WESTMINSTER REFLECTIONS: Sir Bernard Jenkin MP considers what other countries are thinking about UK politics at this juncture
Sir Bernard Jenkin MP considers what other countries are thinking about UK politics at this juncture
Westminster appears to be preoccupied by lobbying, conflicts of interest and undeclared donations of money or support. Most voters do not follow the detail. However, one would expect that the impression this creates feeds an expectation that, in general, politicians, and perhaps civil servants as well, are not to be trusted.
At the time of writing, this does not seem to be moving the political dial against the Conservatives. But how justified is it for British voters to despair about standards in public life? And what, if anything, can be done about it?
The Global Corruption Index, published by Global Risk, provides a comprehensive overview of the state of corruption around the world based on 28 variables. Countries’ results are presented on a 0-100 scale, where 0 corresponds to the lowest risk and 100 corresponds to the highest risk. Countries are ranked in order.
Denmark scores 5.4 out of 100 (very low risk of corruption) and is top. The UK is 11th out of a total of 198 countries. We score 15.8. While this is behind 10 other countries like Norway, Sweden, Finland and New Zealand, we are about the same as countries like Holland, Switzerland and Australia. The UK ranks just ahead of Germany and others such as Canada and Japan. That still leaves another 170 countries, including France, Italy and the US, that are significantly more at risk of corruption. Transparency International, an anti-corruption campaign, also has an index. The UK ranks 12th out of 180. So why is there so much concern in the UK about what politicians are doing wrong?
Obviously, we have relatively low corruption in the UK because voters mind about it. So, when new controversies break out, we are sensitive to criticism and ready to learn new lessons. We strive to improve. Voters want us to do better.
Many MPs don’t think it is worth trying. They say that whatever is done to make MPs more accountable and transparent, if there are more rules and restrictions, it seems to make MPs even less trusted. It does little if anything to strengthen public confidence. They say it does not affect how people cast their votes. In any case, the UK is a very low risk country for genuine corruption, is there really a problem?
It is easy to be complacent.
The key lesson in this crisis is that more rules do not necessarily improve things, but public leaders do need to do more to understand the principles and values voters expect us to adopt. Just avoiding breaking rules is very different from demonstrating that you understand what is right and wrong.
We spend too much time talking about rules, rather than about the Seven Principles of Public Life. These are: selflessness; integrity; objectivity; accountability; openness; honesty and leadership. Perhaps if there were more conversations and better understanding of how these values should apply to our daily working lives, MPs would need fewer rules, and public confidence would be strengthened.
The expectation is that people look to leaders who are like them and who also strive to do better to set the right example, but there is something different happening here. Those like me (and I serve on the Standards Committee of the House of Commons) who are regularly discussing standards in public life, codes of conduct, encouraging good attitudes and behaviour, and compliance with rules, appear to have left many voters behind in our thinking. They do not seem to care that Prime Minister Johnson may have been getting help from donors or business people to redecorate the Downing Street flat he shares with his fiancée and small child. That is not to diminish the importance of honesty or integrity in public life. Voters would be outraged by any evidence of real corruption, but they seem to admire Boris Johnson for the frankness with which he does not pretend to be a better person than he is. It would however be a mistake to think that this heralds a collapse in the values of our society and in the standards we in the UK expect of our politicians.
By the time you read this, far more important questions will be facing the UK, such as the consequences of the results of the Scottish Parliament elections on the unity of the UK, or the likely developments around our trading relationship with the EU regarding the status of London in the EU’s financial markets. COVID and its aftermath, and relations with Russia or China are the real threat, not whether the prime minister has failed to comply with some rule about the disclosure of some help he has had from a friend. Such informal financial relationships are commonplace outside politics, where they would never normally attract opprobrium.
So maybe another lesson is that the regulation of standards in public life needs to be more in touch with the reality of most people’s lives. People object to real corruption, but equally object to the imposition of petty rules which are of little public benefit. I have met many voters during these elections who think Boris is being bullied by those who set themselves up in judgement.
We regularly fail in the way we aspire to set an example but accepting the fact that we fail is a positive part of being human. The British people have not ceased caring about values, but they do want the rules to reflect values which are relevant to their lives, not some technical or theoretical construct that attempts to put public figures on a pedestal from which they can only fall.