2021iv14, Wednesday: Equality, of a sort.

Equality in principle is very different from equality in practice. As we’re seeing in the Greensill affair – and as a French writer cynically and beautifully put it many years ago. And US officialdom catches up, at last, on surface transmission of the Bug.

Short thought: Back when I was a reporter covering business, I spent a lot of time talking to C-suite executives. To help mitigate the risk of getting overawed, a colleague gave me advice I’ve always recalled.

The only difference between you and the rich and powerful, she said, was that they’ve got more money and power than you do.

There are countless layers to unpack in that advice, and the more you peel away the better it is.

But although it’s useful, it isn’t entirely true. French writer Anatole France captured it pithily more than a century ago:

La majestueuse égalité des lois, qui interdit au riche comme au pauvre de coucher sous les ponts, de mendier dans les rues et de voler du pain.

Which translates roughly as:

The law, in its majestic equality, prohibits rich and poor alike from sleeping under bridges, begging in the streets and stealing loaves of bread.

In other words: money and power do, sadly, have a quality all their own. And law, and rules, inevitably affect people with them differently.

I was reminded of these when reading something by David Allen Green, someone whose stuff I follow religiously. Writing about the Greensill lobbying affair, he starts with the proposition that it’s right that everyone should be able to make their case to public power. Banning people from seeking to exercise influence causes serious problems. In principle.

His analogy is, I think, not an ideal one. He notes that in theory everyone “has the ‘right’ to dine at the Ritz”, but not everyone can afford it. Whereas in fact, so long as the Ritz doesn’t discriminate on the basis of a protected characteristic, it doesn’t have to sell its services to anyone it doesn’t want to.

Government is different. It has to serve everyone. Which is one reason why CEOs don’t necessarily make good political leaders: there’s always the risk that they’ll write off a chunk of the citizenry in the same way as firing a slice of the workforce, or moving upmarket and leaving former customers behind.

But David’s underlying point is a sound one. Even if his initial proposition is right, the fact is that money and power make a massive difference. They make some voices much louder, and act – deliberately or carelessly – to silence many others. So the very least we should expect is to know exactly who is saying what to whom, and with how much money behind them. Absolutely. No exceptions.

Openness isn’t the only or final answer, of course. It’s not sufficient. It doesn’t solve for the problem identified in another of France’s observations (and uncomfortably evident today): Si 50 millions de personnes disent une bêtise, c’est quand même une bêtise. (Rough translation: Idiocy voiced by 50 million people is still idiocy.)

But it is necessary.

As David puts it:

And if such absolute openness and transparency and procedural certainty is not feasible, then they should not be able to directly approach ministers and officials at all – even if it is in respect of their personal interest (as opposed to on behalf of a paying client, which is a gap Cameron was able to exploit).

They can write a letter to a member of parliament, or wave a placard on Whitehall, like anyone else.


Update: On Monday, I shared a superb piece of writing by Zeynep Tufecki, dealing with Covid theatre. She was particularly scathing about the cult of the wipedown: the opportunity cost we pay for the amount of time, money and energy spent on cleaning and disinfecting, when these have long been known to be a very minor element in the overall risk.

As John Naughton points out, US officialdom has now caught up. The CDC, now creeping back to its role as a central and strong player in the fight against the pandemic after its near-crippling by Trump, confirms formally what Zeynep was saying (and she, as she freely notes, is only reporting what others have proved long ago): that while transmission via surface contact is possible, the risk is low. Aerosol spread is far more dangerous and far more common.

To which some might answer: well, there’s still a risk. So we shouldn’t relax our guard vis-a-vis cleaning stuff.

Well, up to a point. But the real point is the one I discussed on Monday. If everything’s a priority, nothing is. So we need to prioritise wisely. When you focus on the wrong risk, you fail to protect against the right one. Sure, clean stuff. But if keeping up with that in any way eats into resources you need to spend in proofing against bigger risks, then think carefully about rebalancing.

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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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A corruption hypothetical.

When people claim the UK is “clean” (usually while denigrating somewhere else) it always makes me angry. Because corruption creeps in everywhere, and never more so than where when people are convinced it doesn’t exist…

Imagine the following synopsis of a news story:

  • A property developer in a legendarily corruption-prone country – let’s call it Bribeia for the sake of argument – wants to build something that needs planning permission.
  • So he donates a chunk of cash to the coffers of the ruling party. As part of this donation, he gets to come to a rubber-chicken, thousands-a-plate fundraiser and hobnob with ministers.
  • He ends up sitting next to one such minister, and tells him about the development, urging that it be approved. The minister is non-committal, but they swap mobile numbers.
  • They then exchange multiple text messages. The minister continues to be carefully non-committal in his text messaging, but the developer tells him that he needs the approval by a deadline to avoid paying a whopping tax bill to the local government – coincidentally run by the main opposition party.
  • The non-committal communications notwithstanding, the minister tells his civil servants not only to approve the development, but to make sure it’s done in time to avoid the tax.

You’re all smart people, so you’ll all have instantly recognised that this is the Jenrick-Desmond affair, albeit transplanted elsewhere.

But tell me honestly. I mean it: do tell me, whether on Twitter, LinkedIn or otherwise. If this chain of events happened in a country in the bottom half of the TI CPI, would you hesitate for all that long before regarding both the developer’s conduct and that of the minister as potentially corrupt?

And if that’s the case for Bribeia, why’s it any different here?

(I’ll leave it as a thought exercise for the reader to analyse Desmond’s conduct in the context of Section 1 of the Bribery Act, pausing only to note that the person who is given or promised the advantage doesn’t have to be the same person as the one who performs a function improperly, but also noting that it might be tricky to prove intent. Similarly, an interesting academic exercise is to imagine that Desmond was indeed dealing with a Bribeian minister (that is, a foreign public official) rather than a UK one, and assess his conduct in the context of section 6. Although from what I’ve read, the test at s6(3)a)(ii) looks unsatisfied.)