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The Trump victory: a warning blast to the British establishment?

Written by Robert Barrington on Wednesday, 9 November 2016


This blog was originally published by The Telegraph on 09/11/2016

Why did people vote for Trump?  Why did they vote for Brexit?  There are many reasons, but a particularly strong theme of the Trump campaign was that the political establishment in Washington is corrupt.  Not inefficient, or self-interested, or in a Washington bubble: but out and out corrupt.

Trump claims Hilary Clinton “may be the most corrupt person ever to seek the presidency”; “I know that corruption has reached a level like never ever before in our country”; “I want the entire corrupt Washington establishment to hear the words we are all about to say: when we win … we are going to drain the swamp”; and there is much more.

Like the US, there is a strong anti-establishment mood in this country, and the old establishment is seen as corrupt.  Well, this comes as no surprise to Transparency International.

We have been warning for many years that corruption exists in the UK, that it reaches into the very heart of the establishment, and that “beneath the surface there is an underlying corruption of cronyism and impunity that somehow feels uniquely British. Invisible, deniable, insidious, difficult to legislate against, sometimes appearing to do little harm except inexorably tilting the system in favour of its beneficiaries, sometimes doing great harm.”  Who would not vote against that?

And yet for years, the British establishment has ignored the warnings.  Party funding is unreformed; lobbying is unchecked; the revolving door continues; serial breaches of parliamentary ethics, from minor to gross, are overlooked or barely punished; the Committee on Standards in Public Life is denigrated or undermined; key defences against corruption are abolished; special interest groups from tax advisors to banks seem to have hidden safeguards protecting their own interests; corrupt individuals buy London property and flaunt their wealth with impunity.  The rich are getting rich, and the poor are getting poorer.  Who would not vote to end all that?

The Brexit referendum was a kind of wake up call.  It opened the door to Theresa May’s speech about curbing special interest groups.  But the Trump election should be a warning blast.  It shows that the latent passion of the electorate cannot be bought off with a few promises for reform or some smart-looking tweaks.  People, in the UK as much as the US, are looking for a root and branch change to the way things are done.

The danger for the British establishment is that if it does not reform itself, there will be an up-swell of support for a candidate like Donald Trump who promises to drain the swamp.  That would be an ultra high-risk strategy for the UK.

It is possible that we would get a candidate of high integrity who is genuinely able to enact reform.  It is equally possible there would be a candidate motivated by self-interest, with neither the will nor the ability to reform; who is able to use their popular mandate to railroad through other changes which make the country worse off and not better off; and who subverts some of the country’s inconvenient anti-corruption safeguards like the independence of the judiciary.

An important starting point is to admit that there is indeed a swamp that needs to be drained.  Opinions differ about how wide and deep the swamp is; and there is a paucity of data about things like the real impact of lobbying or who really benefits from the revolving door.  But there is a swamp, and previous warnings have been ignored.

For example, the MPs’ expenses scandal caused a better expenses system to be put into place (though still to this day criticised by many MPs); it did not lead to a fundamental review of parliamentary ethics.

The government needs an anti-corruption Champion, with a strong mandate from No10, who will speak loud and clear about what needs to change and what will be done; it needs coordinated action across departments and political parties and throughout the public sector to make the changes; and it needs a world-class anti-corruption strategy that convinces the electorate that things will be changing.

Theresa May’s government will have many things on its mind: Brexit dominates, and will continue to dominate.   If it does not admit the problems and put into place a comprehensive strategy to deal with them, it will be seen as doing too little, too late.  This time, there is no excuse to ignore the warning.

Postscript – the morning after the day before. I’ve had a lot of comments on this piece by e-mail – far more than anything else I’ve written. The main thrust has been not to buy uncritically into to Mr Trump’s narrative: as a privileged billionaire who (allegedly) pays little tax, he is surely part of the very establishment he criticises, and what really marks him out is his unusual willingness and ability to fire up and capitalise on popular resentment irrespective of the truth about himself or other inconvenient facts. And quite a few comments pointing out that allegations of conflict of interest, impropriety and various forms of corruption have long surrounded his own dealings, both business and charitable. Although the piece is really about the risk of a Trump-like figure rising in the UK, it is certainly fair to reflect in this postscript those controversies over Trump and corruption.


Image: Flickr.com/Gage Skidmore


Read 332 times Last modified on Thursday, 10 November 2016 10:42

Robert Barrington

Robert is TI-UK's Executive Director. You can view his full bio here, and tweet him @TIukED.

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