A man was murdered in my South London community a couple of summers ago.
He was a popular figure and 300 people turned out to see the hearse depart, together with at least three armed response units from the Metropolitan Police, because of concerns about gangland activities in the area.
Some of the mourners were his friends, others – I assume – rivals. But most turned out because, like many impoverished working-class communities, they exist between two coercive forces: the criminal justice system and the underworld.
They are powerless in the face of both, but they understand that so long as the one counterbalances the other, and nobody oversteps the mark, something like order will prevail, if not exactly law.
The perpetrator was found and sentenced, and life goes on.
Contrast this to the policing of the British government and you’ll understand what kind of risks we are running as a society.
Michelle Mone, a Tory peer, referred a company called PPE Medpro to the government’s ‘‘VIP lane” scheme for Covid-related contracts.
It has now emerged that her husband had an indirect business interest in the firm, which was newly created and had no track record of medical supply.
The firm immediately won an £80m contract to supply masks and gowns. Mone herself was reportedly engaged in decisions on sizing and sourcing of the product, via WhatsApp, then approached civil servants ‘‘incandescent with rage” over the subsequent treatment of the company.
In a series of terse but information light responses, Mone and her husband, tax-haven-based Doug Barrowman, have denied these allegations.
But it’s just one example of the conflict of interest epidemic that has swept government since Boris Johnson took over.
And it starts at the top. Johnson’s wife Carrie required a makeover of their flat in 10 Downing Street. But they couldn’t afford it, and the taxpayer would not pay. So Johnson approached multimillionaire Tory peer David Brownlow. Johnson needed £58,000 off the books.
But what did Brownlow need? As a trustee of the Royal Albert Hall, he wanted the venue to host a second Great Exhibition, based on the famous 19th-century event at Crystal Palace. Only the government could make that happen.
Brownlow, the 521st richest man in Britain, had no need to make money out of the scheme – only to gain prestige. So, again via WhatsApp, the grubby game of power and influence was played out. Johnson asks for the cash, adding: ‘‘PS am on the GE plan Will revert.” Brownlow promised to get it sorted ASAP, saying: ‘‘Thanks for thinking about GE2.” Soon, he was meeting the culture secretary to pitch the ill-fated scheme.
Labour’s Angela Rayner rightly called this what it is: Corruption – made worse by Johnson then lying about the conversation, claiming to have forgotten about it, having lost his phone.
But it is more than just corruption. The stories of graft, greed, influence and corruption are seeping through British life like a corrosive acid.
When the foreign secretary orders civil servants to book lunch at an eye-wateringly expensive club, owned by a Tory donor, when the health secretary awards a contract to a man he met in his local pub, when the PM lies to parliament then lies about the lies, what is the cumulative message?
We know how it looks to Fleet Street. They’re all at it, so what’s the problem? But how does it look to the people on that South London estate? Or to the clubbers stopped in London’s Shoreditch recently by a police team determined to swab law-abiding people for traces of drugs? Or to the motorists fined for going 5 mph over the limit? Or to the benefit claimant sanctioned for being minutes late for an interview?
Working-class people live in a world where law, punishment and justice are things done to them.
That’s why so much of working-class subculture is concerned with rulebreaking – and establishing the limits to it. There are unwritten boundaries, beyond which most people will not transgress because they fear the anger of their neighbours, and the disruption of the fine balance between the state, civil society and the forces of chaos.
Observing the British Tory elite, it is clear they have no such fear. They believe they can buy and lie their way out of every transgression. But the risks they are running are huge.
The risk is not simply that large numbers of Conservative-minded voters become sickened by what they see. It is that the social contract between the political elite and those they govern breaks down. Because corruption is not a victimless transgression.
Its victims are always those who ‘‘could have” achieved something but did not. The people who could have brought wisdom and expertise to the House of Lords in place of Baroness Mone. The firms that could have supplied PPE without starting from scratch. The people who watched on an iPad as their loved ones died, while Downing Street partied in defiance of the lockdown.
Once people begin to understand how victimised they, personally, have become by this corrupt regime, the more likely they are to support a government that sweeps away the institutions that facilitate it, from tax havens and lobbying firms to the House of Lords itself.
For me, the cleaner the sweep the better.