FLC041, Jack Straw, Corruption and the New World Order, 25th July 2000

Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment

published on the Internet
Issue Number 41
25th July 2000

Jack Straw, Corruption,
and the New World Order
Sean Gabb

For the past month, I have been brooding over an article I found in The Guardian newspaper of last 21st June. “Straw declares war on corruption” the headline reads. It tells how, pressed by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the British Government is planning a new law. Bribery is to be made a more serious offence, and its legal definition widened to cover acts not previously criminal. The most important new offence will be bribery of foreigners committed by British citizens abroad. It will be illegal, for example, for British companies to offer bribes to get export orders, or for British individuals to bribe their way out of foreign trouble. To enforce this law, the authorities will use their existing or yet to be created powers of surveillance—telephone tapping, burglary of houses and planting of listening devices, monitoring of e-mails, and so forth.

Announcing the proposals in the House of Commons, Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, said: Corruption is like a deadly virus. It has no boundaries. We need to fight it wherever it is found.

For too long dishonest individuals have profited at the expense of undermining the integrity of professional and public life in this country. A few Conservatives, I imagine—though without Mr Hague’s encouragement or support—will oppose the Government on purely commercial grounds. They will explain how in many countries, doing business is inseparable from dealing with a swarm of ministers, officials and well-connected businessmen, all holding their hands out for a bribe. Making it criminal here to put money into those hands will hurt our export trade. At best, companies will relocate their headquarters to other countries where they cannot be prosecuted, or where similar laws are less fully enforced. In any event, British workers will suffer.

This is a true objection, and I hope it is pressed very hard – such being the best the Tories have to offer nowadays in defence of freedom, and to be fair such being the argument most likely to have an effect on the Government’s legislative intentions. But it is not a full objection. It does not sufficiently explain what is at once so dangerous and arrogant about the proposals. And so I will make my own comment on them. In particular, I will discuss the following issues: the blurring of jurisdictions; the hypocrisy of our political masters; and what motives can reasonably be ascribed to them.

1. Blurred Jurisdictions

Part of what makes our civilisation so unlike all others is that it has never—or not since Roman times—been ruled by a single government. Instead, power has been divided between many states, each able to make whatever laws it pleased, but not on the whole to enforce these outside its own borders. Roman law and the various European systems that derive from it do assume a right to punish for crimes committed abroad. But this has not been a right much insisted on. States have usually followed the English practice of exercising extraterritorial jurisdiction only where vital interests are threatened, or to punish horrible crimes that would otherwise go unpunished.

Because power has been divided, it has been a less effective tool than elsewhere for preventing the happiness and progress of mankind. It has been possible for states to compete not just in war, but also in their internal arrangements, and for those most successful at enabling happiness and progress to gain at the expense of the others. Think of the Huguenots who took themselves and their capital out of France, to the enrichment of England, Holland and Prussia. They went to countries similar enough to their own for them to assimilate without trouble, but with very different religious and commercial policies. Fears of a similar loss kept the French State under control for the next hundred years. Or think of those who have become temporary refugees, able to indulge their tastes abroad without risk at home. Think of Voltaire. He lived in Geneva, where he could write as he pleased, but crossed into France whenever he wanted to see a play—this being a pleasure banned in Geneva. Think of A.E. Housman, who went every year to Venice to avoid breaking the British laws against homosexual acts. Think of the millions of young people from all over Europe who go nowadays to take drugs in Amsterdam and return home to no penalty.

This diversity is now threatened. The proposed new law on corruption is not an isolated disturbance of national sovereignty and limited jurisdiction, but a stage in their destruction. For us in England, the European Union is the clearest and most present threat to diversity. But there are dozens of other bodies set up by treaty and working towards a common juridical space. Those concerned with the “war” against drugs and money laundering are standardising laws throughout the world, with the eventual aim of a single enforcement. Those concerned with “crimes against humanity” are already acting under a universal jurisdiction. There are proposals for similar laws to protect the environment and to disarm the human population. The corruption law is part of this tendency. It is to be an extension of earlier precedents, and is to be the precedent for other acts of the same kind.

The natural result of these acts combined will be a world government. On account of its growth, this will not be a democratic government. In form, it will be a web of supranational institutions, all exercising powers delegated by national governments. In substance, it will be a reasonably united élite, giving orders to more or less disunited nationalities. There will be occasional dissent, as one nationality tries to exercise its theoretical sovereignty. But as in the Habsburg Empire, this will be first contained and then crushed by a directed coalition of the other nationalities. Nor will it be desirable for such a government to be democratic so long as the majority of its subjects are semi-literate paupers with nothing immediate to lose from a redistribution of wealth.

It will not be a particularly liberal government. In some places, it will impose better standards of civility and due process than currently exist. But for the more civilised portions of mankind, there will be a perceptible levelling down. We can see this with the Corpus Juris, which is a proposed criminal code for the European Union. Regardless of the smiling assurances about human rights protection, its procedural safeguards do not include trial by jury, habeas corpus, or a meaningful rule against double jeopardy. We can see it in the international treaties against drugs and money laundering. These all require signatory states to reverse the burden of proof in criminal cases, to enact arbitrary confiscation laws, and to abolish banking and other financial privacy.

It is reasonable, moreover, to suppose that a world government would be open to capture by any number of powerful interest groups; and the lack of external competition would ensure that mistakes become not only general, but also irreversible. The closest comparison I know is to the world of late antiquity, when all the Greek and Italian city states and all the surrounding kingdoms had come under the domination of Rome, so that one civilisation had just one government. This was the world of Commodus and Diocletian and Constantine, of civil tyranny and grinding taxes and religious persecution, where an oppressed citizen had no refuge but in suicide or flight to the savage realms beyond the frontier. This kind of world will not come again in our lifetimes. Nor might the common people be quite so impoverished next time. But the fairly liberal world in which we do live is not the automatic product of time. It rests on foundations that are being undermined one stroke at a time. The proposed new law on bribery is one of these strokes.

2. Labour Hypocrisy

Let us, however, return to Mr Straw’s words in Parliament: Corruption is like a deadly virus…. We need to fight it wherever it is found. Brave words, even if dangerously mistaken. They must be read, however, with certain implied reservations. For all they will be used to enslave us, they are not intended to apply to Labour Ministers or their relatives or friends or bed or business partners. We know this from the following cases:

First, we have Peter Mandelson. Shortly before the 1997 general election, he borrowed £373,000 from Geoffrey Robinson, a fellow Member of Parliament on the Labour Benches, and put this towards buying a house in London. The loan was arranged in secret, the contract being drafted by a friend; and it was not entered in the Commons register of interests. It gave Mr Robinson the right to impose a charge on the house if repayments were not made in good order.

This loan arranged, Mr Mandelson then obtained a mortgage of more than £100,000 from the Britannia Building Society. According to various newspaper reports, he neglected to mention the Robinson loan. Since building societies do not generally lend on property over which there is or might be another charge, it is reasonable to suppose that he was obtaining goods and services by deception and committing various other offences described in Theft Acts.

These facts placed him into Mr Robinson’s hands: one word and he might be ruined. Suspicion is also reasonable, therefore, when on becoming President of the Board of Trade, Mr Mandelson appointed Mr Robinson as one of his ministerial deputies—a first promotion after 20 years on the back benches.

Was this not one of those “dishonest individuals [who] have profited at the expense of undermining the integrity of professional and public life in this country”? Evidently not. When his conduct was discovered, Mr Mandelson resigned from the Government. But there was no police investigation into his behaviour. Today, he is back in the Government as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—a post that carries responsibility for law enforcement in part of the United Kingdom. It is said that he owed this easy treatment to certain intimacies that he once enjoyed with the Prime Minister – intimacies that might be embarrassing if ever made public.

Second, we have Mr Straw himself. On the 14th March this year, his brother William went into a Nottinghamshire police station and confessed to assaulting a 14 year-old boy. According to accounts published just after on the Internet, the boy was his son and the assault was sexual. He was not charged, and no further investigation was ordered.

Not a word of this alleged offence appeared in any of the established media until the 5th April, when Punch carried a long but guarded report on how the Government had leaned on every newspaper editor in the country not to cover the story.

William Straw was eventually charged with a later common assault on a 16 year-old girl. This gained a few column inches in the newspapers, but no further comment was made when all proceedings were dropped on the 19th July.

Jack Straw is not responsible for his brother’s real or alleged acts. But he is responsible for the media blackout on reports about his brother. And there is natural reason to believe that he obtained or tolerated preferential treatment for his brother after the March confession. According to a senior police officer quoted in the Punch article, “it would be a very brave custody sergeant who would release back into the community a man who had confessed to [such a] crime”.

We have here a case on first appearance not of financial but of political corruption. Will Mr Straw order an investigation of his own actions or of what was done in his name? Probably not. Nor did he order any investigation of the leniency with which his son was treated after pleading guilty to supplying drugs early in 1998. Nor, I am certain, will he insist on proceedings against himself for having recently ordered his chauffeur to drive at 103mph to get him on time to a political meeting.

Nor will there be any meaningful investigation of the claims that Tony Blair’s father in law has been fraudulently obtaining welfare benefits, or that Gordon Brown bought a flat in London under suspicious circumstances. Nor will there be even a mention allowed in the established media of the still more alarming claims about the Cullen inquiry into the Dunblane shootings, or of the claims about a guilty plea made at Bow Street Magistrates Court back in 1983 by a person now of the highest importance. Nor will it be discussed how the Government is using the security services to promote its own electoral advantage—something the Conservatives did only occasionally and then always as a byproduct of fighting the Cold War—and how individuals like Robert Henderson and Greg Palast have had their lives turned upside down for the crime of upsetting senior members of the Labour Party.

All the above facts, and many others beside, can be explained only on the assumption that our new political class thinks itself above the law. It is no more than a matter of time before these people start murdering their opponents.

A Question of Motives

I do not think it can be denied that we are ruled by a more than usually scummy set of politicians, and that these are presiding over a steady collapse into despotism. The only question worth asking is whether they are responsible for this collapse in more than the purely formal, constitutional sense—whether people like Jack Straw and Tony Blair really can be supposed to want an international police state in which actions and speech, and even thought, will be controlled by a masterclass made up of people like themselves and their friends in big business. In short, I am asking whether I can use that unfashionable and greatly misunderstood word “conspiracy”.

Aside from fears of being called a crank, there are two main objections to speaking about conspiracies. The first is that conspiracy theories are to politics what creationism is to biology. They raise hypotheses not needed to explain what is being studied; and they prevent a full understanding of the causes that are most likely have brought about what is being studied.

Look at the money laundering laws. It is unlikely that anyone wanted these simply because they were an engine of despotism. Police forces wanted them because they opened a new and possibly more successful front in their notoriously lost war on drugs. The big banks wanted them because their complexity could be used to put smaller competitors out of business. Administrators, both national and international, wanted them because they opened a new area for regulation and thereby opened new opportunities for status and promotion. The tax authorities wanted them because they made it easier to detect and punish evasion. The politicians wanted them because all these others wanted them, and because nobody made a big fuss against them.

Where any attack on freedom is concerned, there are sectional interests that benefit without having an overall agenda of control – and that may even oppose other attacks from which they do not benefit. The proposed new law on bribery and others of its sort can be better explained by a public choice analysis than by claims of some grand conspiracy. If these new laws are coming faster now than in the past, we need to bear in mind that the techniques of control are better developed now than in the past. Modern information technology enables sectional interest groups to push for modes of surveillance and control that once only existed in the minds of dystopian science fiction novelists.

Yet, but all is being said, a purely institutional analysis can be pushed too far as explanation. It is a necessary condition, but is not itself sufficient. Just because some people have an interest in promoting a bad law, and because that law is technically possible, does not mean that it will automatically be made. It must also be thought right and proper by those with the power to make or refuse it.

For example, there were strong commercial interests in Victorian England that would have gained from a return to protection after about 1870. In Germany, in America, and in other countries, these interests prevailed. Here, they did not prevail until 1931. The reason was not entirely the strength of opposing commercial interests. It was also an autonomous belief in the moral rightness of free trade. British manufacturers did not put as much as they might have into “fair trade” campaigns, in part because they thought it a rather shameful cause: and others campaigns that were funded had no success against a political establishment unwilling to listen to any case for protection.

The public choice analysis, then, can be used to explain how bad laws are made. But it cannot by itself explain why some are made and others are not. This throws us back to looking at the character and motivations of those in power. Doubtless, there have been sectional interests hard at work on persuading Jack Straw to make bribery an extraterritorial offence. But why is he willing to do that, bad as its consequences will be, and when he would scornfully reject equally strong pressure, say, to bring in the death penalty for racially motivated murder? The natural answer is that he approves of that particular law.

Here, though, we come to the second objection to claiming that Jack Straw and his colleagues want a new despotic order. This is that they are not self-consciously wicked people. Brian Micklethwait has been arguing this point with me for over a year now, and I have no doubt will continue arguing it for some years to come. His main point is that while our rulers are doing things that will have bad consequences, they cannot reasonably be accused of wanting these consequences. If they are working to destroy our national independence, it is because they believe that the resulting international government will abolish war and tyranny and poverty.If they are destroying our liberal institutions, it is because they believe these to stand in the way of their grand objectives. Their ends are good, Brian says, but they are ignorant of how their chosen means will not achieve these ends. His conclusion is that rather than accuse these people of conspiring against liberal democracy, we should sit them down and patiently explain to them the facts of which they are currently ignorant.

Assuming that I understand Brian correctly, there are two counter objections. First, he seems to have an unreal conception of wickedness. Before attaching moral blame to our rulers, he wants to see them behaving like pantomime villains—twirling their moustaches as they confess their true intentions in whispered asides. But excepting a few followers of Nietzsche or the Marquis de Sade, nobody is wicked in this sense. Whether or not he deceives the world, every villain deceives himself. Hitler and Stalin did not think themselves bad men. Though they committed atrocious crimes, they claimed—and sincerely believed—that what they did was right, or at least was the best that could be done in difficult circumstances. Thieves universally demonise their victims as people who have gained unfair advantages and who therefore have no right to their property. Most murderers look on their victims as human trash who are better off dead. Those criminals who do not blame their victims take refuge instead in some sociological cant about the force of upbringing or other external circumstances.

Of course, our rulers do not consciously intend to do evil. On their lips and in their minds are only the fairest intentions. And they believe in their own essential goodness in exact proportion as they enrich and privilege themselves by trampling on the rights of others.

Turning to the second counter objection, Brian seems not to understand the nature of ignorance as a defence to charges of wrongdoing. Both lawyers and moral philosophers make a distinction between innocent and culpable ignorance. The former is a good defence, the latter not. Suppose a very young child picks up a loaded gun. Waving it around, he kills someone. Treating the child as a murderer would be absurdly unjust. He cannot be presumed to understand what he was doing, and so cannot be held responsible. This defence would not be open to an adult in the same circumstances. Because he knows—or can reasonably be presumed to know—that pointing a loaded gun at someone is dangerous, ignorance will be no defence. Even if it is accepted by a court, its only effect will be to reduce a murder charge to one of manslaughter.

We can apply this distinction to politics. In living memory, our rulers have committed two main derelictions. Before 1979, they acted on the belief that unemployment was caused by a shortage of aggregate demand, and that it could be cured by monetary expansion. They were wrong, and they created a set of economic problems that nearly bankrupted the country and that have taken a generation even partly to solve. But the politicians in charge of economic management cannot be held responsible for the outlines of their policy. They were busy men, without time or inclination for subtle speculations of their own. They were advised by men who were generally accounted the best economists of the day. They looked at the Phillips Curve and heard all the talk of multipliers, and were convinced by the analysis. Moreover, they had what they believed were solid practical demonstrations. They thought they had seen the failure of pre-Keynesian economics in the Great Depression. They thought they had seen the success of Keynesian economics in the age of full-employment and prosperity that had followed the War. No one can reasonably blame them for not having read the works of Milton Friedman and F.A. Hayek. These works were derided by the mainstream economists when given any attention at all. For all they presided over an economic disaster, the politicians of the day cannot be personally blamed for what happened. They were ignorant, but innocently so.

Since then, however, the politicians have turned from wrecking the economy to abolishing our rights and liberties. If this is the effect of ignorance, it is culpable ignorance. Economics is a difficult subject for most people, and there is much plausibility in the Keynesian analysis—I know because I teach it. But only a very common education is needed to know the probable effect of diluting the double jeopardy rule or reversing the burden of proof in criminal proceedings, or limiting freedom of speech and association, or handing effective power from national and democratic institutions to unaccountable foreign bureaucrats. Economics is not part of the standard curriculum that our political class follows at university. But law and history are part of that curriculum. Any politician who claims not to know the nature of what is being done to us is either stupid or guilty of a self-deception that would not stand up five minutes in a criminal trial.

And so it is legitimate to presume that Jack Straw and his colleagues desire the natural effect of their actions. They do want a world in which they are masters and we are slaves, even if they prefer to cover this with fashionable euphemisms. Mortgage fraud and protecting their relatives is only the surface of their guilt. Since the Glorious Revolution, the custom in this country has been to work for the downfall of bad rulers, but otherwise to leave them unpunished. The custom on the other side, however, has been that the rulers should observe certain limits to their misgovernment. These people have broken through the restraints of custom. I see no reason why we the people of this country should not also drop that restraint.

© 2000 – 2017, seangabb.

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