Crony Island?

Political scientists have long alleged that the UK political system is one of the world’s least corrupt. When it comes to cronyism, however, why is Westminster’s record far murkier?


When, in August 2020, the prime minister elevated a Russian oligarch, a former cricketer, and his own younger brother, to the House of Lords, surprisingly few eyebrows were raised. “Such has become the norm for appointments to the upper house”, 
Westminster shrugged. “The others do it.”

It is a reality check on the state of the UK’s well-publicised democratic credentials that both observations are correct. Far from being a uniquely Johnsonian notion, packing the Lords with government-friendly peers is no new invention: long before Cash for Honours embroiled Westminster in scandal and saw then-PM Tony Blair interviewed three times by police, David Lloyd George gave out 25,000 OBEs within four years and published prices for honours including knighthoods and peerages.

As well as Westminster’s second chamber of 
the legislature, the House of Lords has, over the past century and longer, become a handy vehicle for crony political appointments and donor paybacks. The charade of the prime minister’s resignation honours has implicated almost every prime minister of the modern era. It comes as little surprise that Wikipedia’s entries under “List of political scandals in the UK” dates back to 1890; it could comfortably go further. Cronyism is at the heart of almost all of them.

In the beginning …

“Cronyism” was, ironically, first popularised among undergraduates at Cambridge in the 1660s. Samuel Pepys wrote of his “great chrony” in a 1665 diary entry. (This also explains the origin of “old crone”, typically an elderly woman whose age is her defining feature.) But after the sleazy appointments of the Truman administration were termed “crony” in a 1952 New York Times op-ed, the word took on its current, darker meaning. And when Harold Wilson’s infamous Lavender List sparked calls of “cronyism” on Fleet Street in 1976, the word had completed its return voyage across the Atlantic.

Since then, “cronyism” has integrated into the vocabulary of UK politics and media remarkably efficiently. Despite 2017 legislation banning MPs from hiring family members to their parliamentary offices at the taxpayer’s expense, dozens still do. Within the past 18 months, Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak have both appointed long-term friends and colleagues among their senior advisers.

That’s not to mention political dynasties, which still stand strong in the House of Commons. Thirteen sitting MPs had at least one parent take a seat in the lower house. Eight have or had their spouse sit alongside them in the Commons. A further five members had a grandparent serve in the Commons, six had a sibling or an uncle elected to parliament, three had a great-grandparent serve in the 
Commons, and one member is the great-great-nephew of a former MP. That doesn’t include the House of Lords, which – by design as well as by chance – holds scores of members of the best-connected families in UK politics and high society.

Good clean bias?

In order to understand why cronyism has thrived in Westminster, we must first answer why old-fashioned political corruption – the sort that still poisons political societies the world over – has proved much rarer. In January, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index named the UK the twelfth cleanest country in the world, below only a handful of Scandinavian nations, Germany, Singapore and New Zealand. In fact, the UK has proved notably infertile ground for criminal activity by politicians for as long as it has had its name.

Without jinxing the point, the prospect of an embezzlement scandal of the nature that recently imprisoned former French prime minister François Fillon is virtually inconceivable in Westminster. The same surely applies to South Korea’s 2018 Samsung scandal, which forced the resignation of president Park Geun-hye and the imprisonment of tech magnate Jay Y Lee for bribery. Even the frequently questionable uses of Donald Trump’s downtown Washington hotel, where T-Mobile executives spent $195,000 in the run-up to a merger application from the federal government, would be beyond the pale for the UK’s corruption watchdog.

Perhaps the obvious explanation for why cronyism has instead thrived in Westminster is that, for centuries fuelled by public school ideas of duty and decorum, Britain’s frontline politicians have thought it better to preserve a comfortable status quo than to exploit it, as has proved irresistible in the forceful polities of Italy, Greece and much of Eastern Europe. Such reluctance to rinse a political system that already offers pomp and patronage to its well-heeled citizens would also explain why cronyism has become endemic in the UK’s politics and economy – so much so that the country ranked above Thailand, China and South Korea in The Economist’s inaugural crony-capitalism index five years ago. With a system of high-society honours and appointments still driven by the personal impulses of Downing Street and its allies, cronyism is far likelier than corruption to become flavour of the month.

Withering heights

That theory is borne out by the response by senior civil servants to the appointment of David Frost as the UK’s chief Brexit 
negotiator. In September senior mandarins told Rachel Sylvester in Prospect, that Frost’s unwillingness to seek “the bright lights” or go “front of stage” makes him an unusual choice for the post. Peter Ricketts, Frost’s former boss at the Foreign Office, commented, “He doesn’t have much personal impact or draw attention to himself … [One] of the brighter diplomats of his generation – but in personality, he’s a rather diffident, 
introspective character.” Talk about damning with faint praise; Sir Humphrey would be proud. Why a civil servant ought to make a strong “personal impact” on proceedings is, I presume, beyond the thinking of most. Perhaps Frost just isn’t seen as the right kind of person by his peers. Anyone who has worked in British politics or media has heard that before, about themselves or (if they’re lucky) someone else. It’s not exactly criminal behaviour, but it’s damaging in its own way.

Opportunity’s hard knocks

As far as solutions to political cronyism go, improving social mobility would likely make a big – and rapid – difference. In their 2018 book Social Mobility: And Its Enemies, Lee Elliott Major and Stephen Machin compare the expected life chances of David Beckham and David Cameron. They argue that “the tale of the two Davids” may in both cases be a success story of hard work and determination, but was in one case an exception to those expectations and, in the other, the rule. Cameron’s success typified “the retention of social elites at the top of the ladder”, a sure-fire route to a crony political system that rewards staying power as much as personal achievement. The UK’s stratified class system – and its subsequent crony politics – still depend on the uncanny ability of the wealthy to ensure that their children retain the incomes and opportunities afforded to them. In other words, the authors conclude, “Beckham has joined Cameron among the social elites who are incredibly adept at maintaining their advantage from one generation to the next.”

As with many phenomena in economics, what makes sense for the individual doesn’t necessarily aid society at large. Saving might be the most sensible response to a recession for one family, but spending is what the economy needs in order to recover. The same applies to social mobility, where the well-heeled have the opportunity to afford better life chances to the masses, but only by failing to retain their wealth and incomes and, thus, inflicting suboptimal outcomes on their own children. Political cronyism operates similarly: “jobs for the boys” is the obvious reaction to a competitive environment – particularly when the holder of patronage is anxious about their own status within the elite. But in order for anything to change – both in Westminster and beyond – British elites will have to become a little less effective at passing on opportunities to those closest to them.

4th October 2020