In Britain, allegations of corruption have come to the fore for some time. To pick a few, an MP has resigned over his apparent conflict of interest, a former attorney general has put his outside business practices into the public spotlight, the prime minister is dealing with allegations that his flat was being renovated. A lot of questions have been raised about who funded it, and the distribution of public sector contracts to help fight COVID-19. This list is far from exhaustive.
The apparent flood of accusations can lead one to believe that the country is going to hell, fueled by corruption in a handcart. It could indeed be true. But if the UK is compared with other countries around the world, it is certainly not the case.
The most well-known indicator of how much corruption exists is Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). The CPI is certainly not without its critics (see here and here), but it is still generally regarded as a good place to start.
In the most recent iteration of the CPI, published in January 2021, perceptions of corruption were assessed in 180 countries. New Zealand and Denmark came out the best, with other Nordic countries also doing very well. States with inactive governments or those in between or recovering from conflict did far less well. Somalia and South Sudan were the worst hit.
The UK came in 11th place with a score of 77 out of 100. The Dane and the New Zealand players were 11 points ahead of him, each scoring 88 points. This is pretty par for the course. Britain was ranked 77th in 2019, although it was down a spot at 12th on the index. In fact, it’s actually an improvement from where the UK was a decade or so ago. For example, in 2012, the UK was ranked 17th with a score of 74.
Although the CPI has been heavily criticized, it is clearly not placing the UK in a place that comes across as being unusual. For example, the UK ranks 8th in the table for 2021 in the fourth edition of the Global Corruption Index, an improvement of three places in 2020. The UK came in 13th (out of 181) in the Freedom from Corruption Index in 2021. Scoring 87 out of 100, it was ranked 10th in the most recent (2019) Index of Public Integrity. The World Bank has also outperformed the UK in terms of controlling corruption, placing it at the top when it comes to quality of governance.
So, all the sweetness and light? hardly. For one thing, there is always a lag between incidents of alleged corruption and the sorting of corruption in these tables. For example, nearly five years after Donald Trump came to power and placed itself at the center of a myriad of corruption-related concerns, the US is only now seeing a decline in its performance. It may well be that in the next few years Britain will start to slip away.
Furthermore, it is important to be clear that one of the real weaknesses of international corruption indices is that they typically look at public sector corruption. This means paying attention to the specific behavior of elected or appointed officials (such as civil servants).
There is less emphasis on the contribution that private sector actors can make. If the public sector is the key to context, the UK does well. Even though some of the behavior of the current crop of politicians is certainly questionable, Britain’s civil service is widely respected, and standards of transparency and integrity are stronger than in many places. However, there is much about the situation in the UK that is more problematic than these indices appear to be.
Many publicly visible indiscretions may have little to do with the underlying drivers of corrupt practice. For example, allegations of a prime minister improperly funding the renovation of his flat make big news and are remembered by people on the street, but they are relatively small fry in the grand scheme of corruption scandals. . Not that these scams don’t matter, but more than that they can eliminate corruption scams that are potentially more serious.
This is certainly true if one compares the flat-renovating episode of Boris Johnson to the scale of money laundering flowing through the City of London. The number of zeros needed to measure the scale of that particular problem would be considerable.
Yet London’s “pro-corruption” industry doesn’t play much of a role when corruption levels are discussed. If that were the case, the UK certainly would not have ranked as high on these indices as it does now.
There may be more obvious problems of corruption in other countries. And these problems are often easier to read from international corruption indices. But this is by no means a recipe for complacency in the UK.
Just because corruption is so difficult to measure doesn’t mean it can’t be felt and impacted by high profile scams. Many practices that are legal or (just about) within the rules but promote corruption do not explicitly filter into these league tables.
They are real nonetheless and, in fact, they have real-world effects. Politicians caught in these scams ignore the impact they have at their peril.