Pride and prejudice: Comparative corruption research and the British case

Abstract

In recent years, comparative corruption analysis has been fuelled by the growth of international survey data on related perceptions. Taking issue with the typological vein of such analysis, this article questions both the treatment of perceptions indices and the validity and pertinence of variables used to explain them. It is argued that perceptions are conflated with practice, whilst explanatory variables appear ungrounded in empirical reality. These limitations serve to reinforce expectations that corruption is a menace to be associated primarily with societies of the global periphery. Drawing on the supposedly paradigmatic case of Britain, the article suggests that the problem of bias in comparative scholarship is compounded by three factors: the failure of comparative and domestic-focused literatures to engage with one another in sufficient depth; the relative lack of qualitative research into corruption within core Western states; and the neglect of power in the study of perceptions and practices at comparative and domestic-focused levels of analysis.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    See further [3] on the impact of TI surveys upon both comparative academic research and anti-corruption initiatives internationally (compare [79]). The use of typologies based upon given characteristics of societies is a technique that situates such comparative analysis within an influential interdisciplinary tradition of research stretching back throughout the twentieth century and beyond, into the relationship between culture, development, and good government. Critical accounts of this rich tradition can be found in [27], and Riesman’s 1961 preface to The Lonely Crowd [116], for example. The imperative of looking further than the superficial traits of social, political, and economic systems in order to meaningfully explain practices such as corruption (see, e.g., discussion in [125, 49]), has often been overlooked by such literature for the convenience of treating the former as proxies for behavioural and inter-personal traits which cause the latter (see, e.g., [81]).

  2. 2.

    Since the primary focus here is central government and state bureaucracy, this paper refers interchangeably to the UK and Britain to denote the ‘national’, although the importance of national and regional differences within the UK are by no means denied.

  3. 3.

    What is meant here is the distinction between ‘thin’, superficially-defined variables, and ‘thick’, detailed, and grounded case-studies. On the distinction between ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ explanatory variables, see [49].

  4. 4.

    Compare Putnam, one of the foremost US theorists of civic culture, who has accepted Banfield’s conceptualisation of ‘amoral familism’ for southern Italy [114], but has rejected the notion of a positive correlation between the decline of the family and a decline of civic culture in the US [113], as well as that of a necessarily negative correlation between familism and economic development in general [114].

  5. 5.

    This thesis has been subject to the qualification that recently ‘partially’ democratised states may experience more corruption even than dictatorships, although better-established democratic practices do inhibit corruption [97].

  6. 6.

    Data from the Gallup International 50th Anniversary Survey of 1997 was used to confirm that lower levels of corruption in former British colonies were perceived as such by their own citizens, complementing elite views contained in the corruption perceptions indices of TI (1996, 1997, 1998) and Business International (one survey from the early 1980s) [133:419,426].

  7. 7.

    La Porta et al. [81] measure government performance according to the following indicators: degree of government interventionism, public sector efficiency, public good provision, size of government, and political freedom.

  8. 8.

    At a general level of critique, see, for example, [11, 126, 127]. Latitude is actually used as a negative correlate of corruption by [81], drawing on [80], who go on to suggest that states in more temperate zones have more productive agriculture and healthier climates, enabling them to develop their economies, and possibly their institutions, as well. The suggested use of daily average temperatures as an indicator of corruption was made by Holmes [65:181] in sarcastic critique of the use of statistical correlations to predict or explain corruption in exactly this way.

  9. 9.

    See, similarly, [48, 92], for domestic-focused discussion of criminal scapegoating stimulated by middle-class guilt and anxieties.

  10. 10.

    As scored amongst 158 and 180 country rankings, respectively. TI Corruption Perceptions Index data is available at: http://www.transparency.org/policy_research/surveys_indices/cpi). Such shifts in country positions may be affected as much by changes in methodology, sources, and numbers of other country participants as much as by country performance per se (see [47]). Nevertheless, the repercussions of the al-Yamamah affair were widely blamed for this slip ([22]; ‘OECD attacks UK failure on corruption’, The Financial Times, 17 August 2008; ‘Bribery team probing BAE case alleges dirty tricks’, The Independent, 10 June 2007).

  11. 11.

    As with international trends, public trust in political institutions has fluctuated over the past decade in Britain, but trust in political parties has consistently remained least, and low; the Eurobarometer opinion survey of 2004 found that 78 percent of British respondents ‘tend not to trust’ political parties [132, 5:8–9].

  12. 12.

    The Church of England recognises Protestantism as but one of three of its founding traditions, alongside Catholicism and Liberalism [23]. Contra La Porta et al. [81], it was not established in opposition to state power but rather by state power, and remained closely aligned to both monarchy and government until at least the last half of the nineteenth century [130].

  13. 13.

    Results from the British Social Attitudes Surveys mirror the fall in trust while, nevertheless, consistently finding higher levels of social trust. They, too, show a stabilisation of decline from 1997, however, at around 43 percent of respondents [51].

  14. 14.

    Whilst relative poverty between the most and least affluent has increased, there has been a decline in relative poverty amongst those with middling incomes [60]. From the late 1990s to 2004 there was a 2–3 percent decline in relative poverty, but rates then began to climb again [13].

  15. 15.

    Successive surveys carried out between 2004–2008 by BMRB Social Research for the Parliamentary Committee on Standards in Public Life have charted a slow decline in levels of public trust in parliamentarians and government ministers (although the latter are trusted less). The vast majority of respondents remain confident that MPs and ministers do not take bribes, but far fewer are confident that they do not use power for their own gain [54]. According to the TI Corruption Barometer of citizens’ perceptions [132], British respondents were amongst the most pessimistic about the prognosis for corruption in their country; 72 percent of British respondents expected corruption to increase in the coming years, and 64 percent believed their government to be ineffective in combating corruption.

  16. 16.

    See Ferguson [44] for discussion of the distortions to political agendas provoked by the power of influential donors over political parties.

  17. 17.

    Thus, in terms that ironically echoed and confirmed the worst fears of Queen Victoria—that appointing people to high public office on the basis of their ability—might let in ‘low people without breeding or feelings of gentlemen’ (quoted in [24]; cited in [76]), writes Neild [100:205–6], ‘two old British elites—the patrician politicians and the administrative class of the civil service [..] helped to produce ‘clean government’ in Britain [..]. They shared an Oxbridge educational background; they shared, or at least respected, a notion of public service. And they shared power […]. Those ministers that did not come from Oxbridge had usually come up through the professions or trade unions; they had a more austere notion of what conduct was acceptable than the politicians of today.’ Over the course of the twentieth century, however, the dominance of the civil service by Oxbridge graduates itself came to be seen as unconscionably elitist (see further [111]).

  18. 18.

    See ‘Revealed: 139 Peers act as paid consultants’, The Independent, 27 January 2009; ‘Revealed: Paid Peers tried to change laws 50 times’, Sunday Times, 1 February 2009; ‘The true patrons of this greed are an over-mighty Press’, The Guardian, 14 May 2009. On salary alone, the household income of a British MP places them above 91 percent of the population; the average income that they receive, that combines salary and expenses, places them above the household income of 96 percent of the population (not taking into account second incomes from partners) (‘How does your pay compare with an MP’s?’, BBC News Magazine, 28 May 2009). For an instructive historical perspective on the development of this issue, see [35: 201–203].

  19. 19.

    Mauss suggests that while some Western anthropologists may have been able to identify the principles of reciprocity underlying gift-giving in more ‘primitive’ societies, including their often important political dimensions, there has been a misplaced sense of confidence that similar power relations and rationales do not inhere in gift-giving within their own societies [93]. It may be the case, as Douglas [37] seems to propose, that such blindness arises from a pious liberal desire to preserve the ideal of altruism as such. Alternatively, it may stem from a more instinctive sense of cultural narcissism, according to which ‘our’ gift-giving practices naturally seem to be genuinely altruistic and non-binding, as opposed to ‘theirs’. Whichever the case, the need for persistent self-reflection upon comparable practices on the part of corruption researchers of ‘core’ Western states is evident (see [89]).

  20. 20.

    Notwithstanding the work of Doig over past decades (e.g., [35]), academic literature has neglected the roll call of more recent scandals, such as the case involving a British Secretary of State for Culture, her husband (an international corporate lawyer and tax expert) and a gift (allegedly from Italian PM Berlusconi) of £408,000 (around $812,000) which paid off their mortgage in the space of a month (see [6]).

  21. 21.

    Available but uncommon studies that have addressed the relationship between meritocratic reforms, elites, patronage, and education in Britain, include those by [135, 76, 35, 111, 103, 121] (the latter two being writers from the field of journalism). Notable recent work on this issue with regard to the US includes that by [7] (also a writer from the field of journalism); and on the interconnected worlds of US elites and their international impact, [134].

  22. 22.

    For more on logics and techniques of accommodation, see [85, 115, 72, 128]. Debates surrounding the ‘Cash for Honours’ scandal and the BAe/al-Yamamah affair are also instructive: [112, 43]; ‘Goldsmith denies BAE cash claim’, BBC News, 8 June 2007; ‘The charges that could torpedo BAE’, The Independent, 10 June 2007.

  23. 23.

    See ‘Sierre Leone’s ghetto taxpayers’, BBC News, 12 September 2008; ‘S. Leone “riddled with corruption”’, BBC News, 14 November 2007.

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Acknowledgements

I am grateful for the helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper offered by members of the Staff Seminar Group of the Department of International Relations at the LSE, and by the anonymous reviewers of the journal. Particular thanks for extended feedback are due also to Leonidas Cheliotis, Kimberly Hutchings, Uli Sedelmeier, John Sidel, and Andrew Walter.

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Correspondence to Sappho Xenakis.

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Xenakis, S. Pride and prejudice: Comparative corruption research and the British case. Crime Law Soc Change 54, 39–61 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10611-010-9243-8

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Keywords

  • Social Trust
  • Uncertainty Avoidance
  • Corruption Perception Index
  • Parliamentary Democracy
  • British Case