We all know Lord Acton’s famous dictum about the corrupting effect of power. The temptations of relatively large amounts of money for oneself or, more enticingly, for one’s family, subtley offered and . . . skilfully hidden from both journalists and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs must be impossible for most people to turn down. I’m sure that I, never having been rich, would have been corrupted if I’d had a position of great political power. How corrupt I’ve no idea. I might have taken advantage of a few privileges or I might have been very greedy indeed — as indeed Tony Blair seems to be, or at least as the Daily Telegraph believes, according to its headline story this morning.
In Blair’s case, I am not so much convinced that he and his wife are corrupt from all the figures that the Daily Telegraph show in their ‘evidence’ — the product of a great deal of careful enquiry I’m sure — but some of the off-the-cuff comments that have been made register with me. For example, to quote the newspaper: “One British Ambassador described how a number of companies linked to Mr. Blair. including his wife’s law firm, were ‘sniffing for work’ in one European country.” Superficially, that’s not corruption but we know what he means.
What’s paradoxical about Tony Blair, is what is paradoxical about all of us. We have all sorts of instincts, which when simply stated on paper, such as selfishness and generosity, are polar opposities. But each is appropriate in certain circumstances. Soon after Tony Blair became Prime Minister, for example, we know that he flew half way round the world to Australia at the request of Rupert Murdoch, an exceedingly rich man, who wanted favours from the British government. In Bair’s case, he has always been too eager to seek publicity and high social status.
We also know that Blair lied to the House of Commons in 2003 when he described Saddam Hussein as having WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) which could be rained down on this country at any time within 45 minutes. Many people now blame him, with very good reason reason, for the outbreak of Isis terrism in the Middle East, due to his and Bush’s decision to invade Iraq.
And yet he pushed hard a very resistant Department of Education in order to bring about City Academies and Free Schools which might transform our lamentable state education system in due course (the latter anyway, the Academies don’t seem to be much cop) — particularly for the benefit of bright children among the poor. But against this great achievement and some other good reforms, too (if one reads Jonathan’s Powell’s The New Machiavelli) Blair’s faults much exceed his good points.
I think Margaret Thatcher was probably personally incorruptible — the cognitive dissonance in her mind would have been too great — yet she took her son, Mark, with her to Saudi Arabia on one early visit, and later it was learned that he had ‘earned’ millions as a ‘consultant’ to a British aircraft company which had landed an immense contract with the country. I think Gordon Brown is basically incorruptible — for all the financial burdens he left us with since he was Chancellor and then Prime Minister.
The same applies to another past Prime Minister, John Major, though no doubt free tickets to Lords cricket ground are slipped to him whenever Test Matches are on. He seems to be content with his retirement pension, his house and garden fishpond and the koi carp on which he waxes eloquently. As to the present duo in power, David Cameron and George Osborne, my opinion is that they might have been corrupt with respect to some of the huge subsidies given to wind farms and solar cell contracts, and the former also in his dealings with Rupert Murdoch.
Tony Blair will no doubt be very upset to read the DT ‘s exposures this morning but the depredations of Zhou Yongkang, also in the news this morning, put his own in the shade. On another day, Blair would be eating his heart out to read of what Zhou and his wife and family have been receiving. In the latter case, one is talking of bribes of the order of $125 million and so on. A former Chinese Politburo member, Mr Zhou was sentenced to life imprisonment yesterday. His main crime actually was disloyalty to his colleagues, something he shares with Mark Thatcher (who left a previous friend rotting in an African prison when he could have got him out). Zhou’s shame will be spent in prison, Thatcher’s social shame caused him to decide on self-imposed exile.
The interesting fact about Chinese corruption is that China’s official newspapers are not at all shy about talking of corruption. At any one time, there are anything between 2,000 and 3,000 court cases going on in China. (We never hear of more than one or two at any one time in this country!) But the pattern of Chinese corruption is probably not as serious as it seems — that is, having any great economic disbenefit. More often than not it’s where a Chinese official has been able to get a directorship and shares of a company given to his wife or son in exchange for a government contract. These perks are worth very sizeable amounts of money, it’s true, but this type of corruption probably doesn’t affect the efficiency of the firm involved.
A much worse type of corruption exists when officials at all levels are involved either directly or as kickbacks from above. In India, for example, someone who wants to start a business may have to pay bribes many times at many different bureaucratic levels before he finally gets the go-ahead many month later. This type of corruption, from the office boy through to the Director-General was introducd into India by the East India Company in the 18th century adn was inhertied by the Indian government when the country became independent in 1947. When carried out on a massively wide scale for almost anything that needs official registration or permission, such corruption has huge diseconomic effects in the country.
Ever since he was elected a year ago, the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has been trying to get anti-corruption legislation through Parliament — presently held up by the opposition party, Congress, in the upper house. This sort of corruption, so widely and deeply embedded in goverrnmental culture, may take many years to remove and only then with persistent driving force from the top. But this is one of the biggest reasns why India still badly falls behind China in unleashing the economic growth which might be possible.
Stephen Pinker in his book, The Better Angels of our Nature, has written of the decline of violence in civilized society and I’ve written of its correlate, the steady decline of greed and corruption elsewhere in these postings. Although it doesn’t seem like it in both cases, the growth and the wider dissemination of information is gradually bringing improvements about in both violence and corruption and thus bringing us nearer to our hunter-gathering past when individual excesses of violence and greed were all too transparent when carried out in small groups. The press and more recently the internet is helping us to get there in modern times
It is still the case that the greatest cause of well-being and good health in an individual is a well-respected role in society. It doesn’t have to be a high one and it doesn’t always have to be earned with financial success. This is the big mistake of many, but by no means all, those who seek hgih social status by means of financial success rather than personal respect freely given.
Since he left office and set up his businesses and his religious charities, so often incestuously intermingled, Tony Blair has never been able to re-enter high society in this country, though he’s earnestly tried once or twice. The current exposure in the DT may mean such a further loss of face that he, too, may sell his London mansion and decide on self-imposed exile, too, like Mark Thatcher. Let’s hope so. Blair’s behaviour is odious to people in all parts of the political spectrum, at all social levels and in both business and religious circles alike and we really don’t want to see him around the place.