During the 4 years we worked in Uganda, I would have this conversation with students all too often. They would despairingly deprecate African states for their oh-so predictable corruption, nepotism and despotism. It would be shrugged off and perhaps accompanied by a green-eyed comment about western political systems. And indeed, when chatting with friends back home, they would often enquire whether X or Y countries were doing ‘worse or better these days’ – shorthand for whether their respective rulers were now more, or less, openly corrupt and oppressive. Such is the caricature many outsiders have of Africa – and of course, there’s no smoke without fire, etc etc.
But this so-called Afropessimism was unfair, for several reasons. One of which was the reality beyond Africa’s shores.
My response to my Ugandan friends would vary little. For I felt they simply lacked a bigger perspective and a greater realism. I warned against naïvety about the integrity of western powers. Leaders over here can be just as corrupt as anywhere else (why on earth are we surprised by that?). What is perhaps different in the UK, and elsewhere, is not so much the wide spectrum of integrity that one finds amongst them, as the ability of a particular society (with its historical precedents, norms, and systems for checks & balances) to expose and sanction. The so-called maturity of a nation state in large part depends on the ability of these countervailing forces to be effective without paralysing the business of governing. After all, it was human corruptibility that primarily motivated the deliberate constitutional tensions established by the American founding fathers.
Those who are more corrupt and self-serving tend only to attempt what they can think they get away with without discovery. Hence the desperate needeverywhere for:
- fargreater political transparency and public scrutiny of those who govern
- more effective and non-partisan judiciaries
- trustworthy law enforcement
- plus a media that serves the common interest and not the agendas of shareholders, tiny special interest groups or simply the prurience of gossips. That is why I love the pithy raison d’être for satire that Private Eye’s Ian Hislop gives in his 5 minutes with Matthew Stadlen
satire exists to expose vice, folly and humbug…
Can such a society exist? It’s a vision far too implausible and naïve to be realised in full. Which is no doubt why Sir Thomas More created his knowing wordplay, utopia. It is a Greek pun, derived from topos (τοπος) meaning ‘place’ and the two similar sounding words meaning ‘good’ (‘eu’/ευ) and ‘not’ (‘ou’/ου). Utopia is a pipe-dream. But we can still dream – and the structural features of an effective society just mentioned must be aspired to.
This is one reason that Hackgate so distressing. For not only does it seems to tar nearly all these areas of our national life (who knows – will we see judges having to resign as well…?), but it also appears that there has been widespread collusion between these checks and balances:
- The media: Murdoch’s News International is in deep – there’s no denying. Hence the number of rolled heads. But few believe they are the only media business who are implicated.
- The police: with the news yesterday of Paul Stephenson’s resignation, despite widespread assertions of his integrity. But there is no other word for what has been going on in the relationship between Murdoch’s men and the police: corruption.
- The politicians: Andy Coulson has made the Tories a very easy and legitimate target for public opprobrium. But I really do tire of the politicking over this issue because there is no question that both Labour and the Conservatives were profoundly tainted by their coziness. It illustrates perfectly why people are so fed up with them all. No party came out smelling of roses from the recent MPs’ expenses scandal. The dearth of public trust (as these rankings from before and after Hackgate, in the Sunday Times prove) in those who govern is actually very scary. All three party leaders get seriously negative numbers. Yet more evidence of a postmodern despair and culture of suspicion.
Who knows what other areas of public life are going to be exposed in all this? Matthew Parris, brilliant as ever despite the fact that he’s not accepted that Hackgate is that scandalous, prepares us for the next 20 scandals (sadly concealed behind Murdoch’s paywall). Just so we’re not surprised. But then we should never have been surprised. Because people cut the corners and economise with the truth whenever there is the chance of getting away with it.
Now, please don’t imagine that all these fields are an ethical wasteland. There are plenty of people in all these fields of all political hues, who have integrity and a public-service spirit. It’s simply that recent events have reminded us afresh not to be naïve about our culture, and especially that we ought never leap to claim moral superiority over so-called developing nations (with ‘all their corruption and nepotism and all that…’).
What does cheer me a little in all this, is that there is at last public debate, scrutiny and even justice, for those who for too long have soiled the reputations of their respective professions. I only hope that (to gleefully mix metaphors) we can survive this firestorm without drowning babies amidst the gurgling bathwater.