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Corruption is not just about financial inducements

Paul Finch
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Backhanders among UK architects are almost unknown, but a series of Bartlett lectures is examining wider forms of corruption, writes Paul Finch

The French election campaign has been disrupted by allegations concerning payment of family members (using public funds) by M Fillon. This is an entirely usual matter in respect of French politicians and you might almost say it is a question of culture, rather than corruption. 

In the same way, EU accounts have to be qualified by the auditors every year because there are always billions of Euros that have ‘gone missing’, under a unique book-keeping system invented by Brussels – an experiment no one else has seen the need to repeat. 

This all reminds me of the four levels of money: the first level is your own money that you spend on other people (generosity or charity), and is entirely virtuous. Slightly less so but still fine is your own money that you spend on yourself (consumption or indulgence). 

The third level, which has aspects of the first but also an element of slippery slope, is other people’s money that you spend on other people (welfarism). The final level, to which M Fillon is said to have descended, is other people’s money that you spend on yourself (including family). 

On the whole, UK politicians tends not to go in for this sort of thing on a Continental scale – with the obvious exception of expenses, in which matters MPs were encouraged to play fast and loose with the rules by the people supposed to be upholding them. Given the relatively low levels of money involved, the scandal when finally uncovered had more to do with hypocrisy than venality.



Source: Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

In fact our levels of corruption (inside the UK, not when Rolls-Royce is winning contracts abroad on a ‘When in Rome’ basis) are small beer and, in the case of architects, tend towards the non-existent. The only major architectural corruption scandal in the past 50 years concerned the now nearly forgotten John Poulson (pictured above), who ran Europe’s biggest practice from the unlikely location of Pontefract. He used inducements to win contracts, but they were far from lavish. All was revealed at his bankruptcy hearing in the mid-1970s, including the revelation that multiple contractors routinely paid out modest bribes themselves.

In the end the scandal ruined the career of the then home secretary, Reggie Maudling, because he found himself in the position of being responsible for the Metropolitan Police, which was investigating matters in which he himself was involved. It was all a bit Joe Orton.

Trump’s populist attack on the media signifies the abandonment of the Enlightenment ideal of proof by examination

There are, of course, many other forms of corruption, with overtones that have little to do with money. These have been recently discussed at two ‘Thinkspace’ discussion events, organised by Jeremy Melvin at the Bartlett. They have included reflections on the moment where man’s relationship to nature is corrupted; the corruption of the environment through waste; and the way in which conflicts of interest may arise through institutional changes which affect groups rather than individuals – for example lawyers or the media.

The latter is the subject of much debate because of throwaway concepts like ‘post-truth’, as if facts (information), context (knowledge) and the seeking of truth (wisdom) were not susceptible to analysis. The most worrying thing about President Trump’s populist attack on the media is the abandonment of the Enlightenment ideal of proof by examination in favour of the idea that words mean what the speaker says they mean.

Hannah Arendt gave an awful warning about the consequences, when she wrote: ‘A people that can no longer believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act, but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.’ 

Beware the sleep of reason.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Good to see mention of the Poulson Affair, from which we probably still have a great deal to learn. All was not revealed at Poulson’s bankruptcy proceedings, in which the wide extent of his ‘web of corruption’ was stumbled on by the prosecuting barrister. Poulson kept meticulous records of all his bribes, which led to his downfall.

    This led to Poulson’s 52-day trial for corruption at Leeds Crown Court, which elicited such colourful phrases from prosecuting counsel as ‘spending money like a drunken sailor’ and ‘the largesse of Henry VIII’. Poulson’s alleged bribes were extensive and generous, such as lavish holidays and houses for local and central politicians. Some of whom received 7-year prison sentences for corruption, along with Poulson.

    The construction of an enormous, fully equipped hospital on the tiny Maltese island of Gozo (far too large for the small population) with UK overseas aid funding would be mysterious, if not for Poulson’s involvement, for example. Many historic town centres were destroyed by Poulson’s interventions, such as Teeside.

    The scandal nearly brought down the Heath government and the journalist who broke the story contended that the full truth will never be told without access to Poulson’s extensive files. A number of books, articles and documentary films have attempted to do so, with varying degrees of success. Private Eye magazine was among the many pursuers.

    Ironically Poulson paid his employees well, and kept a stable of good architectural designers, which resulted in some good buildings. One example was Leeds International Swimming Pool, which was nearly listed before recent demolition. His oeuvre is obviously forever tainted with corruption.

    John Garlick Llewelyn Poulson’s L/FRIBA (architect and criminal) side of the story was told in his autobiography written in prison. He promised to tell all in ‘The Price’, but most copies of it were pulped by the publishers due to threats of libel action. There are copies in the copyright libraries and a few highly-priced copies on the secondhand market.

    It seems unlikely that Poulson was an isolated case, and naive to think that the construction industry is free from corruption. Transparency International and other investigators think otherwise. So, rather than sweeping the Poulson Affair under the carpet, would it not be wiser to further investigate this cold case and learn from it?

    The documentation of such legal cases is informative and included in the approach in ‘Corruption and misuse of public office’ (2018) by Colin Nicholls QC eg al, which contains passing mention of the Poulson Affair. Perhaps the Grenfell fire tragedy and the Thames garden bridge scandal might also pass into insightful legal history at some stage in the near future. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

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