Is Britain bent?

  • 28 February 2012
  • From the section Business
  • comments

She might be wrong, because the cops have been wrong before, but here's what Met Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers said on Monday at the Leveson Inquiry: that there is a "network of corrupted officials" spanning not just the police but "a wide range of public officials" including military, health, government, prison and others".

My ears pricked up at the words "and others" because it's one of those police-speak terms that could just mean "everybody else" or it could be a codeword for even more sensitive categories, like "the Royal household" or "the intelligence services". We'll have to wait and see: "government" itself is a tantalising word, suggesting as it does not just politicians but, perhaps, civil servants. But, like I say, she could be wrong.

However, if she's not wrong, it hardly matters that it was the Sun "wot done it". What matters is that Britain's public life stands accused by a senior policewoman of being riddled with criminals. Crooks on the take, using public office to line their pockets.

Are we surprised? Well we've had, in the past two decades, the arms for Iraq scandal, cash for questions, cash for honours, MPs' expenses, the dropping of the Serious Fraud Office investigation against BAE Systems on national security grounds, plus all the issues to be covered in the Chilcot Report, when it finally, at long, long, last comes out.

In those two decades, London has quietly become the destination of choice for hot money: whether it's in property, high finance, art or simply cash, only the nationality of the dodgy geezers in black-window limos changes, as the world turns.

But this is different. The common thread in all the previous scandals has been, sadly, parliament. In an age when MPs are encouraged to be - indeed picked to be - "non-ideological", it was probably inevitable that the legislature should be the venue for so many scandals involving self-enrichment. And the common theme to "dodgy London" has been the ill-gotten gains of foreigners.

Now, we have to assume, there is corruption at the heart of major British institutions with better reputations than parliament. The medical profession, the prison service, the civil service, the armed forces? Like I say, she could be wrong.

But if she is right there is an even bigger concern: suppose person A has been taking X thousand pounds from News International, as alleged by Assistant Commissioner Akers. Now suppose person A needs X+N thousand pounds. Are we absolutely certain person A has not been also taking money from, for example country Y? This was the problem uncovered in the Profumo Affair (1963): that once respectable people start frequenting the semi-criminal underworld they are apt to bump into people even more dangerous than criminals.

This is where corruption inquiries always lead: to the heart of darkness.

But who is to lead the inquiry? The News of the World scandal claimed the careers of the Met Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson and his deputy Assistant Commissioner John Yates. Rupert Murdoch owns the Times, Sunday Times and 39% of BSkyB. The current prime minister, given the choice, hand-picked as his right-hand press adviser, a man who has now been arrested as part of the investigation.

Actually, on a day when a major British bank is being stung for "only" £500m of tax avoidance, it's worth saying, on a hunch, that plain old British business is one of the least corrupt institutions: businesses have too many customers, suppliers and rivals for systemic corruption to go unreported. That's my hunch, anyway.

But on the substantive issue, if Sue Akers is right we're going to be very glad we have a non-corrupt judiciary.