Opinion

Scotland has a corruption problem

by | 7 Feb 2024

We know this because everywhere has a corruption problem - but in Scotland we don't take it seriously. That's reason to believe that the problem is worse than you think, so we need to do something about it.

Let me make a bald statement; Scotland has a corruption problem. How do I know? Because anywhere there are humans there are corruption problems. Humans can be venal and cheat so the trick is to choose what kind and what scale of corruption you’re going to have. In Scotland I don’t think we’re choosing.

But it’s difficult to write about corruption because people don’t understand it. Or rather they think they know what corruption is and they’re largely wrong – which lets lots of real corruption off the hook. People measure what they hear against preconceived notions and how much they think it matters, and those judgements are often unsound.

In addition to this, corruption is a serious allegation and claiming someone is corrupt is therefore potentially actionable. People are afraid to say the word unless there is significant, clear evidence of particular kinds of corruption taking place at a scale that is important enough. But corruption is not necessarily illegal, and so we really lack the vocabulary to deal with the problem.

To illustrate, let me pick two examples of wrongdoing during the pandemic – the Downing Street garden parties and the Scottish Government’s deletion of WhatsApp messages. The received wisdom on this is that one of them is serious and one less so, but I think we’ve got which one is which the wrong way round.

When senior politicians and aides are living it up at a party when we’re all locked away in our houses, isolated from each other, it is many things – crass, contemptuous, stupid, arrogant, hypocritical and potentially criminal. But actually its effect on our democracy is pretty well zero and setting a bad example is not in itself considered corruption.

This was just arrogant rule-breaking and you can believe it created a public health risk to all of us through setting that bad example, but the same argument could apply to senior politicians smoking. No-one gained anything other than a party that they paid for. You could have done the same thing without access to power.

However the deletion of government records which are legally disclosable and so must be retained by law may feel like a small matter of bad judgement or cynical back-covering, but its impact on democracy and the proper functioning of government is real and of significance.

So both examples are potentially criminal and clearly wrong, but actually only one of them is likely to fall under a definition of corruption (as opposed to flagrant rule-breaking), and it is the deletion of government records. Yet in many people’s heads, WhatsApp deletion is just dodgy while garden parties are outrageous. That might be a better analysis of the appropriate levels of outrage, but not of threat to the effective running of our democracy.

No-one but no-one in Scotland ever seems to pay a price for corruption

See? It is tricky because corruption and wrong-doing are not the same thing. If I punch a colleague in the face it is clearly illegal but not corrupt, while if I rig a procurement contract by loading it with conditions that favour a single contractor owned by my brother, it is clearly corrupt but may not be illegal.

There are broadly three kinds of corruption defined in the academic literature and they are roughly ‘acting against the public interest but within the rules’, ‘corrupting the rules themselves or exploiting corrupt rules’ and ‘breaking the rules for some form of personal gain’. I can’t emphasise enough that none of this needs criminality to take place – no one disputes widespread corruption in North Lanarkshire Council in the 1990s (the Monklands scandal) but no-one was prossecuted.

The distortion of public procurement contracts would probably fall under the first definition while lobbyists successfully getting the law rewritten to gain only one party in a way that is against the public interest would be an example of the second and taking cash bribes for granting planning permission is the third.

But why do I believe this is a sufficient problem in Scotland to believe that action must now be taken? A few simple reasons. One, because I write about this fairly often I get people contacting me with examples (feel free…) and I get far too many to be complacent, some of them serious. Some of it looks systematic in Scotland.

Two, because knowing that corruption always exists means that if its not being prosecuted in some form (again, not just criminally, people getting fired for it, for example) then there is a problem. And no-one but no-one in Scotland ever seems to pay a price for corruption. By any measure some of what emerged in the Salmond inquiry represented clear, outright corruption and everyone involved was protected.

Three, because our checks and balances are so weak. With hardly any local media, local authorities are barely scrutinised at all. Large swathers of central government activity operate in the same scrutiny vacuum at a national level. Governance across Scotland is dodgy as fuck with a pack of wolves being put on the board to manage a sheep farm (just read a list of Sepa’s board or watch the track record of health board cover-ups).

And while our regulators are not toothless (on the contrary, both Audit Scotland and the Information Commissioner deserve medals for their diligent work), they are under-resourced for the fight. The list goes on but the lack of checks and balances inside our democratic system itself is another important factor – the ‘political party cartel’ means much is swept under the carpet.

This is getting urgent. Later in the week I hope to do yet another analysis of what looks like more stinking corruption in the Scottish National Investment Bank. But me and groups like the Ferret can’t hold this to account on our own. Scotland is a wild west for insiders.

Don’t let politicians set the budgets or remits of the agencies and regulators that scrutinise them

So what to do? First, give a damn. Politicians are in charge of their own scrutiny and so they prevent it. This isn’t sustainable, but it means those who could do something don’t even talk about it. We can’t end corruption, but we can choose how much we accept and what kind it is. For me the answer is easy – as little as possible and the kind that doesn’t involve big centralised game-rigging.

As little as possible means that if there is something reasonable you could do, you’re already doing it. We’re certainly not in that position in Scotland. And ‘decentralised corruption’ just means dodgy relationships at the local level in marginal decision-making. Things like ‘jobs for the boys’ or ‘backhanders for planning’ are wrong, but they impact much less on our lives than if bulk house builders can rig building rules so you pay the price for their incompetent build, not them

So here are four measures that would make a big difference. First, stem this shit at source by reforming Scotland’s democracy to prevent an insider class insulating themselves from scrutiny. I’ve written about this many times but that includes governance reform and, for me, the introduction of a second chamber of the Scottish Parliament not controlled by the political parties or elites like the lords. The best options is a Citizens’ Assembly of ordinary people who can’t be bribed.

Second, don’t let politicians set the budgets or remits of the agencies and regulators that scrutinise them. Ideally give that responsibility to the Citizens’ Assembly and, if not, do so via a Citizens’ Jury based on what the regulators say they need

Third, like it or not we need the media. Scotland doesn’t have nearly enough journalists to cover government and local government (never mind Scotland’s endless quango-empires) and there just isn’t any option other than public funding. I propose a public interest news agency rather than direct subsidies to our existing newspapers (which more certainly don’t all deserve it).

Fourth, we need to send a message on stronger investigation of corruption. The Sturgeon era created a glaring moral hazard because all the senior bureaucrats learned that, so long as they serve their political master (itself a corruption of the role of public officials) they are protected from consequence – so why worry about being corrupt?

In New South Wales in Australia there is the office of the corruption investigator called ICAC. By our standards the power of that office are fearsome – right up to ordering wire taps without political approval and the right to question people without them having the right to silence in their defence. It can’t prosecute but it can publish dossiers of evidence and send those directly to the police or the prosecution service.

Put simply, I want one. I want one not because our corruption is of that kind of criminal scale but because right now there isn’t even anyone you can really phone with a tip-off on corruption. Simply creating such an office of a corruption investigator would put the fear of god into those officials or politicians considering it.

Will any of this happen? Almost certainly not. The Scottish Government mouths words of contrition over its various revelations of corruption but, crucially, it doesn’t take steps to prevent it. The lesson of New South Wales is relevant – having created it after a really big corruption scandal the politicians all regretted it and struggle to find ways to clip its wings.

So let me finish with this; it might also help if we codified more clearly what is and isn’t corruption and what the penalty is. I’d pass that law in a heartbeat, and failing to act on corruption would be high up on my list with serious sanctions. By that definition, corruption in Scotland really is absolutely rife…

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