Ever since neoliberalism pronounced that greed accompanied by financial deregulation results in a rich economic harvest from which we all stand to benefit there has been an explosion of inequality, money-laundering and tax-dodging right across the world. Without any shadow of a doubt unleashing the dragon of virtually unrestrained self-interest has had a heinous rather than a benign outcome for all but a tiny privileged few.
Just like our own Prime Minister’s recent summit at Lancaster House, the Malaysian government held an anti-corruption summit very recently. Simultaneously the Malaysian head of state , Najib Razak, was been found to have had hundreds of millions of dollars transferred into his private bank account from the Saudi Arabian government and from two secret, unnamed, British Virgin Island companies. The vast sums involved triggered money laundering enquiries. Prime Minister Razak’s claim is that the money was a personal gift from Saudi Arabia, and that no corruption was involved, but, in what surely amounts to a tacit admission of wrongdoing, some of the money has since been returned. No doubt Razak and others have learnt their lesson and will be more careful in future.
The problem with financial secrecy is that it creates the opportunity for undetected wrongdoing. Our own Prime Minister, David Cameron, heralds Saudi Arabia as our ‘major trading partner’, referencing, mainly, our oil and arms deals with the Saudis, and he has trumpeted the notion of a close friendship between our two nations. The King of Bahrain, the Saudi sister-state, sat next to our Queen at her 90th birthday party. Could there be a higher seat of honour at a royal celebration? Surely it is crucial in a properly functioning democracy, that all ensuing financial implications are most definitely not conducted under a veil of secrecy, but are subject to close public scrutiny.
The Malaysian Prime Minister, rather than being suspended from office awaiting trial, has been welcomed to Britain this month to attend the anti-corruption summit hosted by our own Prime Minister. British MPs have been reluctant to comment on the accusations of Razak’s corruption, except to say that everyone is ‘innocent until proven guilty’ and that ‘this is a private matter for the Malaysian government’. Meanwhile, using so-called ‘leaked’ private conversations with the Queen, Cameron deflected attention away from Malaysia onto Nigeria and Afghanistan, the Archbishop conveniently on hand to praise the new Nigerian Prime Minister’s commitment to fighting corruption.
Many Conservatives, including major party donors, have reacted in horror to the idea of rolling back guarantees of financial secrecy, some calling the very idea of it ‘socialist’. The public is frequently reminded by the Prime Minister that it is the climate of financial secrecy that keeps foreign money rolling into London and we should all be grateful for it. It is true, without any shadow of doubt, that those who hold secret bank accounts fund many of our parliamentary representatives on both sides of the house.
One might be forgiven, therefore, for thinking that the anti-corruption summit is a convenient device for creating the illusion of cracking down on corruption while actually promoting fraternity amongst those who are up to their necks in it. The unleashed dragon of self-interest currently operates within an opaque, smoke-and-mirrors, financial framework. That framework is highly resilient. If we are serious about tackling corruption financial systems must be transparent rather than opaque. Corruption must be tackled at an individual rather than a corporate level. Individuals must be held to account. Otherwise the dragon cannot possibly be tamed.