Corruption Legalised

Slowly and reluctantly, I have come to the conclusion that Britain is a very corrupt country indeed

Slowly and reluctantly, I have come to the conclusion that Britain is a very corrupt country indeed – worse than, say, France. It is corrupt, of course, in its own way, that is to say, slyly, indirectly, surreptitiously, and with a good leavening of hypocrisy. Outward forms of institutions are often maintained, more or less, but they are eviscerated of their meaning. Perhaps the best model is American philanthropic foundations, whose purposes in the hands of their staff often end up as diametrically opposed to those of their founders.

It is true that most people in Britain still go through life without having to pay a bribe to anyone and this in itself, in the context of world history, is a remarkable achievement. Financial corruption of the kind that most people think of when they think of corruption – for example bribery or kickbacks for the award of contracts – no doubt occurs, as it has always occurred, and probably, given the trend, more now than in the last century or two. But this kind of corruption is, within limits, of far less significance than the kind of moral, psychological, administrative and intellectual corruption from which Britain now suffers. Corruption of the financial kind is, at least in theory, easy to extirpate. It is straightforwardly illegal. The problem with corruption on the modern British kind is that it is legal, and indeed has been – dare I say it – institutionalised, even compulsory. It is all-pervasive and affects almost every sphere of life. It is so hydra-headed that even to try to think of a solution is enough to give one vertigo. One feels that the whole country is becoming a Post Office scandal on a vastly greater scale.

In American universities, DEI stands for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. In Britain, it stands for Delay, Expense and Incompetence. The latter is of a peculiar quality: it is not because of low intelligence in any formal sense, it is more wilful than that. So many jobs depend on incompetence that competence, where is exists, is feared and whenever possible eliminated. The motto of Dickens’ Circumlocution Office has become the mission statement of British public administration and on the whole a description of it: how not to do it.

Everywhere one looks, one sees evidence of things not done properly, but nevertheless expensively. It is as if the real purpose of public expenditure were first to assure the pensions of those working, or ever to have worked, in the public sector, and to assure the employment of hordes of consultants, special advisors and the like.

With expenditure about 25 per cent lower than Britain’s own defence, France has more than 33 per cent more soldiers, more than twice as many tanks, six times as many military satellites, and more ships in its navy.

The cost of HS2 to Manchester is projected to be more than twice the whole of Spain’s entre high-speed railway network (the largest in Europe). While there are good reasons why it is cheaper to build such railways in Spain, they surely cannot explain why in Spain it takes less than 5 per cent of what it costs in Britain to build a mile of such railway.

Building contractors on roads in Britain not only create a terrible mess as they work but leave it behind them when they have supposedly completed their work. No one holds them to account; they take no pride in what they do and the public authorities that have awarded the contracts evidently take no steps to enforce tidiness.

It is not as if the work is messy because it is done hastily, let alone quickly. There are sites at which traffic is held up for roadworks for several weeks without any evidence of work being done. Near where I live, road signs saying that a certain road was closed to traffic for road repairs remained for several months after the work had been done.

I pay very similar local taxes in France to those I pay in England, but in France the roads are well kept, the verges immaculate, and repairs take a fraction of the time they would take in England.

In my county in England, the roads appear as if they have been subjected to repeated earth tremors before anyone could get to repair any of the damage; in the same county, the council lost nearly all its financial reserves – tens of millions – on a single property speculation. It will have to close libraries in order to avoid bankruptcy. Taxes rise, services diminish, index-linked pensions are protected. The chief executive of the council is (so the council’s website informs us) up for an award for public service employees.

Notwithstanding the employment of large numbers of bureaucrats, large numbers of ‘consultants’ are also employed, from the so-called private sector. Many of these are little more than a year out of university, and a friend informs me that what they lack in knowledge or experience, they make up in numbers. Their main activity is to call meetings where they hold forth. His ministry regularly wastes tens of millions of schemes and projects that, all too predictably, do not work.

Our police are scruffy, frequently too fat to run, and inattentive to what should be what a bureaucrat would call their ‘core activities’. Like the sinners of the general confession, they do what they ought not to do and do not do what they ought to do. Over and over again, gross failings are revealed by dramatic cases, and it is claimed, in the subsequent enquiry, that ‘lessons have been learnt’ – which has become a virtual promise of repetition in the near future.

Our administration is not only incapable of, but unwilling even to try to, control the numbers of people coming into the country. A Martian observing Britain might conclude that the real policy of the government was to pay millions of people to pretend to be ill or otherwise incapacitated, especially by so-called mental illness, and to import cheap labour to make up for it.

In short, there is a near-palpable atmosphere of decay and collapse in the country, despite the fact that there are still millions of people in it who are intelligent, hard-working, conscientious, obliging and so forth. There seems to be a contradiction or a paradox here that requires explanation.

While there is a deal of ruin in a nation, as Adam Smith said, we should also remember Ernest’s Hemingway’s dictum that people go bankrupt first slowly and then suddenly. We seem to be on the sudden portion of this trajectory, and unable to halt it.

But what is the explanation of our current predicament, in which public administration is catastrophically bad while many people work so hard and so well?

I’ll refer to two possible factors. The first is traceable to the unintended baleful effects of Mrs Thatcher’s reign (if that is quite the word for it). She found the public service incompetent and corrupt. She gave the impression that, if the public services should be run in a business-like fashion, those running them should be – in fact were – businessmen. If so, the bureaucrats seized their chance with both hands. They realised that they could have dividends without profits and proceeded to loot the public purse with great skill and determination. Nurses became directors of operations, or of strategy, and so forth. The embryo of a nomenklatura class was formed, creatively developed (as Mr Brezhnev used to put it), under the Blair regime. A quangocracy, whose members moved seamlessly between the private sector and the upper reaches of the public sector, was created: and in this, unusually, creation proved easier than destruction.

By turning the upper reaches of the public sector into pretend-businessmen, who spouted managerialese as the geyser of Yellowstone Park spouts hot water, all sense of transcendent public purpose was lost, except for dishonest rhetorical purposes.

But this happened at a time when there was a withering of any sense of what the public purpose should be, thanks in large part to the expansions of the universities which turned out huge numbers of ideologically indoctrinated young people who nevertheless had to be employed in some way or other. Thus, the purpose of local government became not to administer streets, roads and public facilities, a humble task much below the dignity of many of the newly-intellectual graduates employed, but to secure what is now called social justice, a wonderfully moving target with so many requirements. Here is a statement I found recently on a borough’s website:

By leveraging their position of power, [the council] aims to   ensure that outside businesses demonstrate their commitment to approved values before being commissioned. This proactive approach reflects their dedication to fostering an inclusive and equitable environment in the borough.

By elevating political considerations above efficiency, the council happily creates the need for many bureaucrats. Supposed political virtue coincides with the interests of apparatchiks and their nomenklatura.

Walking through the borough, one has the impression of walking through a Central American garbage dump. Only the vultures are missing. But of course, social justice is so much more important, interesting, and lucrative, than sweeping the streets.

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