Britain: The Land of Chumocracy and Cronyism

Covid-19 has wrought terrible devastation across the globe, and perhaps nowhere has felt the most amount of damage and uncertainty than America and the U.K. With record numbers of deaths per capita, a flood of terrible decisions and a onslaught of misinformation, managing the virus has been extremely difficult. The U.K especially have zigzagged in and out of lockdown enough times to confound any journalist, social commentator and of course, the millions of citizens who don’t know where they stand from one day to the next.

Throughout the entire ordeal, No.10 have had their feet held to the fire as Boris Johnson kept the U.K “open for business” and that it has also unravelled that the government has consistently handed out more than a handful of contracts to private companies – without going through the usual channels of putting said contracts out to tender. The test and trace scheme was handed to Dido Harding and produced by Serco with astonishingly bad results. For instance, the bespoke contract was delivered using Excel instead of custom-made software and, despite businesses across the U.K taking in all the information they needed from customers, it was all for nothing when the test and trace system failed to conglomerate the data. What’s worse is that the government still claims, at every opportunity, that it is the NHS test and trace system.

Please, don’t let them get away with that one.

The choice to give out contracts and not put them out to tender is not just an example “chumocracy” among the Conservative elite, it is also evidence of cronyism. The Conservatives have closed their ranks and they bully out those who might try to put forward their ideas and expertise or ways in which to improve the country. Conservative donors and friends (in one instance, a pub landlord) have widely benefitted from this chummy approach and, whilst this kind of treatment would be baffling at the best of time, it feels more like a slap in the face during such a turbulent period in our lives.

There is, however, a more severe level of cronyism which was highlighted in today’s newspapers, and that is the one in which a contract was given to a Russian-owned firm to design a new briefing room for No.10. The company, Megahertz, has also worked on projects for Russia Television (RT), Channel One and Public Television of Russia,  which has raised concerns regarding the security of No.10’s new media suite. This might seem unconnected to what has transpired throughout the Covid-19 crisis but we need to go back a little to understand why this briefing room debacle raises so many questions.

Back in 2016 ex-MI6 agent, Christopher Steele, released a document stating (among other things) that Donald Trump was subject to Russian control after Moscow had managed to acquire compromising material (kompromat) on the then-to-be president of the United States. The kompromat – the infamous prostitute sex tape recorded in Moscow’s Hilton Hotel. When the information that Trump could be a Russian puppet was handed further up the chain toward Theresa May’s office, a blanket was thrown over the investigation and interest dwindled. But this wasn’t the first time that Theresa May and Boris Johnson’s government have ignored crucial information regarding Russia.

The Russia Report has long been an article of particular importance to the U.K media, and for good reason. The report claims that Russian money has flooded into London and upholds (and has fractured) the London property market. Property investment a tool of choice for money launderers and Bill Browder (known as Putin’s number one enemy and proponent against corruption) even goes so far as to say that London is “floating on a sea of Russian money.” The Russia Report thus raises the question as to whether or not Russian Roubles have made their way into the U.K’s political system. The report has been constantly sidestepped by Prime Minister Johnson and, before him, Theresa May.

Although heavily redacted in order to (one would guess) protect people within the government “the report notes that links between the Russian elite and the U.K allow access to business and politics that can be used for influence. “To a certain extent, this cannot be untangled and the priority now must be to mitigate the risk and ensure that, where hostile activity is uncovered, the tools exist to tackle it at source,””. So, do we have a party in power who might very well be at the beck and call of Russian financiers and Russian interests?

Well, it might seem like a tenuous connection between the Russia Report and the hiring of Megahertz to design and build No.10’s new media briefing room, but the more you peel back the layers, the stronger the case becomes. After all, it is not simply a link between Russia, it is the way that the government now responds when faced with issues.

Over the last couple of days the U.K has been the subject of a new law which prohibits that thing we claim to love so much: free speech. Cancel culture is used by the right and left to claim that the other side is silencing their right to free speech. The truth is that both parties are involved in cancel culture but what we perhaps did not expect was that Home Secretary, Priti Patel, would push through a new law which prohibits peaceful protests, marches and public demonstrations illegal if they cause “serious annoyance”. The law also means that the Home Secretary can decide on what protests are legal and which are illegal. This could technically mean that the Priti Patel could allow protesters to walk the streets if they are marching for a Conservative party initiative, but block those who are standing against the government.

Barrister and author Chris Daw told the Big Issue:

“The bill hands over the power of deciding whether a protest is justified or should be allowed — decisions we as citizens have had for generations — directly to the Home Secretary. That’s an extremely chilling development. It’s completely contradictory to everything the liberty of the free citizen is about in Britain.”

“A politician could use that power to prevent protests in favour of causes they disagree with. This law gives power to whatever government is in charge to decide what causes can take to the streets.”

So what the hell are we looking at here? Why is it that a Conservative government, under a man who calls himself a libertarian, should act so willingly against the people whilst hiding secrets about financial backing from Russian interests? And we should never forget that this is all being done in a liberal democracy where we supposedly champion the people’s voices.

All the evidence points to Conservative links with Russia (though it might spread to parties beyond the Conservatives – time is yet to tell) but the truth is that we may never really know what is going on with money sieved through the London property market. What we do know, however, is that the British government have showed themselves capable of acting like Vladimir Putin’s own thuggish kleptocracy and we are happy to have RT’s own design company into an area where sensitive information is shared. Using a Russian company does not mean that the government is puppets to Putin’s regime, but why was the contract to design the room not put out to tender? Isn’t that something they do when their chums are involved? 

What are we thinking?

Why our economic plan is rubbish.

Capitalism in an odd bird. It is more or less wholly responsible for the increase in living standards and global stability. The latter point is arguable but think of it this way: do you think that we would have less or more war if people were more devoted to nationalism than to capitalism? After all, transnational trade breaks down barriers and, with the simple threat of imposing sanctions, we can maintain some semblance of order.

That being said, capitalism is failing and is in drastic need of an overhaul.

Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, is the bible of modern economics and it states, as put best by Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind: “people become rich not by despoiling their neighbours, but by increasing the overall size of the pie. And when the pie grows, everyone benefits. The rich are accordingly the most useful and benevolent people in society, because they turn the wheels of growth for everyone’s advantage.” This is the most common theme in arguments claiming that capitalism benefits everyone through “trickledown economics”.

I don’t know if this has ever really been the case. And, despite being part of what we claim is a liberal democracy, even today we cannot claim that the trickle economic model is really working as it should be.

Using the most commonly reported case, let’s start with Amazon. Amazon is a giant unlike anything this world has ever seen. An online marketplace that sells pretty much anything and that doesn’t have to cover the usual retail overheads. Jeff Bezos is the modern day success story. But it is because of a shoddy work ethic and malpractice that Amazon has been a so-called “success.” There are reports that the factory workers whose job it is to pick and pack the items we choose, are made to wear headsets that bleep in the employee’s ear every time they miss a quota. People have been fired for going on bathroom breaks. Workers have not wanted to have time off for childbirth for fear that they will lose their jobs and some workers are even said to have urinated in bottles because to go to the toilet might result in them losing their jobs.

In the world of trickle-down economics in which the wealth is meant to be spread among the workers and they can therefore pay taxes and perhaps even purchase the wares from their benevolent employer. Along with shoddy work conditions, employee pay is around £9.00 to £10.00 per hour.

One common argument we find ourselves constantly faced with is that it is better to have an employer in town than to have no employer in town. But you might as well tell all those people experiencing despicable mistreatment to “suck it up” and “be thankful”. The truth of the matter is that just because a company is the only employer in town, that people should simply settle for mistreatment and be thankful that they even have a job. We are not living in an age where employers should be able to get away with such activities. Having a job is one thing. Being treated with respect is something else entirely.

Capitalism is meant to fund economies. Again, Yuval Noah Harari captures it best when he says:

“Capital consists of money, goods and resources that are invested in production. Wealth, on the other hand, is buried in the ground or wasted on unproductive activities. A pharaoh who pours resources into a non-productive pyramid is not a capitalist.”

The same can be said for so many of the rich and powerful. Houses, cars, private jets, yachts. These things are some of the hallmarks of the wealthy but there is also another realm into which the rich funnel money which would be better spent either paying employees a decent wage or perhaps funding new start-up operations. The world is that of the offshore tax-haven. Not only are companies shirting their duties of paying adequate tax within the countries where they operate, they are also squirreling away profits for their own economic gain.

It is all very well boasting that you are employer and that you are doing x,y and z in aiding the economy and keeping people within jobs, but the boasting stops when their capitalist idea hits the real world. Money and power corrupt. Look at capitalism’s nemesis; communism. What may look like an understandable and worthwhile pursuit for equality consistently breeds dictators, as history proves time and again. Capitalism does the same. Entrepreneurs turn from imaginative and successful capital generators to wealth hoarders.

Covid-19 and the benefits to the private sector

There is no doubt that big change generates big potential. During the crash of 2007/2008, individuals capitalised by betting against the market, a process known as “shorting”. The fact that individuals can make such wealth whilst the majority of people are so adversely effected by changes in the market is a hard one to swallow. But wealth buys serious advantages.

Covid is a catastrophe. In the face of the global pandemic we are seeing a recession much like of 07/08 private sector companies are benefiting from the struggle. First of all, track and trace (a scheme squelching through a quagmire of controversy) was awarded to a firm that has close links with the Conservative Party. The job was not put out for tender but was instead rushed through by the standing government. The Guardian rightly highlighted this topic in their “Covid-19 investigations” piece: “Firms given &1bn of state contracts without tender in Covid-19 crisis” (15/05/2020).

“Official data analysed by the Guardian shows state bodies have awarded at least 177 contracts worth £1.1bn to commercial firms in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Of those, 115 contracts – with a total value of just over £1bn – were awarded under the fast-track rules bypassing competitive tenders. They include two contracts worth more than £200m, both awarded by Whitehall departments.”

War is lucrative and so is any catastrophe. Among the companies given tender were Deloitte, Ernst & Young and PricewaterhouseCoopers. Deloitte has been under the intense scrutiny of publication Private Eye for some time. Deloitte has overseen the procurement of 50m unusable masks despite Deloitte’s role throughout the Covid-19 crisis being: “supplier monitoring, analysis and due diligence”. Due diligence is definitely not a strength for this organisation considering the firm was “fined for failing to spot fraud” and it has also been found guilty of ‘”serious and serial failures”‘ in its work at IT company Autonomy.

Another problem that has been highlighted regarding the government’s fast-tracking of contracts to private parties is the grabbing of information. The grabbing of information happens when companies take user data from mobile phones and devices and sells that information to 3rd party interests. Last year data mining was more lucrative that the oil industry. The money to be made from advertisers trying to peddle products and services straight onto our feeds and through our apps is staggering and Covid-19 has given data-mining free reign over information that we once wanted to keep private.

Private firms have always been circling the public sector like vultures waiting for an accident or a hiccup. What is so troubling is that the chumminess of Conservative MPs with so many higher-ups in the private sector has blurred. David Cameron’s contemporary, Dido Harding (previously chair of TalkTalk) has been ushered in to run the track and trace initiative. Her husband is Tory MP and Tory Minister John Penrose. In a Huffpost exclusive, Dido Harding’s suitability for the role is questioned.

“Critics point to her record at TalkTalk where the company suffered a major data breach and was given a record £400,000 fine for failing to protect customers details from a hack attack.”

“Shadow health minister Alex Norris said: “Nurses on the frontline using food banks or families denied the opportunity to see grandparents because of local lockdowns will be appalled at revelations this Tory peer has pocketed thousands of pounds worth of taxpayers cash.”

The Huffpost emphasises the close link between Tories and the interests of their friends and donors. People not fit for purpose are afforded the helm of projects and yet, despite questionable results (i.e. Dido Harding’s recent failure on Track and Trace which sent some people up to a hundred miles from their homes to get treatment). Surely such an important task should be handed to a group already working within the public sector who better know the health services available?

Lack of preparedness for Covid-19

Much of the UK breathed a sigh of relief when Rishi Sunak claimed payouts for business and that employees would be given 80% of their wage whilst on furlough. However, despite being the Chancellor of the party “for business”, they offered not much shy of a middle finger to the self-employed.

The problems are myriad and systemic and, despite Boris Johnson standing outside No.10 and clapping for the NHS, have been created by the very government now trying its best to make a show of appreciation to the public services and other key workers.

According to the latest Private Eye (1520), the UK came 2nd in the Global Health Security Index which ranked countries according to their ‘”capability to prevent and mitigate epidemics and pandemics.”‘ So what went wrong? Why is it that a country that came 2nd in such an index had such a sluggish response to the Covid-19 emergency?

For the most part, it was Boris Johnson attempting to keep the country open for business. Secondly, the NHS was ill-equipped to deal with such issues due to outsourcing. This was the process by which different sections of the NHS’s prime functions were disbanded between private companies. Thirdly, and this is still under debate, the government’s stance against the European Union may have stood in the way.

Communications regarding the government stance have also been slow in coming largely due to the fact that the Central Office for Information (the office responsible for communicating to the country at times of war and emergency, was slashed and eventually dissolved completely in 2011 as a result of austerity measures. It was an easy choice because it was seen as an invention and tool of the “nanny state”.

Instead, communications come through third party agencies and were therefore slow to be put together. Boris Johnson has also had to rely on the BBC coverage of daily briefings, that very same organisation that he is trying to break up and throw to the wolves.

As climate change alters our landscape, we are expected to suffer at the hands of new and old diseases. Malaria, new strains of Coronavirus, you name it. That raises the question of just what are we going to do the next time around if another pandemic were to happen?

Hopefully, we won’t have Boris Johnson or his supporting cabinet who seem to think that lying would make for good policy when it comes to talking about PPE, death tolls and testing kits. We should also reverse any privatisation of NHS services and we should look more at publicly-funded emergency systems whether it is a designated communications network or pre-fab buildings ready to be up and running in a few days time. What is for certain – we need to stop focusing on media spin and how politicians look as opposed to what they are actually doing.