In a conversation over lunch in London with a friend now living and working in Moscow, the discussion turned, as so often, to corruption in Russia. As we began to recite the usual lamentations about the absence of the rule of law and the reign of Putin and his gangsters, my friend’s companion, a Muscovite still resident in Russia, cut in to point out that the British were playing their traditional role as “pirates”. By that she meant Britain pillaging abroad as a means of growing rich at home. She said she found it astounding and gobsmackingly hypocritical that a country which continues to provide an international laundering service for dirty money dared criticise the countries which they were helping to plunder.
Reflecting on her words has left this life-long believer in and admirer of the rule of law and its reign in the UK, increasingly uncomfortable. Looked at from Russia or much of Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia, the rule of law in the UK is both part of the criminal conspiracy that leaves their citizens poor and oppressed and a powerful disincentive to domestic reform in those plundered lands. Indeed, when you recall reports of London law firms using strong arm tactics to threaten those here who wish to hold the foreign gangsters to account and see those lawyers and their kleptomaniac clients buying in the services of the Chancery Division judges when it suits their malign purposes, it is difficult to counter the accusation that the rule of law and the providers of legal and judicial services in the UK are, however innocently, part of a well-oiled criminal enterprise.
There is no real prospect of reform in the plundered lands or of the UK and our laws, lawyers and judges ceasing to be used to aid, and abet the looters. The plunderers have every incentive to prevent reforms at home that would hamper their thieving as long as they can enjoy the security of the rule of law by sending their loot and their families to the UK. Meanwhile, we UK citizens and our economy continue to benefit hugely from the ransacking of foreign lands and, like all morally bankrupt actors, we will argue that “if we don’t do it, others will”. And beyond that, the rule of law in the UK at least saves you and me from sharing the fate of those millions of East Europeans, Africans and Asians whose corrupt elites find a comfortable home amongst us. So, why write or read this post?
The best I can offer is that recognising the central role of the rule of law in the UK in enabling and encouraging corruption worldwide will open up our view of the world and save us embarrassment and silly mistakes. Next time, politicians boast of the UK’s global role in promoting our ‘values’ or they or some judge or lawyer or other public figure speak admiringly of the rule of law here, we will see the broader picture. A picture in which we have managed to keep open and even expand the sewers which, since Imperial times, have channelled foreign financial effluent into our legal system from which it emerges as purified and safeguarded domestic gold. That broader understanding and acceptance of our shared responsibility for the poverty and oppression inflicted on our victims in those “less happier lands” may at least save us from the embarrassment of rank hypocrisy and from misleading and fundamental misunderstandings in our conversations, negotiations and other dealings with one another and foreign and international entities.