Eternal Vigilance

Roberto Saviano is a household name in Italy.  An exceptionally brave and honest journalist, he exposed the squalid criminal underside of Naples and the surrounding area in his fascinating book ‘Gomorrah’.  As a result, he is given personal permanent protection as the Neapolitan mafia – the Camorra – seeks to kill him.

He illustrates how a whole society became corrupted by, and almost immune to, the vicious and intensive illegality of gangsters determined to have their way.  Both the private and public sectors were infected by this plague, so that Naples – beaten and bowed –became a byword for a broken city and a cowed community.

Yet Saviano, in his inimitably honest style, made one comment which struck me forcibly.  He has pointed out that the United Kingdom is the most corrupt of countries.  I believe that he was thinking of London as the most sophisticated money laundering city on the planet, but his comment had a wider resonance. After all, we do have our own history of glaring malfeasance.

Nevertheless, we in this country pride ourselves that we have a democracy which, with all of its imperfections, is superior to that of other countries.  This jars with regular headlines about ‘corrupt’ British politics where, for example, peerages are said to be up for sale; or controversy surrounds donations made to political parties and politicians.  Now and then, there are causes celebres in the wider domain where regular accusations are made. Think of Philip Green and BHS, or British bankers fixing LIBOR rates.  Still, we still insist ‘they’ – that is, everyone else – are worse off in the corruption league.

This is a wholly false assumption on behalf of the British people.  How often do British companies bribe clients overseas, on the basis of ‘if we don’t, our rivals will’?  Think of Mark Thatcher and Saudi arms deals.  Think of BP in Nigeria.  The reality is that we have an ambivalent view on corruption (some would call it hypocrisy).  It is acceptable abroad because ‘they’ remain the lesser breed without the law.  Here in Britain, all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, we proudly delude ourselves.

Such thinking could not be further from the truth.  This sceptred isle has a long history of corruption.  To select just a few examples – in the last century, peerages were sold off for cash by Maundy Gregory on behalf of Lloyd-George; politicians like John Stonehouse, Jonathan Aitken and Lord Archer went to gaol. The parliamentary expenses scandal was only eight years ago. Consider the Poulson scandal in local government; or locally, the infamous Kirkby ski-slope.  Anyone who believes us to be holier than thou as a nation is hiding their head in the sand.

The harsh reality is that corruption, like sin, is with us always.  Passing laws of itself will not prevent it as unscrupulous individuals allow greed and ego to guide their activities.  There are, however, measures we the public can all take to minimise the chances of dishonest people taking advantage in the public domain.

The first and simplest step is to ask questions.  Ask of those who are charged with responsibility for our interests – public servants and those elected to public office.  Be persistent in pursuing your right to information – if necessary, use Freedom of Information legislation to get answers.  After all, corrupt crooks generally work in the dark, fearing the light of publicity. The oxygen of publicity is toxic to the corrupt.

Regardless of who sits in what position, temptation always hovers around those in public life.  The higher up the greasy pole they climb, the greater the temptation is.  It is why, on the fall of the old – and corrupt – Soviet Union, the clarion calls were “glasnost” and “perestroika” (openness and reconstruction).  That openness indicated a profound cultural shift, in recognition that knowledge is power. Giving people information is transferring that power to those to whom it rightly belongs – the electorate.

The aspiration of Gorbachov and his contemporaries is one that we would do well to imitate.  As John Curran once said: “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance”.  That is not just a fine but dated thought.  It is a prerequisite for a society free of corruption, whether local or national.

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