Corruption in the United Kingdom and Quebec: A Comparison

by Elyette Levy on February 22, 2017 - 7:42pm

The purpose of politics is and always has been to organize the way a country is run and how power is distributed in a society. But so much power often correlates with corruption, which Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye defines as “behavior that deviates from the formal duties of a public role (elective or appointive) because of private-regarding (personal, close family, private clique) wealth or status gains; or violates rules against the exercise of certain types of private-regarding influence” (Basu and Fritzen). This is a long description of a phenomenon that is all too common in all forms of government, but which is especially discouraging in democracies. A government that had the privilege of being trusted by the population it represents shouldn’t be vulnerable to political corruption. Therefore, exploring this issue and how it is addressed in different locations is crucial to solving it. Using the articles “Is Quebec Corrupt, or Just More Vigilant?”, “UK ‘Most Corrupt Place on Earth’ Claim Backed by Campaigners”, “Let’s not Fool Ourselves. We May Not Bribe, but Corruption Is Rife in Britain” and “Charbonneau Commission Finds Corruption Widespread in Quebec's Construction Sector”, it will be shown that the approach used by Quebec to fight corruption is not pertinent for the case of the UK, despite both nations having the same political system.

In the CBC article “Charbonneau commission finds corruption widespread in Quebec's construction sector”, the journalist, who is unnamed, describes the results of a famous anti-corruption case in Quebec that started in 2011. The Charbonneau Commission was a commission of inquiry in charge of looking into “collusion and corruption in the awarding of government construction contracts” (“Corruption”), a case that also involved organized crime members. The investigation ended in 2015 and resulted in a report, which gives the Quebec government 60 recommendations to help solve or diminish the corruption problem in the province. These recommendations included the creation of a third-party agency to evaluate public contracts, increased protection for whistleblowers, harsher punishments for lawbreakers in the construction industry, etc.

On the case of corruption in the UK, Adam Lusher wrote an article for Independent, called “UK 'most corrupt place on Earth' claim backed by campaigners”. Transparency international has agreed with the man who made this statement, mafia expert Roberto Saviano. A UK expert working for the NGO, Rachel Davies, agreed that the country was one of the biggest centers for corrupt money laundering, as UK properties and offshore companies are easy ways to store corrupt money anonymously, especially on overseas territories, such as the Cayman Islands. The banking sector was also called out for being extremely corrupt, since it has been caught allowing “Mexican drugs traffickers to deposit thousands of dollars a day in HSBC accounts”, which is “the biggest UK bank” (Lusher). Some of the country’s solutions against this issue include making it harder for foreign companies to buy UK property anonymously, making more research to track illegal transactions and to find the people who have helped fuel the fire in any way, including lawyers and accountants. In the past, the government’s legislation has included stricter laws concerning bribery and tax evasion.

An opinion column from The Guardian, written by George Monbiot, addresses the huge problem of corruption in the UK, despite the Transparency International corruption index indicating that the country is the 14th least corrupt in the world. The piece, titled “Let’s not fool ourselves. We may not bribe, but corruption is rife in Britain”, lists some seriously suspicious activity that has gone on in the UK, but hasn’t been punished, or even labeled as corruption (partly because past governments have abolished laws penalizing them), such as problems in the banking sector, tax havens in the British Overseas Territories – which control “24% of all offshore financial services” (Monbiot) and are being enabled by the City of London, and engaging in mass surveillance. He also discusses problems with the police, who enable pedophilia – and, allegedly, infanticide – and supposedly hide behind the identities of dead children, while also being covered up by the National Health Service and news corporation BBC. From a tax office minister who tax evaded while running a corrupt bank, the HSBC, to the selling out of political parties, law-drafting, and the welfare and prison systems to rich people, the UK should definitely be considered a country that puts private and corporate interests over its people, especially considering that no high-ranking person was arrested for any dishonest practice, even though it is clear by now that these activities are widespread. Monbiot ends his article with, “Yes, many poor nations are plagued by the kind of corruption that involves paying bribes to officials. But the problems plaguing us run deeper. When the system already belongs to the elite, bribes are superfluous.”

The fourth article is also an opinion piece; a Globe and Mail editorial, to be precise. Titled “Is Quebec corrupt, or just more vigilant?”, this piece refutes the argument that Quebec is the most corrupt province in Canada, which was a very popular statement during the time of the Charbonneau Commission and other recent corruption scandals, notably the Nathalie Normandeau case. The author argues that it can be difficult to assess whether Quebec is the most corrupt or not solely on the basis that they found a lot of corruption in the system. Yes, the province is corrupt, but the fact that the Charbonneau Commission was put into place relatively quickly and that so many arrests for corruption are made in the province proves that maybe Quebec is also the most efficient at identifying and combatting corruption. It is also rare, in cases of corruption, that high-ranking officials be arrested, something that has happened in Quebec. For instance, seven politicians, including Nathalie Normandeau, Jean Charest’s deputy premier, were arrested by the Unité permanente anticorruption (UPAC) on charges of illegal campaign financing (Shingler). The author writes, “It’s tempting to be smug about Quebec and believe the corruption of public services there is unique and somehow worse than anywhere else. There’s a term for that, though – convenient fiction” (“Is Quebec Corrupt”). They go on to explain that any form of government in Canada has been the subject of corruption scandals, but Quebec’s is the only one to have something like the UPAC and to actively fight organized crime, and “its campaign financing rules are now the strictest in Canada” (“Is Quebec Corrupt”).

The fact that the United Kingdom and Quebec are both developed nations and both have the same political system – a parliamentary democracy, which is defined as a “democratic form of government in which the party (or a coalition of parties) with the greatest representation in the parliament (legislature) forms the government, its leader becoming prime minister or chancellor” (The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica) – makes it all the more relevant to compare how corruption works in both locations.

The way corruption happens in both places is quite different. In Quebec, it often involves organized crime and collusion, or cases that affect the population less than in the UK – and that’s pretty much it. In the UK, they have an entire system which enables corruption; the biggest bank of the country lets drug traffickers use their accounts instead of reporting them, the British Overseas Territories are some of the largest tax havens in the world, British politicians have constantly been repealing anti-corruption laws, etc. This doesn’t mean that corruption doesn’t exist or isn’t significant in Quebec; on the contrary, it is definitely a problem that has to be dealt with urgently. But when comparing the depth of the problem, the UK is definitely in bigger trouble.

In Quebec, corruption is also approached differently, and more seriously. The Charbonneau Commission was put in place barely even a decade after the corruption scandal occurred, which is extremely short when looking at the law. It also only lasted around four years, which means it took very little time for them to come to a verdict and the 60 recommendations. Another corruption scandal occurred shortly after, and was also resolved swiftly. In the UK, the law doesn’t seem to take care of corruption cases too often, and when it does, there aren’t many arrests of high-ranked politicians. This is either an indication that no high-ranked politician is involved in this issue, or that they have been covered up, which further proves how severe the problem is.

The UK’s last attempt to solve the problem of corruption was through an international Anti-Corruption Summit, organized by David Cameron last year (UK Government). It was heavily criticized by the international community and deemed useless by a lot of UK citizens, since it left out a lot of issues, such as the offshore tax havens, and few political leaders could attend, which made the summit less credible. Nevertheless, it did end up in legislation in the United Kingdom. Speaking of which, British laws against corruption aren’t passed very often, and when they are, they often revolve around the same old method of increasing the punishment against companies or making it harder for companies to corrupt politicians or government workers, without thinking of ways to prevent corruption through the government itself. For instance, the most recent anti-corruption laws that have been passed concern the issues of bribery and tax evasion; two problems which most often come from the corporations’ side. The difference with the Quebec system is that, after the Charbonneau Commission, they also put out laws to help people denounce this sort of behaviour, as well as funded a specialized, impartial unit (the UPAC) to fight this problem.

However, using the Quebec commission approach on the issue in the United Kingdom would not be very likely to solve the problem. The problem in Quebec not only involves less money, but also less people and is less widespread. In the province, while there is definitely a lot of money involved, it doesn’t compare to the billions of dollars that can made off of the offshore tax havens, as well as the UK government, since it is a country and its GDP is a lot greater than Canada’s, let alone Quebec’s. Corruption in the British system is also part of a huge web of problems that go much farther than organized crime, and, if dismantled, would cost a lot of money, jobs, and would require the government to rebuild a large part of its legal and banking systems (in Quebec, the construction sector has been put on trial and sanctioned for being corrupt, but construction in the province is a lot less commercial and public than banking). There are also issues with the police, which, if punished, would put a lot of people in danger. In other words, there is too much at stake in the United Kingdom for it to solve its corruption problem.

In brief, I think the UK should start by solving its corruption problem slowly. Funding an anti-corruption unit such as the one in Quebec would be a good start, but it would have to look at all of the country’s economic relations and transactions very closely. The idea of making it harder for companies to buy properties offshore is fundamentally good, but there should also be a maximum amount that could be spent on property by the same company or person, as a means to deincentivize them from fueling the offshore funds system. The unit should also look at banks closely, so that if something like the Mexican drug cartel bank accounts happens again, the banks would be heavily penalized. They should also keep an eye on politicians’, especially high-ranked ones, finances, and which banks they have funds in. Their finances should be accessible by the unit at any time. As for every other country, there should be better police training, and a more public deaths record. I believe that, with time and money and motivation, which it is up to you to decide whether the UK has all of those things, the corruption problem in the UK could be solved.

Basu, Shreya, and Scott A. Fritzen. "Government Corruption and Transparency." Global Social Issues: An Encyclopedia, edited by Christopher G. Bates, and James Ciment, Routledge, 2013. Credo Reference, http://ezproxy.champlaincollege.qc.ca/login?url=http://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/sharpesi/government_corruption_and_transparency/0. Accessed 18 Feb 2017.

"Corruption 'more widespread' than thought in Quebec's construction industry." CBCnews. CBC/Radio Canada, 24 Nov. 2015. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.

"Is Quebec corrupt, or just more vigilant?" The Globe and Mail. The Globe and Mail Inc., 23 Mar. 2016. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.

Lusher, Adam. "UK 'most corrupt place on Earth' claim backed by campaigners." The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 31 May 2016. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.

Monbiot, George. "Let's not fool ourselves. We may not bribe, but corruption is rife in Britain." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 18 Mar. 2015. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.

Shingler, Benjamin. "Nathalie Normandeau, ex-Quebec deputy premier, arrested by UPAC." CBCnews. CBC/Radio Canada, 17 Mar. 2016. Web. 19 Feb. 2017.

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. "Parliamentary Democracy." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 17 Nov. 2016. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.

UK Government. "Anti-Corruption Summit 2016." Anti-Corruption Summit 2016. N.p., 2016. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.

About the author

Commerce student at Champlain College (although I suck at accounting). Half Taiwanese, half French, very Canadian (eh). When I say that communism is the solution, I don't even know if it's sarcastic.