wrong, and prosecutable, without being corruption. Over and above breaking the law, an errant parliamentarian might be charged
with ‘bringing the House into disrepute’, and Prince Andrew’s case is perhaps more akin to ‘bringing the monarchy into disrepute’ than corruption. Whether corruption or not, the sordid episode, compounded by lies and the sense of impunity, is a gross breach of integrity and trust.
As to the sale of his former residence at a surprisingly high price to a Kazakh oligarch, and his subsequent business dealings with Kazakhstan, they also look to be close to the line of corrupt dealings – although as so often with a very untransparent royal family, that is likewise an assessment based on allegation rather than proven fact.
The Duchess of Cornwall (Camilla)’s nephew, Ben Elliot, is co-Chairman of the Conservative party, and runs a ‘concierge’ business that provides exclusive services to wealthy people. The factors that lead us to ask whether there is any corruption at play are the combination of his business activities with his political position and his relationship to the royal family. Did these different things mix, and can this fall under a definition of corruption? A case recently in the news has involved a client of Elliot’s company, who was a Conservative party donor, and whom Elliot also introduced to Prince Charles and Camilla. It is not clear what the client or Prince Charles expected from this; it is clear that Camilla’s nephew was being paid, and was also able to consolidate his political influence through recruiting Conservative party donors. Was this an act of corruption? There is cronyism and the question of whether political donations carry an implied expectation of favours. It is not quite clear who holds the entrusted power (arguably Elliot as a political figure), whether there was an abuse (such as an improper offer of access or reward to the party donor) or whether there was private gain (to what extent did Elliot gain personally?). But it rings all the alarm bells for corruption risk of a very British kind – an out-of-view establishment backscratching which blurs the lines between business, politics and the royal family. It may not be provably corrupt, but it taints the royal family with corruption risk.
And so to the case of Prince Charles’s charities, in which it is alleged an honour was improperly granted to a Saudi businessman who was a donor to the charities, alongside several high-profile Conservative party donors. In this case, the key question is whether an honour was effectively sold. That would be an abuse. The entrusted power lies with Prince Charles, who can ensure people get honours. Was there private gain? For Prince Charles, the gain was for his charitable work. For the Saudi businessman there was the gain of the honour, but it is hardly unusual for philanthropists to be rewarded with honours – and he was not the one abusing his entrusted power. The question of wrongdoing hinges on whether it was quid pro quo: was money paid (albeit for charitable purposes) specifically with the expectation of receiving an honour? We do not yet know. But like the Ben Elliot case, it has the smack of behind the scenes cronysim, a self-serving establishment and the toxic mix of politics, money, honours and the royal family. On the evidence available, it is hard to call it corruption, but is not a good look.
The conclusion in each case is that there is a breach of integrity, and standards, but not necessarily corruption. There is also the common theme of impunity: breaking rules and breaching standards in the expectation of not being held to account. However, like the Johnson government, we must also ask at what point serial wrongdoing, cronyism and abuses of power will add up to institutional corruption, even if no individual act has been proven to be corrupt. There are already too many cases to be considered unfortunate one-
offs, and at minimum there have been serial failures of integrity. It is perilously close to fitting those definitions of institutional corruption, in which an institution’s purpose is diverted to serve those within it.
You may not think this matters. But as we can see from the volumes of press coverage, what the royal family do and say, and their reputation, still has weight. This is both within the UK and – as importantly – overseas, where the Head of State often commands greater respect than whichever government happens to be in power. By virtue of their position in the constitution, and the nation’s reputation, it is a reasonable expectation from citizens – the Queen’s subjects – that her family should be free of corruption. If nothing else, there is some self-interest at play: public and political support for the monarchy cannot be taken for granted. Yet the Queen’s children are balancing dangerously on the borderline of corruption, when they should be safely and clearly on only one side of it. It’s time to clean things up.