Britain is not a captured state…yet

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL November 8, 2021

Britain’s working week has begun on a dismal note. Or a grandly hopeful note on a dismal issue.

It’s about ethics and politics. Probity in public life. Parliamentary snouts in trough. Should members of parliament be allowed to serve as consultants to business? And then to lobby for those businesses?

Obviously not. It’s not clear if Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson agrees, but there you go.

MPs meet on the afternoon of November 8 for an emergency debate on the standards they should observe. This is the aftermath of the Owen Paterson sleaze scandal in which Mr Johnson is involved. (Mr Johnson’s government tried to block the suspension of Mr Patterson, a Conservative MP, for using his position to lobby on behalf of two companies that paid him as a consultant. It executed a U-turn after a huge outcry.)

There are suggestions now that the speaker of the House of Commons may propose a wholesale review of the rules governing MPs’ behaviour, as well as an outright  ban on outside consultancy roles.

Well, of course, you might say.

But there is no guarantee the necessary reforms will go through. As Liz David-Barrett, Sussex University Professor of Governance and Integrity and Director of the Centre for the Study of Corruption, recently asked, “is the UK a state captured by vested interests?”

The question interests the professor as she is writing a book on state capture. She notes the difference between state capture and classic bribery or corruption. The second is a one-off benefit that breaks the existing rules.

“State capture is when the property developer influences a government minister to change the rules about what kind of property can be built on what kind of land – thereafter, the developer has access to a whole new landscape of opportunity. It’s a type of systematic corruption where narrow interest groups take control of the institutions and processes that make public policy, buying influence not just to disregard the rules but also to rewrite the rules.”

The professor added: “We tend to associate state capture with post-Soviet and post-colonial transitions. Think oligarchs in Russia and oil barons in Nigeria. But more recently, we’ve seen a new form of capture emerge in more mature democracies – and some worrying signs of it in the UK…Around the world, the new manifestation of state capture is led by politicians not business people. They get into power through elections but then radically change the rules of the game to entrench their power.”

That said, Mr Johnson’s government was forced to U-turn, so the capture is not complete. As the professor notes, “it seems that those long-established norms meant something after all.”