The Observer, Sunday 29 November 2009
Political corruption greased the wheels of many of the great disasters of capitalist history. In 1721, after the collapse of the South Sea Company had ruined Georgian Britain, the Commons established the useful precedent of sending the chancellor of the exchequer to the Tower for taking bribes from the promoters of the company’s shares. The rampers of the maniacal Japanese stock and real estate bubbles of the late 1980s also took care to pay off the politicians who might have saved their country by regulating the market.
However harsh commentators have been on the performance of our politicians before the 2008 crash, they accept that the British state was not for sale this time around. When Gordon Brown told his audience of bankers at his Mansion House speech of 2007 that “the City of London has risen by your efforts, ingenuity and creativity to become a new world leader”, the executives of HBOS and RBS had not stuffed his pockets with gold. When he went on to congratulate himself on “resisting pressure” to regulate them, the poor fool did so without the prompt of illicit inducements. The City had no need to corrupt him when the giddy ideology of the free market had already turned his mind, along with the minds of the Conservative opposition, the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority. Humbert Wolfe’s ditty – “You cannot hope to bribe or twist (thank God!) the British journalist. But, seeing what the man will do unbribed, there’s no occasion to” – applied as well to Britain’s leaders as its financial hacks.
I suppose it is better to be governed by idiots than criminals, but wonder if we will continue to enjoy this small mercy.