2023v14, Sunday: A little. Late.

It’s nice to see a government at least pretend to take fraud seriously. It’d be nicer for them actually to do so.

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

It’s almost 20 years ago that a senior police officer handed me a sheet of paper. On it was a table showing the number of specialist fraud officers in every police force in England and Wales.

Adding up the columns, the total force strength of fraud investigators didn’t even break four figures. Out of 100,000-plus officers, not even a single percentage point.

I remember writing about it for the BBC at the time. And then about the Fraud Act and Fraud Review, two years later. I left the BBC in 2007, but stayed involved in investigating and preventing fraud first at the Financial Services Authority and then in two international banks. And now, of course, as a barrister dealing both with civil and criminal fraud is still part of my daily life.

Throughout those two decades, fraud’s only got bigger. More common. Easier for fraudsters. More damaging for individuals. More prevalent. More endemic. More expensive.

One thing hasn’t changed, though.

We – that is, the UK government – still doesn’t take it seriously.

Grand plans

I’m writing this now a week or so after the very, very long-awaited Fraud Strategy was published.

It talks tough. Several hundred new officers, in a new National Fraud Squad. Making fraud an official policing priority. Using the intelligence community. Leading the world. New reporting mechanisms.

Great. Big stuff.

The scale of it

But let’s put it in context.

Getting on for half of reported crime is fraud.

The latest Economic Crime Survey fraud and corruption review (I’ll resist the urge to comment on the fact that this in fact dates back from 2020 – published this month with no word as to why we’ve had to wait three years, although of course the numbers are starkly embarrassing) says one in five businesses had suffered from fraud in the previous three years – and that’s not counting the hundreds of thousands of individuals who’ve lost sums ranging from small but painful, to life-changing and catastrophic. (The ECS notes that fraud accounted for 41% of recorded crime in the year ending September 2022, with 6% of adults being a victim. UK Finance’s fraud report gives a further small flavour of this.)

Not to mention what is to my mind one of the greatest harms caused by rampant fraud: the wholesale destruction of the trust on which any properly-functioning economy rests. The faith – let’s call it that – that on the whole, when you do business with someone, you don’t have to assume they’re going to try to rip you off.

So even with these new numbers – and ignoring the parlous state of the criminal justice system, which gets no new resources here to enable anyone investigated actually to be successfully prosecuted amid crumbling courts, staff worked to tears, and lawyers often paid less (when you count up the hours and then honestly account for expenses) than minimum wage – we’re still staring at something which barely exceeds that single percentage point. If it exceeds it at all.

This isn’t taking fraud seriously. This is doing the bare minimum. It’s buzzword bingo. Not real solutions.

If not now, then

I’m not saying this isn’t worth doing. It is. Let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the “at least it’s something”. If the alternative is nothing, I’ll take this.

But it’s astonishingly uncreative. Unambitious. People have been talking, shouting even, about the effective decriminalisation of fraud for two decades. There are lots of ideas, from better prosecution techniques, to public-private partnerships, to incentivising private sector asset recovery, to … well, many more. Lip service is paid in the Strategy, but that’s as far as it goes. There’s scarce sign that anyone’s been listening.

And worst of all: it’s hard to see anything here (other than the stuff about online harms – because, of course, those didn’t exist in the same way in 2004) that couldn’t have been done at any point during these past two decades or so. If only someone had had the will. If only someone had cared.

Had fraud started being taken seriously back then, as it is in many other countries, we’d be in a very different place. Instead, we’ve had inertia, spinning wheels, – no, worse: neglect. While fraudsters have had 20 years to get better. To learn. To evolve.

We’re starting now, perhaps. At long, long last. But from way behind the line.

Who cares?

And that’s deliberate political neglect.

Starting with Labour, to be sure: I remember sitting round a table in the Law Officers’ Department as the Fraud Review was launched, a seat or two along from the great Joshua Rozenberg, as he and I and others hammered away at the abject lack of meaningful resources being offered to confront what, even then, was clearly a grossly metastasizing problem. But the past 13 years of neglect has been the Tories. Ignoring the problem. Even when the crime figures finally showed just how huge it really was.

I don’t know why this has been such an also-ran. It always seemed to me like an open goal, popularity-wise: after all, who doesn’t have a relative, or a friend, or a neighbour, who’s been left with empty pockets, or cleaned-out bank accounts, or a gaping hole in their pension – and, even worse, that mortifying (and I stress wholly unfair) sense that since nobody’s taking it seriously, and since they must have been a mug to get taken in, somehow it must be partly their fault?

So I’ll take what’s on offer. But I’d love to see someone make this an issue when the next election rolls round. Surely it’s a vote-winner?

But then, what do I know. I’m just a lawyer.

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2022vi1, Wednesday: The question that comes too late.

We’ve all kicked ourselves on occasion for missing the chance to ask about the thing that’s really important. Although sometimes the answer is too obvious for words…

Photo by Marcel Strauß on Unsplash

Sometimes it’s a few seconds. Sometimes half an hour. And sometimes it’s not till the following day.

But I can’t be alone – either among reporters (my former trade) or advocates (my current one) – in, far too often, having the lightbulb moment just too late. When an excellent question comes to mind only after you’ve put down the phone, or walked out the door, or watched the witness exit the box.

In the latter case, of course, a well-planned, well-prepped cross-examination should minimise the risk – although it does still happen.  (And as anyone who’s done this will testify, and frankly any barrister who says it’s never happened to them is a liar, the bigger risk is often asking one question too many than one too few.)

In a journalistic environment there’s sometimes a second bite at the cherry. A follow-up call. Or someone else you can talk to.

But it happens.

It’s now a decade and a half since I jacked in journalism, it having lost its remaining lustre for me following the Hutton Inquiry and the BBC’s retreat to pre-emptive, cowardly cringe. (And many too many editorial meetings where senior editors would try to force my desk to run a story which I said was – put as politely as I felt able – complete bollocks, because it had “a great top line”.) I asked a lot of hard questions during my time. But it wasn’t till after I left that I came across the concept of the “pre-mortem”, and realised that all the politicians, and businesspeople, and others that I talked to, as they sold some grand scheme or gold-plated plan, should have been confronted with a really simple question.

“What could go wrong with this?” 


“What are the downsides?”

I know. They’d probably swerve the answer. Or I’d never get offered an interview again.

But it’s a critical question. Anyone planning something new with ramifications for people other than themselves who hasn’t thought, deeply and scarily, about what the downsides are, where the blowback might come from, ought never to be allowed to make decisions affecting anyone else. Ever again. Similarly, anyone who denies that any exist is immediately either a fool or a liar.

Talking about fools and liars… a similar thought has kept striking me as stories about letters to the 1922 Committee proliferated. Letters which say: Boris Johnson is no longer fit to be Prime Minister.

(It’ll be even more pressing once the results of the no-confidence vote hurriedly scheduled for today come in around 9pm or thereabouts.)

I haven’t the time, the energy or the self-loathing to read most of those letters, not in any depth or volume. (Jesse Norman’s being a notable and laudable exception, not least since – as David Allen Green points out – it trespasses into policy failings as well as political quagmires.) So some of them may answer this question.

But I can’t help wanting to ask those writing these more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger missives:

Set aside Partygate. Set aside Sue Gray, and the Met and all the sound and fury. If you’re saying Johnson isn’t fit for the office, that’s not just about what he’s done. It’s about who he is. 

So, simply put: what do you know now about him that you didn’t know when you made him party leader – and backed him for PM? What, really, is new?

Answers on a postcard. Speculating about how big a postcard is required is an exercise left for the reader.

(Incidentally, I know it’s been months since I last wrote. A lot has happened since then. I’m not quite ready to write about it. Nearly. But not quite. Bear with me. Please?)

2022ii6, Sunday: Sheer dishonesty.

Politicians shade the truth. Fact of life. But that’s different from deliberately seeking to mislead. Option one is excusable. Option two isn’t. Kwasi Kwarteng: I’m looking at you.

Lord Agnew, demonstrating what honour in office means: “Given that I’m the minister for counter-fraud, it seems a little dishonest to stay on in that role if I’m incapable of doing it properly, let alone defending our track record.” Screenshot from the House of Lords broadcast of his speech.

Expecting politicians to be wholly straightforward is a mug’s game.

That’s not to parrot the common canard about them “all being the same”, or that “you can’t trust any of them”. I wholly disagree with that. In my experience, it usually comes from someone with a strong affiliation, or at least voting tradition, in favour of one party. If that party causes them disillusion, this is what you tell yourself to justify not even considering voting for someone else.

No. It’s that politics, and in some ways still more government, can’t work if you’re telling the whole truth all the time. I expect my political leaders sometimes to shade things. If you’re negotiating a treaty, you can’t do that in the blaze of sunlight, for instance.

But shading the truth and outright lying, bullshitting or gaslighting are wholly different. Breathtaking intellectual dishonesty and taking the voters for mugs falls firmly in the second category. Politicians who engage in option one can still deserve trust. Those who exploit option two have sacrificed it. Usually for ever. And don’t deserve ever to occupy a public office, ever again.

Kwasi Kwarteng, the Business Secretary, is now firmly in box two.

Why am I being so dismissive of him? Because he’s just said something which is both flagrantly intellectually dishonest, and falls squarely in one of those few areas where I can actually boast some specialist knowledge.

I don’t watch Sunday morning political TV. Life really is too short. But according to Politico, which for its faults is usually accurate in stuff like this, he was asked this morning about the fact that his boss, our embarrassing (at best) and shameful (more likely) PM, had been rebuked by the UK Statistics Authority for misquoting crime stats. Johnson had told the House of Commons that crime was down 14% – but the UKSA pointed out that this was only true if you leave out fraud and cybercrime, which together in fact amount to about a half of recorded crime and had in fact risen 47% in the period in question.

In other words: a bit like saying that violence is down as long as you only count crimes which don’t involve a weapon.

Kwarteng’s response?

“When people talk about crime — I think fraud is really really important — but people are talking particularly about burglaries, about personal injury, about physical crimes, and I think in that context we’re seeing lower crimes.”

Bollocks. Utter bollocks. Kwarteng is a smart person. He must know this is bullshit. Both in the sense that it’s a wholly misleading number to have used (let’s not get into the fact that Johnson too must have known he was lying to the House) and to defend it at all is dishonest; and in the sense that to imply (as I think he did, with explicit intention or not) that fraud is somehow less harmful, less damaging, less serious for its victims than violence or physical theft is not only wrong, but deeply insulting to those victims.

No surprise, of course. As you’ve heard me rant on about probably far too often, the gross under-resourcing of fraud investigation except where it affects the public purse has been shameful for years. Only this past week or two, we’ve seen the minister with responsibility for fraud resign at the dispatch box (seriously, listen to his speech) because of his sense of shame at the government’s counter-fraud ineptitude, in a demonstration of honour and character which both elevates him and shows too many of his former colleagues to be without either; and we’ve seen a report from the Treasury Select Committee which underscores the poverty-stricken mess that is fraud investigation and prosecution in this country.

The point being: fraud affects millions. It doesn’t just rob them of money. It also can do terrible damage to their psyche. Their ability to trust others. And, just as importantly, their confidence in themselves. And the entirely justified impression that there’s no point in reporting it because no-one will lift a finger to help only adds insult to those injuries.

(This story in Wired – although it deals with the US experience – gets absolutely to the heart of what happens to people when they’re taken by a fraudster. It’s wrenching. And, in my experience, it’s bang on the money. Unfortunately, it’s for subscribers only – but if you do subscribe, do read it.)

So it’s for those reasons that, as far as I’m concerned, Kwarteng has just thrown his honour, his character, his credibility and his fitness for public office on the bonfire. I can understand an urge to try to protect one’s boss. Even if that boss is as venal, shameful, shameless, narcissistic and – put simply – an utter disgrace to his office as this one. But to do so in such a demeaning, insulting and downright dishonest way? No. Hell, no.

As I’ve found myself saying far too often about members of this low administration, whose dishonour discredits us all: for shame.

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2021xi4, Thursday: Once upon a time…

Let me tell you a story. I think it’s about corruption. But do decide for yourself.

Once upon a time, there was a man in Harare. His name was Edwin. He was a ZANU-PF member of Zimbabwe’s Senate.

Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

Edwin had a friend who ran a business in his constituency. The business sold cars. Edwin’s friend was bidding for a contract to sell cars to the government. Edwin’s friend’s business paid Edwin a consultancy fee. Edwin talked to his colleagues in government, encouraging them to contract with his friend’s business. He didn’t say anything about his relationship with his friend, or that the business in question was owned by his friend, or about the money the friend’s business had given him.

Was Edwin acting corruptly?

I agree.

Oops. I’m sorry. I’ve got the story wrong. Try this one instead.

Edwin wasn’t in Harare at all. He was in Stoke-on-Trent. He was a Labour councillor. (And this is back in the days when 95% of Stoke’s council was Labour – when, as the sneering cynics might have unfairly said, you could get a monkey elected in Stoke if you strategically shaved them, stuck them in a suit and pinned on a red rosette.) Edwin’s friend owned a garage. Edwin’s friend paid Edwin some money to “advise” him on business. The friend wanted to pull down the garage and build flats. That would make him a killing. The friend’s planning application was becalmed in the planning committee. Without telling anyone about his relationship with his friend, or about the money, or about any connection he had with the planning application, Edwin spoke up in favour of the application.

Was Edwin acting corruptly?

I agree.

Damn. I’m really messing this up. Because both stories are true. And in both cases, Edwin got found out.

An independent arbiter, appointed by the assembly each Edwin was part of, and sticking to the rules that the assembly had agreed, investigated Edwin’s conduct. In the time after the conduct in question, each Edwin had lost his wife in tragic circumstances, so the arbiter in each case gave their Edwin every chance to defend himself, extending deadlines and giving him more leeway than would be normal. Each arbiter found their respective Edwin’s defence to be baseless – “stretching credulity”, it said about one of his arguments – and his conduct to have breached the rules of the assembly. In each case a cross-party committee of Edwin’s fellow representatives agreed with the arbiter’s findings, and censured Edwin, suspending him from the assembly.

Hold on a minute, said each Edwin’s party – ZANU-PF in the one case, Labour in the other. This isn’t right. Edwin hasn’t had a fair say. Let’s press pause on this while we reconsider the rules we’d previously agreed were fine. Each of the two parties whipped Edwins’ colleagues to suspend punishment while – for however long it takes – a committee on which that party holds a majority thought again.

Each Edwin, of course, is still sitting. Still unpunished.

In each case, is Edwin’s party acting corruptly?


I recognise I’m not being terribly subtle here.

Obviously I’m not talking about Edwin. And I’m not talking about ZANU-PF or Labour. Although if either of them did this, they’d be just as much in the wrong.

This isn’t about parties. This is about probity. About ethics. About the wholesale abuse of power for private advantage.

About, in other words, corruption.

Owen Patterson’s party (because of course that’s what this is about) whines about a lack of due process from the Standards Commissioner (whose report is here). From a party whose Lord Chancellor and Attorney-General want to make it so ministers found to have acted unlawfully can simply, administratively, change the law to suit their purposes, this is cant. Base hypocrisy.

For shame.

I also recognise that these are strong words. Stronger, I think, than I’d usually use.

A few days ago my old friend Max left a comment on a previous post on LinkedIn. He referred – approvingly, I should note – to my “blogrants”. For a moment I was taken aback. Do I really rant? I hope not.

Notwithstanding that, I realise I may have done so here.

But I haven’t spent most of my working life working against corruption elsewhere to nod and wink when I see it at home.

There’s a point to the story-telling method I’ve adopted above – and not only, as I’ve discussed before, because we humans respond to stories, not to bare recitations of fact.

It’s instructive, particularly in this country where we like to believe we’re cleaner than most, to swap out places like “London” or “the UK” and tell the same story as if it were in Harare. Or Abuja. Or San Salvador. Or Kabul. Or Moscow. Or Beijing. Or Beirut. Or any of the other places that we think we’re better than. It’s also important, if one is to have a shred of decency, to imagine how one would feel if it was – in political terms – the other lot. It’s like steel-manning the issue.

If it’d be corruption elsewhere, it’s corruption here. Not sleaze. Corruption. Names are important.

Call this what it is.

1140: a quick update, having finally got round to reading this morning’s Politico playbook from which the below info was taken. For the record, the following Conservative MPs voted against the party whip. They should be applauded. Some would say: well, they’re only doing what they should; where’s the credit in that? But this is like whistleblowing. They’ve put their careers in jeopardy. This is brave, and right.

Aaron Bell. Jackie Doyle-Price. Richard Fuller. Kate Griffiths. Mark Harper. Simon Hoare. Kevin Hollinrake. Nigel Mills. Jill Mortimer. Holly Mumby-Croft. Matthew Offord. John Stevenson. William Wragg.

19 Tory MPs voted in favour despite having in the past had complaints upheld. Not strictly speaking a conflict, but still fairly grubby. I won’t name them, since I guess they’ve a right to their opinion, however shameless it is.

Not so for the three Tory MPs whose alleged misconduct is still under investigation:

James Cleverly. Daniel Kawczynski. David Warburton.

I can’t put it better than Politico does:

If they can’t see why it’s inappropriate to be voting to effectively get rid of the current standards process then Playbook can’t help them.

Quite. Again: for shame. If only they had any.

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2021×28, Thursday: Words and weasels.

Words change the world. Sometimes they do so as a result of malice aforethought. Maybe, just maybe, there’s a word for that…

Sometimes words are just beautiful, in context, for their own sake. No idea how this street in Birmingham came to this name. But on the day I took this photo, having gone to Birmingham from Essex for a hearing that was called off at the last moment, I couldn’t have asked for a mot more juste.

We lawyers love words.*

It’s an professional deformation. Perhaps particularly (but certainly not exclusively) for us barristers; our working lives consist overwhelmingly of finding precisely le mot juste for every situation our clients face.

But the law is made up of words. And their meaning, especially in the specific context and usage (grammatical, purposive, even cultural and historical) in which they’re deployed, is our stock in trade.

Sometimes it makes us pedants, to lay eyes. And sometimes that’s right. 

But take the simplest of contracts. A few words, between two people. But words which create a promise that binds. That create, in a sense, a new reality.

No surprise, then, that how words are properly to be understood occupies an immense proportion of jurisprudence. 

Just read paragraphs 10-13 of the Supreme Court’s judgment in Wood v Capita – the most recent apex court distillation of how we, in England and Wales, are meant to read a contract. As a judge slightly testily pointed out to me earlier this month, this was in a sense simply the upsum of a string of earlier cases familiar to any commercial hack: Rainy Sky, Arnold, Investors Compensation Scheme. Continuity, not change, as Lord Hodge said in para 15. 

(That claim of consistency is a familiar trope in Supreme Court, and before it House of Lords, writing. After all, a critical element of a top Court’s job in a common law jurisdiction is to take legal situations where precedent has become knotted and cut through it to provide a definitive roadmap. Cloaking that in the idea that “this is what everyone really meant all along” – my favourite example being the “restatement” of Twinsectra’s take on dishonest assistance in Barlow Clowes – is part of the fun.)

In another sense, though, Wood was again words changing the world: setting out, in fewer than 1,000 words, a definitive guide to how words and context should be balanced so as to come to a true understanding.

(* Which means sometimes we love them for their own sake, not because of their world-altering power. Take a recent piece by Helen Lewis, which described automatic cars as “babyfied clutch-free go-karts”. I’m so jealous. But I’m also overjoyed that such a gleefully descriptive combination of words has come into the world.)

The way words change the world came home to me consciously after reading a lovely piece (thanks to the blessed John Naughton for pointing it out) about the word “performative”. The piece has changed my world: it means I’m going to stop deploying that word in its now-usual usage (indicating that someone’s using speech merely as a sign-post to demonstrate their “sincerity”, rather than actually planning to do anything about whatever problem that speech is addressing). Because, so Wilfred M McClay writes, that’s almost a diametrical opposite to its original coinage: which was to denote words which don’t describe, but do. Words which change the world. 

As McClay explains:

Once we’re alerted to this distinction, we begin to see it in many places. When the bride and groom say “I do” in their marriage ceremony, or when the officiant pronounces them man and wife, when promises are made and words of permission are granted, when a will orders the bequest of a precious object, and in fact in nearly all contracts—the language being used is performative in character. It is language that does not merely describe something. It enacts something.

Now, I’m no stickler when it comes to changing meaning. I’m more descriptive than prescriptive. Language evolves, as do we (culturally, if not biologically – or rather, the latter is so many orders of magnitude slower that it’s not relevant in this context). 

But some words are valuable because their “old” meaning has powerful relevance. In our current, riven condition, the word “disinterested” – with its core meaning of “no skin in the game” – seems to me more important than ever, and treating it the same as “uninterested” seems to me not only lazy, but dangerous. 

And as a lawyer, the idea that there’s an adjective which neatly describes the kind of language on which so much rests – and about which we professionally obsess – is a welcome one.

Mind you, perhaps there’s another use for “performative” which elides, to an extent, the two meanings – apparently contradictory though they may seem.

You see, contrary to some popular views, there’s one thing we (and here I’m talking about barristers in particular, in our relationship to courts) just don’t do. Not unless we’re wholly lacking in ethics, and deserve to get thrown out of the profession.

We don’t mislead. Sure, we argue our case. We highlight what helps and downplay what doesn’t. We try to persuade the tribunal that the world is as our client would prefer. That’s our job. And sometimes, I admit, that can come fairly close to the line of eliding what is into what we want it to be.

But we don’t just say black is white. We don’t gaslight. We don’t bamboozle, or trick, or confuse. Partly because we’re not allowed to. Partly because most judges are wise to that kind of thing. Partly because you always get found out in the end, and you’ve only got one reputation to lose. But also – perhaps a little bit – because, deep down, as lovers of words, doing this just feels fundamentally wrong. 

And yet we see it all the time. Weasel words. The truly dirty ones which don’t lie with untruth; instead, they lie with truth, or partial truth, or (still worse) with bullshit. Words like “clearly” – always a flashing red light indicating that someone is papering over cracks in their argument and hoping you won’t notice. 

And in politics, phrases like “enshrined in law” – a deliberately meaningless coinage which, as David Allen Green witheringly explains, seems to indicate decisive action where none actually exists. 

Why are phrases such as these so diabolical? Because they pervert meaning. They send signals intended as cover for inaction at best, or dog-whistles at worst. In the new sense, they’re little more than “performative”. Ouch.

But are they perhaps – also – “performative” in the “proper” sense as well? I think so. Because – as they seek to gaslight us into believing in action where none exists; or, as with recent pronouncements by our learned Attorney General, argue for a “rebalancing” of power to free judges from unwanted political entanglement, when in fact what’s called for is a naked and autocratic executive power-grab – they seek to redefine the world. To tell us: don’t believe your lying eyes. Believe us. 

These are words which try to change reality. They may be malevolent. 

But they’re still performative. And we ignore that at our peril.

2021×18, Monday: Your right to say it.

Three days ago, someone murdered David Amess. We were political poles apart; and yet he strove to be my representative. We owe it to him to remember these are not mutually exclusive.

Sir David Amess, painted by Madmanity at the skate park in Leigh-on-Sea which Sir David opened in 2008.

He was my MP.

And someone murdered him.

I can’t claim any special connection to Sir David Amess. I never voted for him. I didn’t agree with much of his politics, if any. I never met him. I was lucky enough never to need his help.

But he was my MP. And that’s important.

Because someone – honestly, it doesn’t matter who at this point – thought it was OK to stab him. To kill him. To take him away from his family. From his constituents.

I wish his family succour in their grief. I wish Sir David eternal rest and peace. He was a lifelong and dedicated Catholic, so I have no doubt that he had faith his end here on this Earth wouldn’t be the last word. And I pray that he was right.

But it’s his constituents I want to focus on. And only very slightly because I’m one of them. There are 650 MPs in the UK. And the majority of them aren’t ministers or shadow ministers. They might serve on a committee or two. But most see their first job as representing their constituency. Critically: most have it as an article of faith that they’re there not just to represent, but to serve, everyone in that constituency: those who voted for them, and those who never would, alike.

Everything I’ve heard says Sir David was just one such public servant. He seems never to have sought a government post, or to have been at all interested in one. Instead, everyone who’s encountered him – from local businesses and charities to people who needed his voice to speak for them when officialdom was flexing its muscles – seems to have found him absolutely committed to this place in which I live, and (perhaps more importantly) to each person in it.

(Reading this as I write, I recognise that “we can’t break the link with constituents” is an argument often deployed against moving away from first-past-the-post. And I agree: that link is critical. But pure FPTP isn’t the only way that link can be maintained. STV is one way. There are others. And the warping effect of FPTP, leaving many people near-permanently disenfranchised, may contribute to the despair about politics, and the encouragement of division between voters, which I’m abhorring here.) 

And that’s the point. Sir David didn’t engage in “othering” any of his constituents. I doubt – from what I’ve heard – that he would have done so to those with whom he strenuously disagreed politically either. I’m sure he had faults. But I suspect that wasn’t one of them.

But consider how many of his colleagues on all sides of politics don’t do that. Who talk of traitors. Enemies of the people. Scum. Who seek to embed and exploit division. Who look for scapegoats, a “them” whose fault it can be. Whatever “it” happens to be today.

This sets a tone. No-one’s responsible for Sir David’s death other than the person whose hand held the knife. But we’re all accountable for the context in which such atrocities happen. In which MPs routinely face multiple threats of death and violence each week – the more so if they’re anything other than a white male.

Don’t get me wrong. I want us to disagree. Strenuously. No kumbaya here, please. I want us to argue. To debate. To be able to say someone’s ideas are wrong, or harmful, or counterproductive. (And to make the case; not just to say “I’ve a right to my opinion” – because an opinion without a foundation is sometimes little more than a prejudice.) 

And on occasion – if (and only if) merited – to challenge the motivation behind the ideas as well. 

But rarely. Instead, play the ball. Not the person. Most of the time, if someone thinks differently from you, that says nothing about the content of their character. Don’t ever assume that without evidence.

Apparently Voltaire never actually said that while he disagreed with what someone said, he’d “defend to the death your right to say it”. It’s a misattribution – although many judge it an accurate distillation of Voltaire’s views.

I believe Sir David would have agreed with the sentiment. I believe the best honour we can pay him, a servant of the public to the end, is to strive to live by it.

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2021vii25, Sunday: Take me home.

I spent my Saturday lost in music. Oh sweet Jesus. It was… wonderful.

I’ll make this brief.

Go to the cinema. Watch Summer of Soul. Soon as you can.

For those without the privilege to have encountered this superlative movie, the short version: in the summer of 1969, as hippies and drop-outs were converging on Woodstock in upstate New York, tens of thousands of New York’s Black folk were gathering in Mount Morris Park in Harlem (now Marcus Garvey Park) for the Harlem Cultural Festival. Six days, over six weekends, of the best of soul, jazz and gospel music. It was filmed. No-one wanted to use the footage. And it languished in a basement for half a century – until Questlove, from The Roots, rescued it and cut the best bits together into a documentary.

And oh, sweet Lord, it’s stunning. Sure, it was lovely to be back in the Barbican cinema to see it – a favourite place of our family, where we haven’t set foot in the best part of two years. But the true glory was to be lifted up by music that filled us all with joy wholly unconfined.

Now, soul music per se may mean nothing to you. (Although I just can’t imagine how that could be. Lord, what a life…)

But live footage, at the height of their powers, of Sly and the Family Stone? Stevie Wonder? Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln? Mahalia Jackson? Mavis Staples? (Hearing Sister Mahalia take the mic from Mavis and let raw emotion ride in Dr King’s favourite hymn, Precious Lord, Take Me Home… wow.) The Fifth Dimension? Gladys Knight and the Pips? Ray Barretto? Mongo Santamaria? And – with a performance of Backlash Blues that practically raised the roof of the cinema – Miss Nina Simone herself? All of this put in the context of 1969, at the end of the decade which saw so many lives taken, famous (think Dr King, Malcolm, the Kennedy brothers) and unknown alike – and Black Power find its voice?

Come on, people. It’s beyond glorious. If music does anything to you, if it even remotely has that trick of showing you parts of your heart that just don’t come out any other way, be kind to yourself. See this.

We’re already planning to see it again.

(Update: it’s on Disney+. Glory be. The big screen is best, but this is great news too.)

The only thing that hurt was thinking of all the hours of other footage still unseen. Just imagine if it could be digitised, put online. Oh my. What a dream that would be…

(If you’d like to read more like this, and would prefer it simply landing in your inbox three or so times a week, please go ahead and subscribe at https://remoteaccessbar.substack.com/.)

2021vii8, Thursday: Passive, aggressive.

Apologies for the long gap. I may be pedantic, but some words have old meanings that carry genuine value – the more so because of the state we’re in.

I’m torn when it comes to language. 

On the one hand, I’m absolutely alongside the idea of seeing linguistic evolution on a prescriptive rather than normative basis. Language changes with usage. It always has. And one of the joys of English is how – generally – receptive it’s been to incoming influence. 

On the other, there are some usages that are on my “die in a ditch for this, even if it’s a hopeless cause” list.*

I know. These two stances are potentially mutually contradictory. But there’s sense in it, I think, so long as one limits the second stance to a few areas where there’s a genuine, practical justification. 

So, for example, I limit my reaction to “literally” meaning “figuratively” to a mild internal flinch, although I flatly refuse to use it that way myself.

But “disinterested” used in place of “uninterested”? Hell, no. Particularly in our polarised world ([cough]Hancock and others in government giving jobs to their mates [/cough]), the secondary meaning of “interested” – that is, not something which fascinates you, but something you have a stake in – is more important than ever. Finding someone genuinely disinterested – that is, someone who can stand apart from a dispute and see it dispassionately (another great word), or at least someone with sufficient humility and wisdom to seek that position – has huge value. I don’t know another word which captures it quite as effectively. “Neutral”? “Objective”? “Unbiased”? Nope. They don’t mean the same. 

So yes: that one I’ll keep fighting for.

Slightly differently, but on a similar note, misplaced passives drive me nuts. This isn’t just parroting the Strunk & White-style simplism (ooh, that’s another word to defend) that actives are better than passives – not least because of the number of times things that aren’t actually the passive mood are quoted in defence of the position. Grrr. Not least because sometimes a passive is right: when you want to place the stress on the victim of an action, the passive can help keep the focus where it belongs. 

But far too often, there’s the “mistakes were made, lessons were learned” usage: what I call the “institutional passive aggressive mood”. The usage that obscures the fact that people did things that were wrong. That people need to learn and change. And that accountability, as opposed to blame, is important. And, if anything, makes it look like it’s your fault, not theirs, if you’ve got any further problem with them.

You know what? Don’t just listen to me on this. Go to this link, where the near-unparalleled US satirical website McSweeney’s (second only to The Onion, which published the best story in the world on Steve Jobs’ death a decade ago) does a bang-up job putting this very special linguistic usage precisely in the context it demands, with some nice animation to boot. Read it. Enjoy it. Make sure you get to the end. And see how you feel about the institutional passive aggressive then.

*As for whoever wrote the advert on the side of a double-decker bus I saw earlier this week, which used the American spelling “labeled”: well, I’m not the one who should be dying in a ditch for that.

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2021vi28, Monday: Interest.

Accountability starts with keeping track of conflicts of interest. Fail to do that, and corruption comes next. As the Matt Hancock saga shows all too clearly.

Back in my banking days, part of my job – frankly, one of the less fun parts – was to help people understand not only what restrictions and controls applied to what they did, but why.

This was always, to my mind, critical. People might not agree with the “why”. Often, they didn’t. But you owe it to them to explain them. There’s a reason why “Because those are the rules” is on a list of “Things never to say to anyone, ever” in one of the most helpful books on interpersonal communication I ever read.* 

Often I could understand people’s questions. Not least because banking systems and controls frequently appeared to be designed by people who’d never, actually, met people before. Which broke Scott-Joynt’s First Rule of Policies and Procedures: don’t ever expect human beings not to behave like human beings; so design your systems with the grain of how people tick.

(The second rule, of course, is that policies are either written for people to use, or written to cover the organisation’s backside. Those written for the first purpose can often also achieve the second. Those written for the second, usually by lawyers like me, can never achieve the first. This is also the difference between focusing on risk and focusing on compliance; but that’s another discussion.)

But one set of questions always baffled me: those about conflicts of interest, and why they needed to be declared. Banker after angry banker would wave the form at me demanding why on earth the bank needed to know about the relationships they had and the businesses they were connected to. “None of this is relevant,” they’d grouch. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”

They were probably right. And it didn’t matter. Because the whole point of conflicts checks and declarations – whether general ones, or requirements to declare an interest if you’re involved in a decision which could benefit someone or something close to you – is preventative, not detective. It’s to put transparency in place before it’s needed, so that conflicts never actually arise. Which is why the broad declarations are needed: to avoid situations where there might appear to be a conflict, and thus the risk – yes, you guessed it – of corruption.

It doesn’t work that way, of course. People don’t declare. Often it’s relatively innocent, in a way: people think they’re not the kind of person who’d act improperly, to act partially, so therefore they don’t need to declare anything. Only dishonest people need to do that. And they’re not.

Balderdash. Most of us have immense blind spots when it comes to favouring those in our circle. Because we’re human. Because that’s how humans tick. So it’s not a matter of trusting honesty. It’s a matter of building in solutions where problems might arise, shining a great big spotlight on them, verifying connections, and thus obviating the problem as far as possible.

Why has this sprung to mind? It’s fairly obvious, I think: the Hancock Half-Hour of shame. The embarrassing clinch and the shameful do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do in re social distancing regulations and guidance is bad enough. Certainly enough reason for anyone with the slightest integrity to have resigned instantly, or (when it comes to his boss) to have sacked him on the spot. As is the hypocrisy of having demanded the head of Neil Ferguson, and then going on to do even worse yourself. 

But the conflicts are to my mind far more serious. There’s the obvious one, and the less obvious one. 

  • The first: the fact that Hancock appears to have given a job to a woman he was having an affair with, in secret, as well as sending work to members of her family. All while – so it’s reported – keeping comms relevant to this kind of thing out of government systems and on a private Gmail account. When the job or the contract came up, the only ethical thing to do would have been to declare an interest. He didn’t. Draw your own conclusions. 
  • The second: the fact that the only person with the power to decide whether his actions were acceptable or not is the PM. Someone not only with ethics that make Hancock look honourable, but with an immense vested interest in the outcome. 

Conflicts matter. Because being accountable matters. (Not just paper accountability; real accountability, in the sense of submission to those whose interests are not aligned with yours, and who have authority separate from your own.) Because transparency matters. And without it, you have corruption, self-dealing and disgrace.


*The book’s called “Verbal Judo”. Setting aside the unfortunate fact that the co-(ghost?) writer seems to be the bloke who later co-wrote the ghastly “Left Behind” series of apocalyptic cod-Christian guff, it’s excellent. Written from a police officer’s point of view, but with much wider application. If I mention that other phrases on that list include “you always/you never”, “come here”, “be reasonable”, and my personal favourite, “calm down”, I hope you’ll agree there’s some smart and thoughtful stuff there.

Note: what with the family stuff that’s going on, I’m going to experiment with just having a single item for each post. That should (a) allow me to post more regularly, by not feeling obliged to have multiple things each day and thus ending up not getting stuff out; (b) make it easier to link to specific pieces. Hope that’s OK. If not, let me know.

(If you’d like to read more like this, and would prefer it simply landing in your inbox three or so times a week, please go ahead and subscribe at https://remoteaccessbar.substack.com/.)

2021vi21, Monday: It doesn’t have to be “personal” to be corruption.

Organisations can be corrupt, not just people. As a new report shows. And without an public duty to be transparent, that will be the rule, not the exception.

Short thought: There are a million definitions of corruption. It’s one of those “know it when you see it” kinds of words, and an exact definition is probably unhelpful. 

(Put up with me here. I’m going to wander off into a bit of a discursion. But I promise: it’ll come back to something current, and important. Something that ought to make you pretty angry. It did me.)

You can see this in one of the most common ones, which boils down to “the abuse of entrusted power for personal gain”. It’s not bad, so far as it goes. But there’s a lot of freight in those words, and in each of them – and that can lead us in unfortunate directions.

(One useful omission is any reference to “dishonesty”. For years, there’s been legal argument about whether dishonesty was an essential element in corruption. In the UK, it’s now pretty settled that it doesn’t – and that’s a good thing. “Corrupt” and “dishonest” are overlapping circles: you can be either without the other, although often they co-exist. Think, for instance, of blatant, balls-out abuse of power where someone simply takes advantage of their position without even bothering to hide what they’re doing. Not uncommon, and not in the slightest dishonest. But corrupt all the same.)

So what do I mean by “freight” in the words? This is where I behave like the stereotypical barrister: picking apart the language. But there’s a point, as I hope you’ll see. Taking it a step at a time:

  • Abuse”. Not all uses of power for personal gain are necessarily corrupt. A decision on behalf of your organisation might make you better off, but also be in the organisation’s best interests – and those of its stakeholders. No abuse there. No corruption.
  • Entrusted power”. An essential element in how law in England defined corruption used to be that an agency relationship needed to exist. This is still there in civil matters, to an extent: it’s trite law now (following FHB) that if someone acting for you takes a bribe, the law sees their gain as in fact yours, and which that agent (holding it in trust for you) therefore can’t lawfully use for themselves. As recently as 15 years ago, amid arguments over what ultimately became the Bribery Act 2010, many pushed for explicit inclusion of an agency requirement in the proposed new statute. Ultimately that idea died; but we still have the essential idea that bribery, at least (and corruption more generally) is about what you do with authority that you’ve been given and which you wield on others’ behalf.
  • Gain”. This is often misinterpreted as something strictly financial. In the UK, at least, that’s not the case, at least so long as bribery is concerned: the offences in the Bribery Act are committed for the gift or receipt of “financial or other advantage” (see for instance s1(2)(a) and s2(2)). Unlike in the Fraud Act 2006 s5, where “gain” has to be in property or something financial, an intangible advantage will qualify. Such as, for example, the preservation of a reputation, or the burying of bad news.
  • Personal”. This, I’d suggest, is also a dangerous one. It gives the impression that corruption is solely and always about individuals – whether acting in their own favour or for (for instance) their families or friends. 

Now we’re at the point. Sorry it took this long. The reason for this textual exegesis is the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel, whose report (all 1,200-odd pages of it) was finally released last week. For the uninitiated, it tells a thoroughly grubby tale of the grossly-incompetent investigation, over decades, by the Metropolitan Police of a 1980s murder of a journalist.

But worse than the incompetence is what the Panel’s report says is the Met’s “institutional corruption”. Partly because of the prevailing suspicion that Met officers were far too close to crooks for comfort, as they were with private investigators who hovered in the hinterland between the two. 

But mostly because of what appears to be an eight-year effort by the Met to obstruct the Inquiry, whether by failing to produce evidence, blocking access to systems, or otherwise. The Panel doesn’t mince words:

In failing to acknowledge its many failings over the 34 years since the murder of Daniel Morgan, the Metropolitan Police’s first objective was to protect itself. In so doing it compounded the suffering and trauma of the family.

…The lack of leadership, the reluctance to confront serious issues and the refusal to be publicly and internally candid about failings and deficiencies within the organisation, in this case and others, engenders distrust among the community served by the Metropolitan Police and within the organisation itself. The support of that community, and the confidence of good police officers in the organisation which they serve, is vital to the delivery of effective efficient policing. It is to be hoped that the findings and recommendations contained in this report will lead to a change of culture and ethos throughout the police service.

One could say that “institutional corruption” is a misuse of language. Is it really corruption for an organisation to drag its feet just to try to stifle criticism and keep its incompetence under wraps? That’s not “personal gain”, is it?

Wrong. What we’re talking about is, I think undoubtedly, the abuse of entrusted power. And it may not necessarily be for the individual gain of those making the decisions, but it’s definitely to aid the organisation at the cost of those it serves. Perhaps “personal” isn’t the right word; but to the extent that we’re talking about placing its own interests above the demands of its assigned duties and obligations, it fits. 

Another criticism might be: well, isn’t self-preservation an inevitable habit of any large institution? Of course it is. But there’s still a dividing line. We’re back to the “know it when you see it”. There’s vigorous PR. And then there’s this. They’re not the same. It’s facile, and I think foolish or in some cases dishonest, to suggest otherwise. 

The Morgan report is huge. Few will read it. But the summary is less than 20 pages. It tells an entirely unedifying story. And, to anyone concerned that those who protect us can be trusted not to privilege their own concerns over ours, it’s in my view essential reading.

Someone is right on the internet: A key recommendation in the Morgan report is the imposing of a “duty of candour” for public servants and public institutions. In other words, they would have a responsibility to be proactive in informing the people they claim to serve about what they’re doing and how.

This topic is picked up by David Allen Green in the latest of a set of posts concerning what he believes is a prerequisite for meaningful public service reform. David points out, perhaps slightly caustically, that calls for such reform are frequent (and the person voicing them is “usually Michael Gove”), but are rarely accompanied by any acknowledgement that without an imposition of transparency – that is, the obligation to disclose information they don’t want anyone to see – such calls are essentially meaningless. They are, he says, 

Nothing but sophistry and illusion.

I think he’s right. Governments (and public bodies) in general are loathe to let sunlight into what they do, but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say our current administration takes this to an extreme: whether it’s changes to judicial review, or a backstairs bit of the Cabinet Office making sure freedom of information requests are hobbled, or an apparently academic disquisition on whether judges are trespassing on the rule of law in cases concerning (also) freedom of information, the trend is to lock down, not open up. To avoid scrutiny. To obscure transparency.

In a nutshell: to be unaccountable.

This cannot be right. Particularly in our majoritarian polity, where the combination of first-past-the-post elections and parliamentary supremacy puts immense power in the hands of the government of the day, trammelled only by conventions which this administration doesn’t seem to recognise, transparency is critical if those running the show are to be held to account. 

Mind you, I’d be saying the same thing were another party to be in power. Power corrupts. When it’s wielded without accountability, in the dark, its abuse is practically inevitable. 

Ah, you might say. But you’re forgetting Hanlon’s Razor: that wonderful (and I’ve always believed accurate) warning against assuming malice where something can just as easily be explained by incompetence. (More pithily put as: “Cock-up is far more common than conspiracy.”)

No. I haven’t. If anything, that’s still more important. Errors, mistakes and negligence only get learned from if they’re recognised. Institutional pressure to sweep cock-ups under the carpet is always intense: yes, partly for legal reasons, but as often simply to save face. Without transparency, the same errors happen. Over and over again. 

And we all pay.

(If you’d like to read more like this, and would prefer it simply landing in your inbox three or so times a week, please go ahead and subscribe at https://remoteaccessbar.substack.com/.)