‘I genuinely believe that the UK is not remotely a corrupt country, nor do I believe that our institutions are corrupt.’ That was an extraordinary statement for Britain’s prime minister to make on Wednesday; not so much because it’s untrue – although it may be (see below) – but on account of the fact that he didn’t need to make it, at a press conference in Glasgow during the climate conference, when the subject was not on the agenda; and because – so far as I’m aware – no-one has ever accused Britain of being ‘corrupt’ tout court, only Johnson himself, his buddies and perhaps a number of capitalists whose wealth has always been built on ‘corruption’ of various kinds. So why did he come out with it?
Obviously it was easier for him to make this generalised claim, than to address the particular charges of corruption made against him and his government, which in the light of the last few days’ evidence would be almost impossible to dispute in such cavalier – ‘not remotely’ – terms. It shifts the argument from his own wrong-doings to the more general question of the state of the nation he leads, possibly allowing the former to fade into insignificance against the background of the latter. But if so, it was surely a dangerous ploy. If the country and its institutions are so pure, how come he and the Conservative party can be so corrupt? Shouldn’t the supposed innocence of Britain as a whole throw their own crimes into starker relief? Might it not even signify that Johnson is behaving un-Britishly?
And it also makes one think. Maybe he’s wrong – we’re after all well used to hearing lies from Boris – and Britain and its institutions are corrupt. This is too large a question to address here, in a single post; but if you look at the way Britain’s democratic institutions are manipulated by money and a blatantly unfree press (only 33rd in the latest ‘press freedom’ index); at the Public schools; at gross tax avoidance; at Dominic Cummings; at London’s reputation as a launderer of dirty money; at the House of Lords; at Oxbridge entry; at the ways Britain’s public leaders are appointed (I’m thinking here of the heads of the BBC and Ofcom)… and at so many other examples of what should surely come under the heading of ‘corruption’ if they hadn’t become so normalised; – then one might begin to wonder whether corruption, or something like it, might not lie at the very roots of public life in Britain; rather than ‘democracy’, or ‘patriotism’, or incorruptibility, or decency, or any of her other supposed – and preferred – national and foundational characteristics.
It was that statement of Boris’s that got me speculating this way. That’s his problem. If he says one thing you immediately start thinking the opposite must be the truth.