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This year, the UK slipped out of the top ten rankings in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI).  It still managed a very respectable 11th place.  This, some readers might be surprised, make it the 11th least – rather than the 11th most – corrupt country in the world.  Indeed, this rather respectable ranking comes in a year in which the UK’s financial industry failed to hide its truly British brand of corruption to the world.  Here are some of the highlights from 2018.

The year began with the collapse of Carillion (leaving £7 billion in liabilities and only £61 million in cash) which raised fundamental questions about its “bankrupt” business model and the role of the auditors.  Who can forget one member of the House of Commons Select Committee telling KPMG: “I wouldn’t hire you to do an audit of the contents of my fridge.” Wider questions have been raised in the aftermath about endemic corruption and conflicts of interest in the accounting industry; a UK government inquiry into accounting practice was announced in May.

Less than a week after the collapse of Carillion, HSBC hit the headlines with a $100 million fine to settle a US criminal investigation into rigged currency transactions.

In March, Barclays paid a fine of $2 billion to the US authorities for mortgage-backed securities sold in the run-up to the financial crisis.  Although a court ruling dismissed charges against Barclays Bank over the alleged Qatar bribery case, the prosecution against Barclays executives continued, a case that is currently ongoing.  And in December, Barclays were fined £15 million for revealing the identity of a whistleblower.

In May, the Royal Bank of Scotland had to pay a second fine of billions (this time, a record $4.9 billion) also for pedaling dodgy mortgage investments in the run up to the 2008 crash.  In August HSBC was forced to pay a $765 million fine for the same offence.

In July, the pro-Brexit Vote Leave campaign was fined by the Electoral Commission and referred to the police for breaking electoral law.

This was also the year that Philip Green, disgraced over his role in the BHS asset-stripping case, was told he would not be banned from holding a position as a company director and he would not lose his knighthood.  This came, after all the fuss had died down over a trifling loss of £200 million to the BHS pension fund.

For all kinds of reasons, 2018 was a remarkable year for the great and the not-so-good in Britain.  And yet none of this seems to had much of an effect on the UK’s CPI rating.

The UK is not the only country that looks to be punching well above its weight.  The number 1 least corrupt country in the Index is Denmark. Indeed Denmark has been number 1 or number 2 in the CPI for at least the past 12 years.  And yet 2018 was the year in which Europe’s biggest corruption case broke…in…ahem…Denmark. The Danske Bank case, involving more than Euro200 bn in money laundering by Denmark’s biggest bank, stretching back over the past 12 years (the same period Denmark that kept its dominant position in the CPI).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, for the first time, Transparency International’s lead article accompanying the publication was basically an apology; a proviso which noted the Danske Bank case upfront and declared: “… no country should take a good CPI score alone as a sign that they are doing enough to combat corruption. It is difficult for a single number to reflect as large and complex an issue as corruption.”  Complexity is hardly the point. Indeed, the real message is much more simple: the CPI is incapable of reflecting the fundemental significance of the largest money laundering case in Europe.

This year, perhaps more than any other year, the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index is being revealed as a pointless and frankly a misleading exercise.  Numerous experts have lined up to attack the failure of the Index’s methodology, and its impact in simply reinforcing the global financial hegemony over the years. The commonly repeated response from its defenders has been “well, there isn’t anything better.” Is this the moment that we realise this is no longer a defense and that that we would be better off without a survey that misleads us and encourages complacency?


David Whyte is Professor of Socio-Legal Studies at the University of Liverpool where he researches issues related to corporate violence and corporate corruption. He is the co-editor of How Corrupt is Britain? (Pluto, 2015) and The Violence of Austerity (Pluto, 2017).