‘Something is Rotten’: Brexit and its Consequences for (Anti-) Corruption in the UK

Following the recent EU referendum result (Brexit), across the UK almost everyone seems to agree – whatever their political bent – that something is rotten in the state of British politics.

The appalling campaigns that led up to Brexit, including the misleading statements of the Leave campaign, the so called “Project Fear” of the Remain campaign and the apparent media bias in favour of Leave, all mean that not only has the referendum’s legitimacy been questioned, but we face an existential crisis about the nature and character of the UK and its political system.

But, what has corruption got to do with any of this? Isn’t this just the hustle of real world politics? Can we really identify corruption at the heart of the conflict we see today in Westminster and beyond?

In this post I present some ideas to promote debate on these important questions. I suggest that corruption could prove essential to understanding how we arrived at the Brexit decision and how we might proceed from here, and that Brexit could lead to a more refined definition of corruption itself and how it functions in the UK context.
Brexit as an impact on anti-corruption progress

Corruption certainly has very much to do with Brexit, even if it is simply as a beneficiary of the uncertainty that has ensued. A great concern for corruption experts is that Brexit will signal a retreat for anti-corruption legislation and policy: with David Cameron’s resignation as PM, anti-corruption might fall off the political agenda and the commitments made at the 2016 London Anti-Corruption Summit could come to naught.
Transparency International and Corruption Watch have both provided insight into the potential threats to anti-corruption progress, including resource pressure on anti-corruption institutions affecting prevention and enforcement; the increased risk of regulatory capture as the UK seeks to retain its economic competitiveness; and bribery risks associated with entering new markets.

These challenges are rich seams for corruption research and should be pursued to ensure that the anti-corruption efforts of the last 20 years are not swallowed up in the post-Brexit turmoil.

Corruption as a lens to analyse Brexit and post-Brexit negotiations
The EU referendum took place within the turbulence and complexity of real world politics and there will inevitably be many ways to understand the outcome. For example, there are convincing arguments to suggest Brexit was in part the result of inequality and political unrest in a skewed economic landscape that has not fairly distributed the benefits of globalisation, and that the unpleasant rhetoric against immigration also played a role in convincing voters to reject EU membership.

However, a corruption perspective has the potential to supplement this work and contextualise and clarify more mainstream accounts. This might include investigating the Brexit vote as a revolt against perceived corruption and elitism, or analysing the impact of the lobbying power wielded by media moguls and big business.

A corruption approach can also inform our analyses of the post-Brexit negotiations. These will be a critical opportunity to apply corruption research techniques to a complex yet distinct policy-making context. What kind of transparency provisions will be in place? Who will participate or be excluded? What kind of accountability mechanisms will ensure that private or corporate interests do not capture the process?

Brexit as a way to expand our understanding of corruption
If a corruption lens is a useful analytical tool for Brexit, we might also consider whether Brexit can teach us something new about corruption. In the UK, there have been calls to reinvigorate analysis and move beyond more traditional approaches to defining corruption (see Whyte 2015; Beetham 2015). I suggest that as policy and politics in the UK is remade post-Brexit, it could provide a unique opportunity to develop our understanding of corruption and its shape and force in UK politics.

Traditional approaches might be complemented by an expanded notion of corruption. Closer attention could be paid to the distinction between legal and illegal forms of corruption (Kaufmann and Vicente 2005) or Thompson’s (2013) concept of institutional corruption. Institutional corruption shifts focus from “private gain” towards benefits that can be political or institutionally useful, emphasises systemic processes rather than one-off acts of “abuse,” and engages with a tendency to undermine an institution’s primary purpose (e.g. to protect the “public interest”).

These kinds of approach – while challenging – open up corruption study to analyses of democratic institutions and the ways in which they can be disarmed in the face of challenges to their power. They also open up the potential to refresh the debate about what the “public interest” might be and the multiple ways in which different forms of corruption can undermine this interest. Ultimately they might help to devise new ways of safeguarding the integrity of the post-Brexit negotiations and the interest of the people on whose behalf countless agreements will be made in the coming years.

Rebecca Dobson, rjs.dobson@gmail.com

References
Beetham, D., “Moving Beyond a Narrow Definition of Corruption,” in How Corrupt is Britain?, edited by D. Whyte, London: Pluto Press, 2015.
Kaufmann, D. and P.C. Vicente, “Legal Corruption,” World Bank, 2005. http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTWBIGOVANTCOR/Resources/Legal_Corruption.pdf
Thompson, D.F., “Two Concepts of Corruption,” Edmond J. Safra Working Papers, No. 16, 2013.
Whyte, D., “Introduction: A Very British Corruption,” in How Corrupt is Britain?, edited by D. Whyte, London: Pluto Press, 2015.

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