The late lamented General Suharto of Indonesia came to power in a protracted and complicated, almost bloodless military coup sponsored and supported by the USA and Britain. Half-a-dozen of his opponents, military officers, ended up being stuffed down a well; but by and large it was a quiet affair, and departing President, Norodom Sihanouk, survived to die another day.
Over the next couple of years however, aided by American special forces and ships of the Royal Navy, Suharto carried out a systematic genocide against the ethnic Chinese population, who were all thought to be communist fellow-travellers. Over a million died. Many more, political prisoners, rotted away in island jungle camps.
In the years that followed, ‘Mr Ten-per-cent’ as he became known, amassed a personal fortune of over $30 billion from skimming-off every contract placed with western companies; often, notoriously, for illegal logging. He died in 2008, peacefully in bed, of multiple organ failure, and was given a state funeral.
Now, pardon me, but that’s what I’d call corruption.
President Yanukovych of Ukraine fled the country earlier this month, and sought refuge in Russia. Two months of popular demonstrations in the capital, Kiev, against his corrupt regime climaxed in a week of mayhem. Unidentified snipers thought to be Russian Spetsnaz firing provocatively from behind the state police lines killed upwards of 90 unarmed demonstrators. Government buildings were seized. But on the Saturday morning, when demonstrators entered the Presidential palace, they found nothing, and no-one. The President had been spirited away. It is claimed that he took with him, or had otherwise misappropriated in the two years he was in office, $27 billion in state funds.
That afternoon, the public and the western media were invited to tour his abandoned country home. What they found profoundly shocked the relatively poorly off Ukrainian families. Their elected president had had constructed for himself, a country retreat with every possibly luxury, including gold-plated waste bins, a basement boxing arena, a private zoo and his own personalised portrait labels on the whisky and other bottles in the lavish drinks cabinet. His mentor, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, could hardly draw attention to this egregious excess when accusing the West of sponsoring a coup in Ukraine – something that hadn’t actually happened, since Yanukovych’s supporters were still sitting in the parliament along with the elected opposition, who had already declared an election. For it is whispered that Putin himself has five such homes.
And of course there were Saddam Hussein of Iraq, with his five gruesomely tasteless palaces, equipped with torture rooms and private viewing theatres where he could watch videos of his opponents’ executions; Gaddaffi of Libya, with his secret rape rooms, one actually inside the university in Tripoli, where young students would be brought to him after being ‘broken-in’ by his guards; and the unlovely Ceausescus of Romania. History is littered with the scum whom ordinary people seem almost eager to have govern them, as they crave ‘strong leadership’ and ‘national pride’. They get that, all right.
Is it conceivable then that any British politician could match these breathtaking examples of the corruption of office?
For twenty years, the world-famous insurance business Lloyds of London had been aware of growing losses in the USA as a result of injury claims by miners and process workers in the asbestos industry. In the unregulated climate of the 1980s, a system developed whereby these losses were passed around between syndicates. The claims weren’t paid out, but the commissions grew fatter every time the liabilities were bought-up by another syndicate, in a process known as reinsurance.
Lloyds is a unique business. It is composed of a number of ‘syndicates’, groups of underwriters and investors known as Names, who needed at that time to declare immediately realisable assets of £250,000 to join, but who then received a high rate of return. The catch was that, if their syndicate made a loss, they would have to stump up – and the liability of Names was unlimited.
In the mid-1980s, a suspiciously large number of senior Names (you could belong to more than one syndicate) started quietly resigning. At the same time, syndicates mounted a drive to recruit hundreds of newly-wealthy Names from prospering sectors of the economy: showbusiness, music, fashion and advertising, pointing out that Lloyds had never in its 250-year history made a loss and so their investment was cast-iron safe. These were creative people who, by and large, knew not the first thing about the insurance market but had cash to spare.
Another unusual thing about Lloyds is that they are not obliged, as is every other kind of business, to file accounts at each trading year’s end. For fairly obvious reasons, because of the long-term nature of the business, they get a three-year period of grace. At the end of this particular three-year period, in 1986 Lloyds suddenly ‘discovered’ that they were $6 billion in the red. Oh dear, how can that have happened? They called on the Names, with their unlimited liability, to stuff-up the hole with cash. Many were bankrupted in the process.
The Government, terrified that a scandal would destroy the flower of the global insurance market, then told Lloyds they could mount their own internal inquiry. A committee was formed, spent probably about thirty seconds ‘looking into it’ over an agreeable claret lunch and then, quite unexpectedly, completely exonerated the syndicates of any wrongdoing. The senior Names who had resigned reinvested, and the waters closed calmly over the wreck. No-one was ever prosecuted for what I personally believe was the most flagrant financial fraud in a century, prior to that of the Ponzi King, Bernie Madoff.
While, in 2004, BBC and Guardian (and Private Eye) journalists reported on claims that a £60 million ‘slush fund’ had been created to bribe Saudi officials to secure an eyewateringly huge defence contract for British aerospace jewel-in-the-crown, BAe Systems; a deal known as Al Yamamah.
Such business methods were highly illegal in international law, and having lost out, the Americans were furious. The total value of the deal is still unknown. Every attempt to find out who was behind it and what exactly went on has failed, stymied by British politicians conveyor-belting on endless commissions of inquiry. The deal was originally brokered by Margaret Thatcher’s government. Her son Mark, who operates as an international fixer, has always denied reports that he was personally involved. Several years later, Tony Blair notoriously prevented a police investigation into the affair by the Serious Fraud Office on the grounds of national interest. It was reported that, in fact, he had done so in the face of a blatant Saudi threat to kybosh a new £6bn deal to buy the Eurofighter aircraft.
Oh dear, again. But is there any suggestion that British politicians personally gained from either of these genuinely appalling instances of ‘realpolitik’?
I am willing to vote UKIP (just once) if any of the piss-stained-sofa brigade who regularly post a load of uninformed crap on Comment forums about how Cameron and his cronies are all on the take can prove that any serving British politician has done anything more morally reprehensible than accepting the odd free ‘fact-finding mission’ to somewhere agreeable for a few days; or, on leaving office, has taken up a sinecure advising a company whose activities they formerly regulated, how to go about winning government contracts. All such activities are extensively monitored, often publicised and subject to strict rules about declaration.
Politics is and always has been something of a gravy-train for some. But it is almost impossible for a British politician to steal too much money from the State. They are much too spineless.
Several members, both of the Commons and the Lords, have recently gone to gaol merely for fiddling their expenses to the tune of a paltry few thousand pounds. Most did so, out of a sense of entitlement: custom and practice, old boy. Expenses were part of the salary package. Former Europe minister, Denis McShane, got eight months for cooking the books: he hadn’t actually taken money he was not entitled to, he was gaoled merely for falsifying the accounting of his expenses, making-up receipts because he either couldn’t remember or was too lazy to lookup the actual details of his reclaimable expenses. It’s tough at the top, especially for former journalists to whom such behaviour is second nature.
Of course, there were egregious examples of MPs claiming mortgage relief for ‘second homes’ in London that they were renting-out to family members or to one another; for ‘repairs’ to second homes that were in reality their first homes (including having one’s moat cleaned), and for normal household items: new kitchens, large-screen TVs, frozen packet meals, etc., that genuinely pissed-off the voters.
In 1999 there was the notorious case of MP Neil Hamilton who, according to witnesses, accepted a ‘brown envelope’ stuffed with cash from a lobbyist, to ask questions in the House relating to Harrods owner Mohammed Al Fayed’s quest to find out who killed Princess Diana, to whom he (erroneously) believed his son Dodi, also killed, had been engaged (she was in fact planning to marry a Harley Street doctor, another wealthy Muslim). The affair descended into a welter of libel writs, Hamilton lost his seat to anti-corruption campaigner, Martin Bell (the ‘Man in the White Suit’), and was later forced to go into showbusiness with his exuberant wife, Christine – a fate worse than impeachment. He is now the Party organiser for UKIP; one reason to vote for the Monster Raving Loony Party or anyone else, for that matter.
But successive Parliamentary political inquiries agreed that though the witnesses were ‘compelling’, there was no proof against Hamilton. Yet again, was this the Establishment closing ranks to protect the reputation of a Parliament increasingly subject to media intrusion over reports of other MPs taking cash from dodgy lobbyists for asking the right questions? New rules were later formulated to reduce the influence of lobbyists, after several notorious exposés by undercover journalists.
Like Oscar Wilde before him, Hamilton was finally undone in the libel court. He lost his case against the enormously wealthy Al Fayed, and declared bankruptcy. The point being that, whatever he had done, and however much the Establishment closed ranks against a free press, he couldn’t ultimately get away with it. And the amount originally involved was just £2,000. Truly, pride goeth before a fall.
The British Establishment has always looked after its own. You may find a high proportion of Old Etonian posh boys running things for the benefit of their cronies and the moneyed class, just as US Presidents have a high proportion of Harvard frat buddies amongst their entourage.
You might find that all governments, whatever their stripe, act in the best interests of the ten percent of the population who own eighty percent of the wealth: it’s just the way of the world. But even in the case of the most blatant dishonesty, taking backhanders, securing positions (things were far worse in the time of Robert Walpole), embarking on well-funded lecture tours, we are talking at most about a mere few tens of thousands of pounds here and there, mostly legally – if cynically – obtained, offering a more agreeable retirement than the State pension. And who can blame them, after years of public service and humiliating self-promotion?
You will not, I guarantee, find when he leaves office that ‘Kubla’ Cameron has built a stately pleasure dome for himself and his family over the bones of murdered Labour opposition members, at a cost of millions, somewhere in Oxfordshire. Nor are his bins going to be gold-plated; while the only ‘zoo’ will be the reptiles of the tabloid press at his gate.
Walking in London a few years ago, after Blair left office, I found myself passing a certain large house in Connaught Square. Outside were two bored-looking policemen weighted down with Messrs Heckler & Koch’s finest automatic weaponry. My first thought, I swear, was ‘Oh, good, they’ve got the Blairs under house arrest…’ Then, of course, I realised it was his taxpayer-funded protection detail guarding his £5m London home. Oh well.
A week after this Post appeared, the Maria Miller story broke. Here was the Culture minister, an unfortunate-looking woman with piggy eyes, claiming tens of thousands of public pounds towards the cost of paying for a ‘second home’ in London, in which she had installed her elderly parents. Perfectly allowable, although Wimbledon is rather a long way from Westminster, where you could imagine an MP renting a small flat handy for work.
When the rules changed in 2009 to prevent MPs using public money to buy second homes in London which they then sold on for substantial profits, Miller redesignated it perfectly legally as her ‘first home’ and later sold the house for a very substantial profit, believed to be in the region of £1.2 million. The ‘first home’ designation also meant that it was not subject to Capital Gains Tax, which only applies to second and subsequent homes.
The independent, external committee set up to scrutinise Parliamentary expenses ordered her to pay back £45,800, half the money she had claimed. They reported that she had been uncooperative with their investigation. The internal Parliamentary committee of MPs set up to block any difficult findings of the independent committee then reduced the amount to £5,800, which she duly paid, and told her to apologise. Ms Miller made a 31-second speech to a near-empty House, of which approximately one nanosecond consisted of the word sorry, with the vowel removed. Colleagues around her registered their support with expressions redolent of having caught a whiff of fart gas under the table.
The Daily Telegraph, that had broken the story, then released a recording of a conversation in which Mrs Miller’s aide appeared to make a fairly unsubtle attempt to persuade them to back off, pointing out none-too obliquely that the remit of the Culture Minister included implementing press reforms… Supporting Ms Miller, Prime Minister Cameron insisted that he had total faith in her, and demanded that a line be drawn under the affair. Ha! This is the same David Cameron who had total faith in Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks, his good friends, now on trial on various charges…
In the meantime, while public service workers such as nurses were being told their annual pay increase would be held to one percent next year, significantly below the rate of inflation, and naughty policemen would get none, MPs were wringing their hands in anguish over another independent commission report, that has recommended they should all receive a compulsory 11 per cent pay rise in the next Parliament. Unfortunately, they are bound by the findings of the commission and could not refuse the money even if they wanted to, which they so badly do…. A nurse’s salary starts at about £19,000 a year; an MP’s at about £67,000.
Don’t ask about their pensions.
With six public petitions running heavily against her, Ms Miller resigned as of 8 o’clock this morning, Wednesday, 9 April. A victory, of sorts, for popular democracy.