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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.

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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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