Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Thoughts from a dinner at the House

So, the question goes out from our host: "If you were prime minister, what would you do about corruption?" I gulp; I'm only at the event as photographer, and am going to be the fourth person to answer as the question travels anti-clockwise round the table. I consider various lightly humorous responses and decide (as ever) to go for the jugular. 

"I would need powers somewhat bigger than the PM, but I would want to get everyone to recognise that the problem starts with them."

There is a moment of silence around the table (stunned? embarrassed, more probably!) and the noble host speaks. "I think you would have to be God." At least he's got it. 

The gathering is a small one, drawing together journalists, human rights campaigners and business leaders, particularly from the digital world, to discuss the massive challenge of global corruption. These are people who know that The Panama Papers are the tip of the iceberg. They talk quite seriously about the global black economy growing as large as legitimate money. They are conscious of the ongoing "hot war" between the USA, Russia and China, with each side blasting holes in each other every day, all by internet. 

Possible solutions from the putative "prime ministers" are thoughtful and informed. Encryption, transparency, campaigning for the freedom of specific incarcerated whistle-blowers: all are mooted. The conversation continues to be "whole table" after the round of that first question is done. We eat and listen; GCHQ and the Balkans, the three principles for steaming open the citizens' letters, the selling of London properties to oligarchs, the trafficking of drugs, women and arms. 

After our host has to go the conversation breaks down into small groups around the table, but is still fascinating and fruitful. People are meeting for the first time who have been emailing for years. This is physical networking of digital people. I take photographs. 

Corruption in our world is real. It is huge. It affects ordinary people. One of my most illuminating conversations of the evening is with a waitress - appropriate as we are both there to serve, not really as guests. She has a typically Brazilian name and lilt in her English. She has the face of a Bahian but the accent of a Gaucha, and, sure enough, she is from Porto Alegre. "My family have moved out into the hills to get away from the crime and violence, but you can't really." There it is in a nutshell: the impact of big crime at the little person level. 

One of the saddest insights out of the evening for me is the way our own country is the beneficiary of global crime. Dirty money comes to Britain, and we are still committed to not asking too many questions. The scale is large: if the UK government did something really serious about international corruption, the standard of living of ordinary people in the UK would be affected. I guess we won't be electing such a government any time soon. 

The other insight bears directly on our EU membership. To beat massive, organised, internet-based crime needs international cooperation. There is no partnership without commitment and some relinquishing of "sovereignty" for the good of the partners. That is how a marriage works - or rather doesn't these days: is our lack of desire to give and contribute in our international relations a symptom of the same selfishness that spells doom for so many of our marriages?

Whatever the truth of that, I stand by my "prime ministerial solution". If global corruption ends up hurting little people, it also starts with little people. The problem, as Chesterton said, is me.  The difference is one of scale and opportunity, not of principle. We need measures against corruption, but the best measure of all would be transformation of people.

I think of the customers who quibble and push for a cash deal - "can we lose the VAT" - the very people who would undoubtedly moan loudly about "corruption in the EU". And I think of the temptations and desires that writhe around inside me too. The Internet has created a conduit, a world of opportunity, a platform for  corruption such as the world has never glimpsed before. But the problem is not the Internet. The problem is us. And no Prime Minister can put hearts right, cleanse our consciences or forgive us our sins. 

Thankfully, I know a Man who can. 

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