2021ii19, Friday: “Sleaze”… and a Free Man of England.

Rabbie Burns was right. We need to see oursels as ithers see us – particularly where corruption is concerned. And on another tack: a lovely court victory over a dangerously deluded sovereign citizen.

Short thought: The immortal Robert Burns was right when he asked for the gift of seeing oneself from the outside. (From To a Louse, although personally I prefer To a Mouse, which introduced the phrase “the best-laid plans of mice and men” into the language.)

This gift is particularly important for those of us in so-called “developed” countries who work on anti-corruption. It’s fatally easy to look at a healthy CPI score, fold one’s hands over one’s stomach, and see corruption as somebody else’s country’s problem. Instead of looking at what happens here from the outside – and judging it accordingly. (Joseph Cotterill, now the FT’s southern Africa bureau chief, used to do this beautifully, as this Twitter thread delivering a stiletto to the kidneys of UK politics in 2017 demonstrates.

I’ve long felt the UK has a particularly acute failing here. The first general election I remember in real detail was the 1997 one. In the runup to it, the papers were full of allegations of “sleaze”, suggesting something rotten at the heart of the Tory government which was by then 18 years old. 

But here’s the thing. “Sleaze” was a catch-all term, encompassing sexual wrongdoing, political favour distribution and what, anywhere else, we’d call corruption or bribery. By using the term, not only did we elide these differing concepts into some generalised moral failing. We also avoided having to look in the mirror and admit it: we’ve got a corruption problem. Which both rubs our collective ego, and protects those in power who are quite happy for the “you scratch my conscience, I’ll drive your Jag” status quo to continue.

And this is where Burns’s gift would come in so useful. A good exercise when looking at some bit of skulduggery involving the abuse of power in the UK is always to say: if this happened in Nigeria, or Afghanistan, or Indonesia, or Venezuela, or any other country in the lower reaches of the CPI, what would we call it? If we’d call it corruption there, we’re dishonest not to do so here.

Take a classic small-scale example. You’re on a local authority planning committee. Your child is a tennis player with semi-pro. A local tennis club has a great record for training young people, but a waiting list. You’re having lunch with a friend, a developer. His husband is on the club membership committee. Your child is mentioned. The waiting list unaccountably shortens soon afterwards. When a planning application from the developer next emerges, do you disclose your child’s new-found membership?

Change the story a bit, so it’s happening in a more ostensibly corruption-prone place. Change the tennis club to a university place or an internship. Change the local council to a national quango. Would it be corruption? Would it, at the very least, require disclosure and probable recusal?

I think so, yes. But I wonder how many people, in the UK context, would have thought so. 

As I said, this is not a new thought. But it’s been sparked anew by two things.

First, my jottings on fraud were responded to by a former colleague whom I deeply respect, Mark Ward. Mark was a tech correspondent at the BBC, but is now senior research analyst at the International Security Forum. Mark and I are both baffled by how a crime with such huge (both deep AND broad) impact can be accorded so low a priority. Now, I can’t help wondering if it’s part of the same picture: a cross between wilful blindness and contentment that someone else is paying the bill when the grown-ups keep doing what they do.

Second, a throwaway line in a newspaper report noted that the government’s anti-corruption champion, John Penrose MP, is married to Baroness Dido Harding. The former head of TalkTalk (widely regarded as a considerable failure in that role, having presided among other things over one of the most egregious corporate data protection breaches in recent UK memory), who was put in charge of Test and Trace without any competition or assessment. And who is widely regarded as having failed extensively in that, as well.

Yes. The person in charge of anti-corruption is married to someone who’s seen (with a good deal of justification) as a major beneficiary of nepotism.

Again. Put this in another less self-satisfied country. What would it look like? How would it be viewed?

(Update: an earlier version of this got Dido Harding’s old job wrong. She was made CEO of TalkTalk, not Carphone Warehouse, when the former was split from the latter.)


Someone is right on the internet: I’ve been fortunate never to have had to deal personally with so-called sovereign citizens. Those people who in the US start talking about black helicopters and the illegitimacy of all things federal; and who over here tend to start blathering insanities about Magna Carta (thank the blessed David Allen Green for wading through the muck on that one).

Sarah Clover, from King’s Chambers, wasn’t so lucky – but at least it’s produced a fascinating case, where a gym owner in Preston trotted out many of the greatest hits which made him – as he put it – a “Free Man of England”: governing only by consent, a redefinition of the Common Law, and the non-applicability of the Coronavirus Regulations because they were a “statute of legislation”. No, I don’t understand that tautology either. 

Anyhow, read Sarah’s piece. It’s great.

Only one problem. The poor man seems not to have mentioned Magna Carta. Missed a trick there. No doubt poorly advised…


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