Johnson’s legacy: Will Truss reverse the UK’s slide into state capture?

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 the rules 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?

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Johnson’s legacy: Corruption and anti-corruption under Boris Johnson

In the second installment of our series on Boris Johnson’s legacy, Professor of Anti-Corruption Practice Robert Barrington examines the good, the bad, and the ugly of the Johnson administration’s record on the fight against corruption and highlights some areas to keep an eye on in order to assess the direction of Liz Truss’s leadership in this sphere.

U.S. State Department photo/ Public Domain

Six years ago, the UK was aspiring to be a world leader in the global fight against corruption. David Cameron’s Anti-Corruption Summit, convened just a few weeks before the Brexit vote, was high on aspiration and ambition. Forty-odd countries produced around 650 pledges, and the UK and US were acknowledged and praised for taking a leadership role.

With much to distract it, the momentum was lost under Theresa May’s government, though the rhetoric and commitment remained. Progress was limited, but the position looked recoverable with a suitable injection of energy and political will.

So, what of the Johnson years?  Regrettably, it’s not a pretty picture. Any sense of leadership in the wider world has been lost. Britain itself looks tainted and hypocritical, and all this has happened with the world watching open-mouthed.

Here are five things that went wrong:

1. Covid procurement and chumocracy. The catchy word chumocracy was coined early in the Johnson administration to describe the penchant for appointing political allies and ‘cronies’ to public positions, ministerial posts and the House of Lords. It started to look more distinctly corrupt around Covid procurement: the rules were suspended, contracts were awarded to Conservative Party donors and those with links to government, and fortunes were made – even when the equipment delivered was unusable or of poor quality. Investigations and Inquiries may reveal whether it was truly corrupt: for now, it bears all the hallmarks of corruption, and so needs to be disproven.

2. Standards in public life. In the end, even the Prime Minister’s Anti-Corruption Champion resigned, following in the footsteps of two independent Ethics Advisers. The multiple breaches of the Nolan Principles are well documented elsewhere. Overseas observers were generally shocked to see this in UK; some rejoiced that it confirmed what they had been saying for years. Either way, it did Britain no favours.

3. The abolition of DFID. Irrespective of the political or economic logic for abolishing DFID, it had established a reputation for leadership on anti-corruption policies and programming. Savage budget cuts and a notable de-prioritisation of corruption as an issue have meant that the FCDO is seen to have diminished rather than maintained that reputation.

4. Johnson’s performance at the Summit for Democracy. President Biden had laid on a sort-of successor to the 2016 Anti-Corruption Summit. The Prime Minister was invited to speak, and it was a golden opportunity for a re-positioning of the UK as being at the heart of these issues, after some understandably lost years. Sadly, it was more like his infamous Peppa Pig speech at the CBI conference: tone deaf to the occasion, lacking in substance and responding to the world’s needs and expectations with rhetorical flourishes and platitudes.

5. Post-Brexit procurement reforms. Another golden opportunity, which started with good intent to create a world-leading system that would deter corruption in one of the highest-risk areas of government, and prevent companies with a track record of corruption from holding UK public contracts. Then came the lobbying, the watering down and the delays. And so far, no new law at all, good or bad.

But surely something positive must have been done to tackle the corruption that Cameron and May declared was a key aspect of improving national security and prosperity? There was still the well-respected civil service team in the Joint Anti-Corruption Unit, and a Champion (until he resigned).  And indeed, there were a few positives – for example:

  • The work of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee continued in spite of the Johnson government, and did a superb job in highlighting the UK’s role in facilitating grand corruption and kleptocracy, and the threat that posed to the country.
  • As the Ukraine invasion increased the pressure to do something about Russian money in the UK, the Economic Crime Act was passed. This included the requirement to register the beneficial owners of property owned by overseas companies, which had been promised in 2016; and some improvement to Unexplained Wealth Orders.
  • The UK’s commitment to public registers of beneficial ownership was a message that was further promoted around the world, with some success.

The Johnson legacy will be hard to recover from on the global stage. But there are a number of things the Truss government could do to improve things. There is no sense so far that these are a priority, although there is a glimmer of hope that the new Security Minister, in whose brief these things fall, had shown understanding and commitment in his role as Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

Here are some tests by which we can assess Prime Minister Truss on her own leadership in this area:

  • The speed of the delivery of the UK’s new Anti-Corruption strategy – due in December 2022 – and its strength will be an early indication of the Truss government’s commitment to anti-corruption domestically.
  • It is worth keeping an eye on the second Economic Crime Bill in order to assess whether its ambition matches the scale of the problem.
  • The Committee on Standards in Public Life’s Standards Matter recommendations should be adopted wholesale. Indeed, they should probably be strengthened given that, since their formulation, the Johnson government bequeathed a greater insight into how the system of checks and balances for public standards can be evaded.
  • You can have all the laws in the world, but will likely make no progress without law enforcement resourcing. Experts estimate that the resources for key agencies like the SFO and the NCA’s anti-corruption unit need to be at least doubled.
  • When, or if, the government appoints an Ethics Adviser and Anti-Corruption Champion, and who they are, will give considerable insight into the government’s approach.

We need just look across the Atlantic to see how damaging a negative reputation for corruption can be to a country’s international standing and strategic relationships.  It is not a legacy to be proud of; but the new Prime Minister can make decisions which will help to repair some of the damage.

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Johnson’s Legacy: Standards in Public Life

In the first of our series on the legacy of Boris Johnson’s premiership as it relates to corruption Rebecca Dobson Phillips, Lecturer in Corruption Analysis at the University of Sussex, discusses how Johnson’s actions exposed the compromises inherent in the system of standards in public life and reflects on the implications for our understanding of both political and bureaucratic accountability.

It is difficult to reflect on Johnson’s legacy as Prime Minister, without observing the apparent contempt he displayed for many of the rules and conventions that are designed to hold those in power to account. Even before his premiership, his reputation was littered with concerns about his approach to the truth, his close encounters with conflicts of interest and his susceptibility to diplomatic gaffes—at least one of which likely resulted in serious personal costs for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. But it is as PM that his maverick attitude to accountability has really tested the UK establishment.

It’s unnecessary to recite all his alleged transgressions. But from the prorogation of parliament and his failure to sanction breaches of the Ministerial Code to being accused of stuffing the Lords with Tory donors and his suspected misleading of parliament on breaching COVID rules, it is clear that in appearance at least Johnson’s premiership has pushed the boundaries of the expected and acceptable. However, despite much performative outrage and some genuine concern that his actions could or would fatally weaken the system of public standards they appear to have done little more than illuminate many of the compromises that were already inherent in it.

His prorogation was deemed unlawful. His party’s attempt to bend the rules in Owen Paterson’s favour when he was found to have engaged in “paid advocacy” ultimately failed. There have never been robust safeguards on appointments to the House of Lords, so PMs have always had considerable leniency in awarding peerages. His Ethics Adviser—whom he was highly criticised for disregarding—was always just that, an “adviser”, and his advice could therefore be ignored if expedient. The PM already had ultimate authority over the Ministerial Code, with the power to change it, initiate investigations into breaches and to decide on sanctions.  

Indeed, given his reputation, substantive changes to the system of public standards are surprisingly limited. His update to the Ministerial Code in April 2022 was met with indignation for removing the expectation that Ministers should resign when found to have breached the Code, except in cases of “knowingly misleading parliament”. However, it was in line with a Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) recommendation, which suggested graduated sanctions as opposed to a blanket expectation to resign. It is true that Johnson did not implement a range of other CSPL suggestions that would have strengthened the hand of his Ethics Adviser, including handing over authority to initiate investigations and determine breaches, but then neither had any PM before him.

Johnson’s government was eventually brought down by “sleaze”—his apparent support for and promotion of an MP accused of sexual misconduct—but it was the political (rather than bureaucratic) fallout this caused within his own party that ultimately removed him. While he remains under investigation by the House of Commons Privileges Committee for contempt of Parliament, which could lead to the highest level of bureaucratic sanction—a recall petition and by-election in his constituency—this too ultimately ends in a political process, albeit one involving only a tiny section of the electorate. There is currently sustained political pressure to halt the investigation, which has been bolstered by a legal “opinion” on its legality, and there is wild speculation about Johnson’s eventual return to front-bench politics; neither possibility can be ruled out.

Perhaps then the real legacy of Johnson’s premiership in this area is that we have been supplied with a case study on how the system works when faced with a PM that eschews controls on their behaviour beyond the purely political. Those concerned about the failures of the standards system to hold Johnson to account for his numerous transgressions therefore need to consider the delicate balance between bureaucratic and political accountability in the UK system and ask: Is this a bureaucratic problem or a political one? Does it need a rules-based solution or a political/democratic one?

There is risk involved in focusing on the inadequacy of the rules and individual breaches at the expense of a more holistic view of the essential role of political accountability. Ultimately politics rules the fates of politicians; and yet our political system seems woefully inadequate to the task of sanctioning those that fail to adhere to even the most basic standards of public life.

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Bosnia, corruption and state capture

Source: papatyayameftun/Pexels

Professor Robert Barrington and Berina Glusac from the Centre for the Study of Corruption’s MA in Corruption & Governance examine the political situation in Bosnia Herzegovina and look at the role that corruption has played in the crisis.

Unless you are a dedicated Balkans-watcher, you may well have missed the fact that Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is amidst its biggest political crisis since the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995.

Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of Bosnia’s complex tripartite presidential structure, declared in late 2021 that the Serb-run part of BiH, Republika Srpska (RS), would withdraw cooperation and involvement with key state-wide institutions, in violation of the 1995 peace agreements. He announced that the Bosnian judiciary, security, and intelligence organisations would no longer be allowed to operate in the RS, which would instead operate its own alternative structures.

Dodik makes no secret of the fact that this is a precursor to secession, although he claims it would be achieved by peaceful means. This naturally leads to a reflection on the heavy price that was paid during the war of the 1990s. In Europe’s bloodiest conflict since World War II, 100,000 people were killed and two million displaced. Over 8,000 Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) men and boys were killed in the Srebrenica massacre alone in 1995. Thousands of bodies have still not been recovered three decades later; new mass graves are discovered each year, and most of the countryside remains covered with active land mines. The Genocide is relevant to the situation today; Dodik denies that such events took place and uses his control of the media to support his message. This plays strongly to his nationalist support base.

What has this do to with corruption? Quite a lot. Shortly after Dodik’s declaration, he was placed on a sanctions list by the US Treasury for ‘Destabilizing and corrupt activity.’ Like so many US announcements, this has produced a document that gives a useful read-out – presumably based on the US’s exceptional intelligence capabilities – of what Dodik has been up to. The main charges are the cronyistic allocation of public contracts and monopolies from whose proceeds Dodek dispensed bribes and patronage. The relevant wording of the US Treasury announcement is:

“Dodik is… responsible for or complicit in, or having directly or indirectly engaged in, corruption related to the Western Balkans. Specifically, he has established a patronage network in BiH from which he and his associates benefit. As one example of his corrupt actions, Dodik has provided government contracts and monopolies in the RS directly to close business associates. With his corrupt proceeds, Dodik has engaged in bribery and additional corrupt activities to further his personal interests at the expense of citizens in the RS.”

These mentions of other ‘corrupt activities’ hint that the US government has more information, but there is no fuller detail. More may emerge in due course, but for now it is enough to know that we must consider corruption to be part of this complex picture.

BiH’s circumstances are unique, and it would be unwise to extrapolate general lessons. However, this situation does illustrate some of the common elements of de-democratisation and state capture – albeit in this case, it is a geographical segment of the state that has been captured.

What we can see here is a politician using corruption both to strengthen his political position, and for personal financial benefit. In terms of state capture, there are some classic ingredients: First of all, a democratically-elected populist politician using nationalist messages and distorted truths to gain and maintain power; a deliberate attempt to dismantle or subvert key state institutions, including the judiciary; political power allocating control over state assets and resources; control over the media (the main television company is also placed on the US sanctions list), which is used to pump out fake news; and finally, a foreign policy that supports strongmen and oppressive regimes (in this case Serbia and Russia). To enrich himself and consolidate his power, Dodik uses patronage, cronyism and bribery.

In such a small country, this might pass unnoticed by the outside world were it not for two significant factors. First, there is a very real possibility of armed conflict and renewed genocide at the heart of Europe. Secondly, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made central European countries, and whether they support Russia, more strategically important to the EU and NATO.

Unfortunately, although the world has learned a great deal in the past thirty years about what does and does not work in tackling corruption, there is no established exit strategy from one of the biggest problems: state capture by populist nationalists. It is a gloomy picture, but sometimes internal or external pressures can help generate a rapid turnaround. In such circumstances, having a good problem analysis will be fundamental to finding solutions. One of the important aspects of such a problem analysis will be recognising, amidst the many other complexities, the role that corruption has been playing in the unfolding situation in Bosnia Herzegovina.

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What did political parties really spend on?: Political Finance Transparency in the UK

Dr Sam Power, Lecturer in Corruption Analysis at the Centre for the Study of Corruption, University of Sussex has co-authored a new report on election financing during the UK 2019 General Election. The International IDEA report was co-authored with Dr Kate Dommett, University of Sheffield; Dr Amber Macintyre, Royal Holloway; and Dr Andrew Barclay, University of Sheffield. The report finds that many types of campaign activity, especially digital campaigning, is not reflected in spending categories and that different political parties are not consistently coding the same activity under the same category.

This article was originally published on the International IDEA Blog on 15 June 2022.

A Liberal Democrat counting agent watches volunteers count ballot papers in Kensington constituency general election count at Kensington Town Hall in London, U.K., on Thursday, Dec 12, 2019. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images

While the the United Kingdom is often considered to have one of the most transparent political finance systems, it is still unclear how more than 1 in every GBP 10 was spent at the last UK general election. This is one of many findings from the International IDEA’s latest report, Regulating the Business of Election Campaigns: Financial Transparency in the Influence Ecosystem in the United Kingdom‘, which investigates the companies, suppliers and individuals that political parties spend money on.

Getting to grips with the flow of money in politics is essential for understanding how the wider influence ecosystem at elections operates. Suppliers consult on election messaging and polling, provide social media tools and devise large-scale advertising campaigns. And as the Cambridge Analytica Scandal showed—such services during election campaigns matter and can be the cause of great public concern.

Mapping the influence ecosystem at elections – new trends and old realities

The new report looks at the UK as a case study to begin mapping this terrain. The country has one of the most transparent political finance regimes in the world. One of the particularly novel regulations is that if a political party spends over GBP 200 on anything at an election, they are required to provide an invoice from the supplier. These invoices are then released, with other details of election spending, on the Electoral Commission’s political finance database. By going through every invoice, and manually coding the service provided into new categories, the report confirmed much that was either assumed or found things that simply were not known about election campaigning in 2019.

For example, much has been written about digital advertising and, indeed, the democratic implications of the increased use of the online space. But the UK Electoral Commission’s political finance database is yet to capture how prevalent these trends are. There is no category for ‘online’, or ‘social media’ advertising. There is simply a catch-all ‘advertising’ designation. This means that researchers attempting to gauge the extent to which advertising occurs online had to previously rely on (very educated) guesswork, often based on keyword searches for prominent examples of companies (like Facebook and Google). This neglects that other suppliers (like consultants or advertising agencies) may—as a part of the service they provide—place online ads. The report found that of the over GBP 10 million that was spent on advertising, 73 per cent was done online. And over 50 per cent of this was on social media ads specifically. This suggests, for anyone thinking about how to regulate modern political advertising, online is key.

And yet, old realities still matter. Lost amongst some of the more alarmist perceptions of this new political world is that campaigning is still very much a ground game. The Internet is not the only fruit. In fact, by far the most prominent form of spending by parties—coming in at over GBP 21 million—was through campaign materials. This includes printing posters, leaflets and leaflet delivery which make up just over 40 per cent of all spend. That is not to say that online trends aren’t concerning. A little money can go a long way at elections as it is much cheaper to advertise online. Likewise, the GBP 50,000 spent on a campaign consultant might form the message which is then put out in a GBP 2 million leaflet drop (and targeted to certain demographics on Facebook). But the fact remains, most election spend is on incredibly functional—and much less immediately newsworthy—services.

What is unclear?

Despite all this, there is much that the report cannot fully capture. During the project, the research team placed all invoices that they couldn’t categorise into a separate ‘unclear’ heading. This might happen for several reasons. It might be that a blank invoice was submitted, or no invoice was provided at all. Some were blurry, and one even had a post-it note over the description of the service. Finally, there were some that would be so vague as to be useless—like the invoice that was for ‘persuasive and shareable content for the general elections’. Whilst some of these are, of course, more unclear than others, this remains a problem. It is impossible to tell exactly what 14 per cent of total election expenditure in 2019 was spent—that is a GBP 6.6 million black hole.

What can be done?

This matters. It is currently possible to provide very little meaningful information about services, or to deliberately abstract the information that political parties disclose. Therefore, it is impossible to make a reasonable judgement about what is, or is not, a problematic democratic practice. The report suggests a number of actionable legislative reforms that should be introduced to address these transparency deficits. The categories that are used in the Electoral Commission’s database should be updated to better reflect the realities of modern campaigns, particularly as it relates to digital advertising. More should also be done to standardise invoicing practice to reduce the possibility of genuine error or deliberate obfuscation. These are small reforms that will have a big effect. They will embed the UK’s reputation as a model of best practice. More importantly, they will allow the public to better understand how elections are changing—and map the actors that operate within the wider influence ecosystem—to more carefully diagnose any larger, perhaps more existential, democratic concerns.

Political finance transparency plays a key role in safeguarding the integrity of political processes and institutions. International IDEA is committed to supporting countries in developing digital solutions for political finance reporting and disclosure and to conduct in-depth country case studies in advancing the evidence-based global policy debate for better political finance transparency.

International IDEA’s report “Regulating the Business of Election Campaigns: Financial Transparency in the Influence Ecosystem in the United Kingdom” was drafted by a team of UK experts, led by Dr Kate Dommett (University of Sheffield) and Dr Sam Power (Centre for the Study of Corruption, University of Sussex), in collaboration with the Institute’s Money in Politics Programme. The report is available at the following link.

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Trust and Distrust: Lessons about anti-corruption from Britain’s history

Mark Knights, Professor of History at the University of Warwick, uses pre-twentieth century historical data to examine Britain’s long struggle with corruption and what can be learned from it today. Knights writes that anti-corruption is not always a linear journey and that good governance rests on the difficult task of finding the right balance between the necessary trust given to officials and the distrust required to scrutinise and constrain any abuse of that trust

A satire of 1819 that attacks the ‘System’ of corrupt parliamentary elections which led to a stream of public money (supported by muskets) that is then misappropriated by corrupt figures, in part to secure their corrupt re-election © The Trustees of the British Museum 

In my recently published book Trust and Distrust: Corruption in Office in Britain and its Empire 1600-1850 I examine Britain’s long struggle with corruption during a key stage in the formation of the state and empire. Social scientists don’t often use historical data – and even more rarely anything before the twentieth century – but they should, since there are lessons to be gleaned from it. This blog tries to lay some of those out (and further analysis can be found here).  

History suggests that anti-corruption is a long-term process, consisting of multiple moments of reform rather than a single ‘big bang’. Britain took about 250 years to move towards a recognisably ‘modern’ framework. The pace of reform accelerated after 1780 but the advances then rested on much earlier changes, innovations and debates. So it’s worth thinking hard about the factors that prevent change.  

Britain’s example (replicated elsewhere) suggests that socio-cultural factors such as friendship, gift-giving, kinship and patronage are deeply embedded, lead to cronyism and capture of institutions, are hard to shift and mean that the boundary between licit and illicit behaviour is often shifting and difficult to define. Clarifying such boundaries, and societal norms more generally, is more than a top-down process of regulation – it also requires extensive public debate and even contest. That debate took place in Britain in a relatively free press from the seventeenth century onwards, something that was vital for a national conversation about ethics (even if this frequently centred on corruption as ‘scandal’). Without ethical conviction, rules were disregarded or evaded (as was repeatedly shown in domestic and imperial contexts).  

Public pressure was also important in prompting top-down action – in the 1640s, 1690s, 1780s, 1830s the state responded to popular pressure. Much of that agitation resulted from macro factors such as war, which forced governments to raise taxation and increased a public desire to scrutinise how the money was spent, and periods of ‘moral renewal’, when religious sensibilities accelerated secular action.  

State-formation is also a slow process. Indeed, for much of the pre-modern period the state was not a purely public entity but was reliant on private agents to deliver its objectives, such as justice and war. Hybrid public-private entities abounded: the East India Company, which created an eastern empire, was a private company given a state monopoly, and at home even jails were semi-private institutions, run by governors who were allowed to profit from their prisoners. Spelling out the dividing line between public and private was a process that took time – and was often calibrated through gross violations of what the public or government or a corporation saw as acceptable levels of profit for the semi-private agents, even if what was ‘acceptable’ was a key point of debate. 

History also suggests that we might want to think about systems of corruption as well as individual or institutional failings. The concept of ‘systems’ first arose in the seventeenth century when it was applied to astronomy, music, the body, religion and eventually to politics too. In the eighteenth century commentators started talking about a ‘system of corruption’ and ‘corrupt systems’. A systems approach saw different fields as interacting: the corrupt parliamentary system rested on a corrupt financial system which funded corrupt wars which a corrupt elite used to feather their own nest. Many critics became convinced that corruption needed to be seen in the round rather than piecemeal, an idea that seems worth more attention. If today you leave the financial system out of reform, for example, you’ll neglect an important part of the interlocking pieces.  

Other important terms, such as ‘interest’ and ‘trust’ similarly took off in the seventeenth century, enabling the development of ideas such as ‘conflict of interest’ and ‘breach of trust’. Trust is a particularly important notion in Britain’s corruption history, since it was a legal concept that moved from private estate law to public law, as a way of describing the obligations of office-holding. Trust required duties of selflessness, accountability, integrity and care that we now see as central to the standards required in public life. The wider point is that legal cultures really matter and shape how anti-corruption both evolves and is conceived (and hence also that different cultures will mean that anti-corruption has to be fitted to local contexts). Trust has also to be balanced by a measure of distrust, effected through formal means (national accounting bodies, for example) and informal means (through whistleblowers and the press). The art of good government rests on finding the right balance between the necessary trust given to officials and the distrust required to scrutinise and constrain any abuse of that trust. That’s a challenging task that needs constant reflection. It was certainly something the eluded politicians in Britain for several centuries. 

Anti-corruption is often highly political, in many senses of the word. It was often used in British history to pursue personal, group and partisan interests. So we should ask what political (and indeed social, economic and cultural) work the allegation of corruption is doing at any one time and who or what benefits from it. Partisanship, in the British case, was a mixed blessing – on the one hand, it helped expose and pursue corruption, but on the other it often narrowed the debate away from systemic issues, polarised resistance to change and was dismissed as motivated by self-interest. Yet political support for non-partisan solutions was essential. The 1780s commission for public accounts, which formulated many principles that are recognisably the maxims of modern anti-corruption (officials should put aside their self-interest and have their public duty uppermost; they should separate private and public interests; they should not charge arbitrary fees for their services; they should properly account for public money) was not composed of politicians but had the support of the governments of the day, which needed to satisfy the public clamour for reform. Non-partisan commissions with political backing can be effective.  

Finally, history suggests that anti-corruption is not always linear, with a threshold which, once passed, will always be maintained. For example, the parliamentary accounts committee, set up to make public expenditure more accountable, was abandoned after 1714 and not restored until 1780; and even now we seem to be retreating back into eighteenth century cronyism, patronage, conflicts of interest and the erosion of hard-fought principles and values. If that is right, we would do well to reflect on Britain’s long and painful struggle with corruption and learn its lessons. 

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REVIEW: ‘How Corruption Works in Practice’

Laurence Cockcroft reviews ‘Understanding Corruption: how corruption works in practice’ and writes that the use of the case study template provides good analysis of the issues surrounding corruption and it is a useful, albeit partial, guide to the nature of corruption within national contexts.

Barrington, R., Dávid-Barrett, E., Power, S., Hough, D. (2022).  Understanding Corruption: how corruption works in practice.  Newcastle upon Tyne: Agenda Publishing

This book is a serious attempt to relate various ‘theories’ surrounding corruption with a factual account of corruption in recent years and the follow up retribution in those limited number of cases where it has occurred. In order to achieve this the authors work through a series of eighteen cases from around the world, eventually exploring the murky (and now highly controversial) world of illicit finance in London and elsewhere. For the latter they use information in a context where there have been very few high level cases which have reached the courts, or even been brought to book by regulators.

The book’s structure allows it to deal first with cases of corporate corruption from Latin America (Odebrecht), Indonesia and Saudi Arabia (Alstom), Nigeria (PanAlpina), and the UK (‘small scale’ corruption) ; second, with ‘political corruption’ (Azerbaijan and the Council of Europe), France (Jacques Chirac) and the US (defence procurement) ; third, with kleptocrats and state capture (notably South Africa, Angola and Turkey) ; and fourth, with corrupt capital, embracing issues from high profile banks and investment houses (Goldman Sachs), to low profile regulators (London and the Caribbean), to professional enablers (notably in London). The authors conclude that a recognition of the complexity of different forms of corruption and so of different routes to address it, is essential to its future control. Their major purpose is to promote a wider understanding of this in both the academic and professional worlds.

The individual cases have been widely reported, and as they write, are well recognised territory. However their technique of almost Socratic questioning (as to how, why and what to do about it) is very useful and throws light on each of the cases. There are a series of useful quotes from important players, such as the GE executive who said (when taking over Alstom) ‘their costs of bribery were not significant and would just lead to a lower dividend’. Aware of the link between bribery and party funding they note that in the Oldebrecht case three per cent of the $1 billion paid in bribes across twelve Latin American countries (including Brazil) was channelled to the Workers Party of Brazil

The examination of political corruption more specifically does justice to the question of ‘illegal’ and ‘legal corruption’ (as in various forms of party funding), taking in Azerbaijan (and the Council of Europe), the USA (the revolving door in defence), the extraordinary cases of Alain Juppe and Jacques Chirac (Prime Minister and President of France respectively). In the separate section on ‘state capture’ the authors take us to South Africa (where the phrase was formalised by a Government Commission), and the saga of the Dos Santos family in Angola where oil became the key to the fortune of Africa’s richest woman, and to Turkey (with an interesting and convincing account of how Istanbul’s ‘liberal’ mayor became a strident Presidential autocrat).

The account of the labyrinth of illicit finance and money laundering dives into an even deeper complexity but succeeds in showing how unsuccessful the EU and the UK have been in checking the flow of illicit finance, with the US only slightly ahead. Here we are in the world on the one hand of the looted assets of corrupt regimes but also of ‘transfer pricing’ by which companies trading on an international basis manipulate export and import prices to transfer trading profits to secrecy jurisdictions in various locations (here notably the Overseas Territories of the UK in the Caribbean). The fact that criminal trials for money laundering have been minimal in London, and fines scarcely significant, is laid out in useful detail. The inherent contradictions of a regime in which successive British governments have promoted self regulation by private sector professionals is convincingly explored, with the message that this system has effectively failed and must be replaced (but not by the disfunctional OPBAS). They revert to a quotation that it is ‘to a large extent ethical questions that lie at the heart of the professional enablers debate’.

In all these respects ‘How Corruption Works in Practice’ is a good analysis of the issues associated with corruption drawn mainly from cases where its ramifications occur in the ‘west’ even if the corrupt act occurs in the ‘developing’ world. However, the analysis has two major weaknesses : first, it pays short shrift to the need for a much more sophisticated understanding of the underlying interest groups furthering corruption in a given national context, and secondly it neglects (almost entirely) the role of the informal economy as a key source of corrupt payments. In the first case it is now abundantly clear that a network of interest groups can influence political outcomes and regroup when political power nominally passes from one part to another. Exposure of corruption in these contexts is often simply the tip of the iceberg. In the second case, given that the informal sector, often accounts for thirty to forty per cent of the size of GDP in the developing world, it also a huge reservoir of unrecorded payments which are not touched by regulation and scarcely affected by legislation. Not only organised crime but many unrecorded businesses conduct their operations in this environment in which corruption can flourish.

The book would be stronger it it had acknowledged these issues, but it is nonetheless a very useful if partial guide to the nature of corruption as it is manifested in many national contexts.

Laurence Cockcroft is the author of ‘Global Corruption : Money, Power and Ethics in the Modern World’ (IB Tauris, 2013) and co-author (with Anne Christine Wegener) of ‘Unmasked : Corruption in the West’ (IB Tauris, 2017)

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Understanding Corruption: how corruption works in practice

Robert Barrington, Professor of Anti-Corruption Practice at the University of Sussex, writes about a new book written by staff, students and alumni from the Centre for the Study of Corruption.

Barrington, R., Dávid-Barrett, E., Power, S., Hough, D. (2022).  Understanding Corruption: how corruption works in practice.  Newcastle upon Tyne: Agenda Publishing.

‘Understanding Corruption: how corruption works in practice‘ is a new book written jointly by the faculty of the Centre for the Study of Corruption. It tells the story of how corruption works in practice, through a detailed analysis of eighteen emblematic cases, covering bribery, kleptocracy, political corruption and corrupt capital.  The case studies span the world from the UK, France and United States to Equatorial Guinea, Malaysia, Turkey, Brazil and Azerbaijan.  As well as giving one of the most complete descriptions of corruption available, the book offers a toolkit to examine new cases through introducing the CSC Case Study template. 
Although the book was not specifically written with current events in mind, it is very topical. Professor Liz David-Barrett, Director of the Centre for the Study of Corruption and one of the lead authors, notes: ‘We can see a direct link between our research in this book and what is happening with Russia and Ukraine.  Our case studies examine how former Soviet Union countries have been captured by corrupt elites, how they launder their money and reputations through centres such as London, and the impact on the victims.  Corrupt kleptocrats and oligarchs keep their wealth and power through repression. Pro-democracy and anti-corruption movements that challenge those in power must be ruthlessly put down.  Meanwhile, those who benefit from such regimes enjoy their corruptly-obtained wealth in centres such as London and Paris, aided by a willing cohort of professional enablers.’

As well as Professor David-Barrett’s work on Kleptocracy & State Capture, the book contains chapters on ‘The secret world of corrupt capital’ by Professor Robert Barrington and ‘Professional enablers in London’ by Ben Cowdock, a senior researcher at Transparency International.  Dr Sam Power looks at how lobbying, the revolving door and political party financing can lead to political and policy capture in global financial centres such as the United Kingdom and United States.

To cite the book:

Barrington, R., Dávid-Barrett, E., Power, S., Hough, D. (2022).  Understanding Corruption: how corruption works in practice.  Newcastle upon Tyne: Agenda Publishing.
To buy the book with a 25% discount: Use the code AGENDA25 here:


“The contributors are all current faculty members or recent students at the Centre for the Study of Corruption (CSC). Such a concentration of expertise underpins CSC’s status as the UK’s foremost centre of academic research on the topic of corruption.” – Paul Heywood, Sir Francis Hill Professor of European Politics, University of Nottingham

“This is an important and original book, laying out what corruption is, how it works, and how it should be tackled. I wish it had existed when I was a student.” – Oliver Bullough, author of Butler to the World

“The book leads the reader on a tour around the world to describe in a simple and clear way how corruption operates in practice. The collection of case studies shows that corruption is a global, complex, and context-sensitive phenomenon that does not allow for one-fits-all solutions. Excellent teaching material.” – Delia Ferreira Rubio, Chair, Transparency International

“This book uses a storytelling approach to explain complex corruption cases, making it an easy read. Not only does it show how corruption occurs, but it also exposes the reader to different approaches to tackling corruption. I liked that the book identified the victims in each case. Using case studies is a brilliant way to increase the understanding of corruption which is necessary for motivating people to act against it. I highly recommend this book.” – Onyinye Ough, Executive Director, Step Up Nigeria

Understanding Corruption illuminates the corruption problem in its many different manifestations covering, importantly, not only the more commonly understood phenomenon of bribery, but also the more complex forms such as political corruption or state capture. The case study approach of the book makes it a fascinating read for both veterans and new entrants to the anti-corruption world.” – Gretta Fenner, Basel Institute on Governance

“A generation’s research and reform experiences have taught us much about corruption, its consequences, and possible approaches to control, but much of that knowledge is scattered across many sources and discussions. Understanding Corruption offers a valuable overview and synthesis of what we do – and do not – know, examining major trends in thought and practice while carefully dissecting a variety of cases. It is an essential work for students and teaching, and will help guide the research and debates to come.” – Michael Johnston, Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science Emeritus, Colgate University, USA

“Almost 30 years since anti-corruption became part of the global development agenda this is a crucial collection of essays exploring and deepening understanding about the multitude of ways corruption continues to impact lives across the planet; and how corruption itself has morphed over the decades. Essential reading.”  – John Githongo, The Elephant and CEO, Inuka Kenya Ni Sisi!

“This book with its deceptively simple title offers readers a rich variety of case-study material that sets out very clearly why those of us working in the anti-corruption field – whether policy-makers, practitioners or academics – need to go beyond existing assumptions about what corruption is, why it happens and then what to do about it. By being more open and more consistent in our diagnosis of the problem, the volume shows how this can help us better think about both the potential benefits and the potential harms of various strategies and interventions, and why this matters.” – Heather Marquette, Professor of Development Politics, and Director of the Serious Organised Crime and Anti-Corruption Evidence research programme, University of Birmingham

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The Keys to the Success of Transnational Investigative Journalism

Professor Liz Dávid-Barrett, the Director of the Centre for the Study of Corruption at the University of Sussex, and Slobodan Tomić, Lecturer in Public Management at the University of York examine how and why transnational investigative journalism has become an important tool in combatting grand corruption.

This blog post was originally published by the Global Anticorruption Blog.

Over the last decade, investigative journalists have broken a series of blockbuster stories on financial secrecy and illicit financial flows. These clusters of stories have typically been based on, and named after, leaked documents and data from law firms, financial institutions, or government agencies: LuxLeaks (2014), SwissLeaks (2015), the Panama Papers (2016), the Paradise Papers (2017), the FinCEN Files (2020), the Pandora Papers (2021), and, most recently, Suisse Secrets (2022). One of the remarkable things about each of these cases is that they involved not a single story or series of stories by a single media outlet in a single country, but rather were the product of a transnational collaboration of a network of investigative journalists. It has always been the case that investigative journalism has been a vital tool for exposing and deterring corruption. But what we seem to be seeing now is the emergence of a transnational coalition of journalists that is sufficiently agile, dynamic, and capable of working across borders to be a match for the perpetrators of grand corruption, money laundering, and other forms of organized crime.

Indeed, these transnational networks of investigative journalists can be seen as a new institution of global governance. Yet their emergence presents a series of puzzles. How have they overcome the difficulties that plague law enforcement when they try to act transnationally? How have journalists learned to trust one another in handling sensitive data, and to have faith that their colleagues will hold off on publishing until the agreed date? In addition to questions like these, the emergence of transnational networks of investigative journalists raises a broader question: What does this new form of global governance add to our collective efforts to tackle grand corruption?

With support from the UK government’s Serious Organised Crime and Anti-Corruption Evidence (SOC ACE) programme, we have been investigating these questions, principally through interviews with investigative journalists in Latin America and the Balkans who have participated in these networks. Our research has highlighted three important features of these transnational journalistic networks.

  • First, transnational networks of investigative journalism have benefited from a transformed funding model. Indeed, this new form of journalistic cooperation is in some ways a response to the crisis that regular journalism has faced in recent years. A decade ago, investigative journalism—which is resource-intensive and slow work—looked set to die out as the newspaper business crumpled under the strains of free online content. In many countries, local journalism has collapsed because of these market pressures, and the political sensitivity of reporting on corruption made it especially vulnerable to cuts. While it is still hard for local media to finance investigative journalism, transnational investigative networks have through their work demonstrated that they bring public benefit. And that has enabled them to access funding through other methods, including individual donors and international foundations that make grants in line with their broader mission to maintain a free media.
  • Second, there has been a shift in the culture of journalism away from a collection of “lone wolves” competing for career-burnishing scoops, and toward a more collaborative and mutually supportive model. That is in part because, as several journalists explained to us, investigating and writing about the perpetrators of grand corruption remains an extremely dangerous business, and transnational cooperation helps reduce the inherent risks of taking on the powerful and well-connected. Part of this risk-mitigation is due to safety in numbers. As one journalist told us, “I lived in a small town and if I was going to publish something by myself on corruption I felt completely unsafe. I didn’t have any support. Once I received a death threat after publishing something. With the transnational work you have a network of support, and it’s not only your name that becomes a target or is connected to a publication, it’s loads of names being connected.” Relatedly, the involvement of many journalists in a network makes it possible for individual journalists who might be at risk if their names are connected to certain stories to shift the story to someone else in the network. If a case is highly sensitive in one country, for example, the network might pass it to someone who does not live there. This approach can also help evade curbs on media freedom. Notably, none of the Suisse Secrets stories have been published under the bylines of Swiss reporters, out of concern that these reporters could be prosecuted under Switzerland’s archaic secrecy laws. Similarly, other journalists have told us that they used transnational networks to get around Nicaragua’s laws against publishing stories based on leaks. Once the story has been published elsewhere, outside the jurisdiction of those laws, a synthesis can more safely be reported in the Nicaraguan media.
  • Third, transnational networks of journalists have created new tech tools and developed methods that are helping to build the capacity of the global anticorruption community. The Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project has brought together journalists and data scientists to develop an investigative dashboard, called Aleph, that helps journalists all over the world to find company ownership records and other information using data from public records as well as data from past leaks. The networks also sometimes assist with access to tools and data that might be too expensive for small outlets to finance, such as satellite information, export-import figures, and telephone numbers or addresses. Some networks have in-house data scientists to perform sophisticated searches and analyses. This tech revolution also means that it is now much easier for whistleblowers and other sources to contact journalists anonymously and provide them with huge quantities of information in electronic form. Technology also facilitates the use of the investigative journalists’ reports by law enforcement: The journalists’ articles, and the databases on which those stories are based, create an archive that can be useful to law enforcement looking for evidence, especially now that search engines make it easy to find information from the past and connect the dots.

Transnational investigative journalism is now an important part of our global armory against grand corruption. But there are limits to its impact. Journalists can discover corruption schemes, or evidence of them, but they cannot prosecute. Relatively few of the cases of cross-border corruption revealed by even the most spectacular leaks have led to trials and verdicts, because it is eventually up to domestic authorities to prosecute, and that legal process is fraught with obstacles. Similarly, it is not clear that all the great work that journalists do to expose legal gaps and institutional weaknesses is provoking systemic reform. Once public attention subsides, it takes Herculean efforts from the anticorruption community to get governments to consider new regulatory solutions against tax evasion and money laundering. Yet before these networks existed, most cases of cross-border corruption went undiscovered as well as unprosecuted. Transnational networks of investigative journalists provide unsolicited but rigorous narratives linking information and actors, and the evidence they uncover can be used both by the general public and by law enforcement agencies. In doing so, they are performing an essential function in the global fight against grand corruption and illicit finance.

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On the borderline of corruption: recent cases involving Britain’s Royal Family

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.

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