I’ve been taken to task, and quite rightly, over the comment that I made in a posting earlier this week to the effect that Mr. Putin was at least not corrupt. I realize now that the adjective is one that carries so many shades of meaning that it needs to be qualified. What I meant to say in that post was that the President follows policies that he believes are in the best interest of his country, rather than doing whatever is most calculated to enrich him personally. In politics, sincerity may be a dubious virtue – fanatics are usually sincere, however disastrous their actions may be – so in suggesting that Putin is a patriot (a word that has very different resonance in North America as compared to Europe) I am some distance from supporting his actions.
It’s clear that when corruption and politics are mentioned in the same breath, most people think of politicians using their office to get rich, but there are some relativity and double standards issues that come into play. Like every other recent President of the USA, Obama has made millions since gaining office and will probably gain far more in the years to come, without trading influence for cash. The $87m that Bill Clinton made, basically from public speaking, since leaving the Oval Office, doesn’t make him corrupt in my judgement.
In the case of Putin, you can find stories that say that in spite of having a relatively modest salary and humble beginnings, the man has a fortune of around $70bn, close to being the richest human on the planet. When you track the stories back, the numbers are quite similar, which suggests they come from a common source. An article I found in Bloomberg confirmed that this is basically gossip. Putin has some expensive watches; that he probably couldn’t afford to buy on his official salary. As head of state of a commodity exporting country, he could probably let it be known that he likes watches and have a warehouse full as presents, without spending a cent. The story makes what I think is the very good point that it is rather irrelevant to ask what Putin owns as opposed to what he has the use of – he has an entire country at his disposal, so whether he can point at something and say “this is mine” (if we even understand what such a statement means in context) doesn’t tell us much. The Queen of England would be rich even without the £450m she “owns” because she never has to pay for anything.
If it comes to that, numbers tell us little. Officially ex-PM Berlusconi is worth £6.2m which is slightly less than PM David Cameron’s personal fortune. Cameron inherited the money; Berlusconi got his hands dirty getting rich – which has the moral high ground? Of course the truth is that the Italian has much more but most of it is hidden. The tax and criminal laws in different countries make comparisons meaningless. Supposedly, God’s ex-prime minister Blair has amassed $135m since being UK premier, mostly advising dodgy regimes and peddling influence – this is not considered corrupt, though he’s been earning £13-20m per year from it (still some way to go to catch up on the $70,000,000,000 that Putin is supposed to have trousered, Tony).
Even within Europe, there’s moral chaos. Spain has a Prime Minister who has seen the written records of the kickbacks he shared for more than a decade published in the country’s most respected newspapers, but he’s still in office and when he goes to Brussels shakes hands with the ministers of countries that would send such people to jail. And no-one in Europe seriously expects that ex-PM Berlusconi will serve prison time.
So, I’m about to propose a new test. Given that degrees of transparency, tax laws, local ethics and the ready availability of slippery legal advice move the position of the goalposts in every case, we should judge this issue from a “friends and relatives” index. If the net assets of your family and cronies has increased by more than X% since you gained a position of influence, it means you are corrupt; unless you can show that Bill Gates or similar is your cousin .
Even then, there’ll be arguments. The current English prime minister has surrounded himself with chums from his old school (Eton): they dominate the high paid and influential advisory jobs (the schoolfriend he could live without is rival Boris Johnson, Mayor of London). This state of affairs is defended first on the basis that several conservative/liberal ministers went to different famous schools – we call them public schools because they are private – so the government includes a fair cross section of the 7% of the population that is privately educated; which kind of misses the point that the ministers, unlike the advisers, needed to get elected. The second line of defence is that these advisers are simply the best people for the job – I’m afraid I too am prone to assume that people who look, think and act like me might be the best people to work with, except I know that it’s not true because, unlike most politicians and just about all current ministers, I’ve actually held real jobs in my life. I wonder, does cronyism count as corruption, and if so is it more or less blameworthy when carried on with the unconscious assumption of superiority that characterizes what we must still call the English Ruling Class?