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I started writing a book about British corruption – the growing propensity of politicians to monetize their mandate. I read investigative journalism, parliamentary reports and crazy treatises, and I interview everyone from party donors to spies. However, I mostly learned from a book that is not about the UK at all. Bet on development by Stefan Dercon focuses on much poorer countries. But as I read about ruling elites plundering their states, I kept drawing parallels with today’s Britain.
First, a caveat: the UK remains cleaner than most countries. There is almost no petty corruption. Teachers, doctors and civil servants do not accept bribes, for example. But the world’s largest developing country is now “underdeveloped,” with lower real wages and many public services worse than in 2006. And I know of immigrants from countries like Nigeria and Russia who are settling in Britain and who nod gratefully at recent stories of selfish elites. : Tory colleague Michelle Mone, who lied about her relationship with a medical equipment company which won more than £200 million in state contracts during the pandemic; David Cameron, now foreign secretary, who pushed for state-backed loans for Greensill Capital, which has since collapsed; Boris Johnson’s catalog of scandals.
Dercon argues that a country tends to develop once its elites enter into a “development bargain.” This implies that the wealthy decide that they want national development, instead of simply sharing the wealth. Autocracies can enter into development agreements, just like democracies. What matters is the choice of the elite to develop. Examples of developmental markets are China from 1979, India from 1991, and Ethiopia until the recent civil war.
Britain’s development pact has failed. The ruling conservatives have learned from their four consecutive election victories that voters will support them no matter what. Meanwhile, the party lost its common project. Some Conservatives have never believed in Brexit, others have quietly stopped believing in it and for some it is a quasi-religious and not an economic cause. Some conservatives are liberals, others are far-right, and still others are crooks who attach themselves to whatever party has been in power for a long time (see the African National Congress of South Africa). The Conservatives call for low taxes but have imposed the highest tax burden Britain has seen since the Second World War.
When a joint project dies, what remains is personal advancement. The UK case study was the “Covid VIP lane” of 2020, in which well-connected conservatives such as Mone benefited from uncontested government contracts to provide personal protective equipment that often did not work. Dercon tells a similar story regarding the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone in 2014-2016: “Whenever he could, the president had awarded all Ebola-related contracts to a small network of businessmen. . . apparently with close ties to the presidential government of the All People’s Congress.”
Trading elites target their country’s main natural resource: oil in Nigeria, the wealth of upscale London in the United Kingdom. They always promise to diversify the economy away from natural resources, but somehow it never happens.
London now has two distinct elites: one, in Mayfair and the City, of private wealth, and the other, in Westminster, of public poverty. Predictably, one began to buy the other, mainly through donations to the Conservative Party, which increased three or four times in real terms between 2001 and 2019. Take Johnson. As Prime Minister, he celebrated his wedding at Tory donor Anthony Bamford’s Cotswolds estate and, after leaving Downing Street, lived for months in a Knightsbridge property worth £20 million. pounds belonging to Bamford’s wife, paying only a reduced rent. (There is no suggestion of wrongdoing on the part of the Bamfords.)
The link between Britain’s wealth and power remains under-scrutinized. Conservative donors are less well known than some irrelevant MPs. Andrew Feinstein, a former ANC MP who runs Shadow World Investigations, says: “In South Africa, in a township, people can discuss the details of corruption deals at a seminar. The British have only a vague idea of what happened with the Covid VIP lane, and so on.
This is finally changing. In a December WeThink poll for the Byline Times, only 1 percent of respondents called the British government “very honest.” Record numbers of Britons say politicians are “just fending for themselves”. The Conservatives will likely lose power this year.
A ruling elite often strikes a development deal when mismanagement threatens its legitimacy. The Chinese Communist Party did this after Mao’s death. Perhaps the British elite will get there.
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