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September 09, 2011

Britain is a very corrupt country: much more corrupt than France - says Theodore Dalrymple

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

It has long been evident to me that Britain is now a very corrupt country. I do not mean by this that money often and necessarily passes hands in a straightforwardly illicit or illegal way, under the table in brown envelopes, as it does in some countries that I could name. In fact, it is probably true that a very large majority of the British population never in its life makes, or feels that it has to make, an openly corrupt payment: and this is something that, in the light of world history, is very remarkable. Corruption is the norm for human beings, not the deviation from the norm.

Nevertheless, Britain is a corrupt country: much more corrupt, for example, than France. The kind of corruption to which I refer is of a special and insidious kind, intellectual and moral, much more insidious and difficult to root out that the more obvious kind that is usually meant by the word corruption.

One comes across it continually. For example, I saw that Lambeth Council had decided to dismiss "a learning mentor" in its employ because he had admitted in court that he took part in the recent mass outbreak of looting, such looting being deemed incompatible with his status as a council employee. But what, exactly, is a "learning mentor"? One suspects that it is a person who receives a salary for doing a non-job. This is perfectly legal, but one has one's doubts as to whether the true purpose of the position that he had occupied was to raise the standard of education among the young of Lambeth. His employment was quite likely a manifestation of intellectual, moral and political corruption.

Not long ago I was on a long flight back to Europe and in the seat pocket in front of me I found a copy of Time magazine, which I do not usually read. There was an article about the riots of quite startling superficiality in it, but more interestingly, for my present purposes, was a comparison of military spending around the world. The comparison between France and Britain was startling.

The two countries spend almost exactly the same annually on their armed forces, France $59,300,000,000 and Britain $59,600,000,000, but the difference in what they get for it is highly instructive.

According to the figures given, which I assume have some resemblance to the truth, France has 300 nuclear warheads, while Britain has 225 (bear in mind that I am not making any point about the necessity or otherwise of defence spending). Britain has 11, while France has 10, submarines; but on the other hand, France has an aircraft carrier. The countries have the same number of cruisers, destroyers and frigates, namely 24; but France has 470 combat aircraft, while Britain has 346. France has 240,000 men under arms, while Britain has 180,000.

Now of course raw comparisons such as these may hide important differences; it could be, for example, that British combat aircraft are greatly superior to those of France, and that one British aircraft is worth two French. But I rather doubt it; it seems far more likely to me that the aircraft are roughly the same in quality. Similarly, one can take the xenophobic view that one British soldier is worth two French, but this too seems to me unlikely. And, if I have understood correctly, the British army in Afghanistan has been conspicuous by its under-equipment and unpreparedness.

It could be that the explanation why France has a third more troops for the same money as Britain is that men are paid less; but since the standard of living in France is, if anything, higher than in Britain, what this amounts to is an admission that our men are overpaid. Not only is our habit of overpaying everyone economically disastrous, but it is corrupt. It means taking more money from some people in order to secure the loyalty or allegiance of others.

Again, let us consider the startling, but to me not surprising, figure that I saw recently in the Guardian for the percentage of convicted robbers and burglars sent to prison, namely 12. Since the police solve about 8 per cent of these crimes (and even that is probably an exaggeration) one can deduce that about one in 100 robberies or burglaries ends in a prison sentence.

Burglaries and robberies tend not to be what murderers sometimes designate their crimes, namely "a one-off"; rather, they are repeated crimes and those who indulge in them do so many times, something that has been confirmed to me on innumerable occasions by the many robbers and burglars whom I have met. The odds are clearly in their favour, and it is obvious that to leave a robber or burglar at liberty, with barely a slap on the wrist as a punishment, is to encourage more robberies and burglaries.

Why is our government so reluctant to admit the obvious? Why are the most absurd mental pirouettes performed by Home Secretaries, Secretaries of Justice and Chief Justices, in order to come to any conclusion but the most obvious one? They are not, after all, lacking in intelligence; the explanation must lie elsewhere.

There are two reasons, I think. The first is sentimentality: that leniency towards criminals shows great-heartedness, whereas its opposite - in my view, realism - demonstrates hardness of heart. That the great-heartedness is at the expense of other people does not matter to them. The punished criminal before them is a tangible, visible being; the people saved from victimisation by his punishment are spectres, because they are neither tangible nor visible.

But there is another reason. The expansion of tertiary education has increased the number of lawyers dramatically. Lawyers need criminals as addicts need dealers. The last thing the criminal justice system wants to do, then, is to prevent crime by repressing it. And there is a clear, if unconscious, understanding that a hundred thousand lawyers with no income will give you more trouble than five million burgled and robbed people of the lower classes - the principal victims of burglars and robbers.

In the words of Flanders and Swann, it all makes work for the working man to do.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and worked for many years as an inner city and prison doctor. Most recently, he is the author of Mr Clarke's Modest Proposal: Supportive Evidence from Yeovil, also available as a Kindle download from and from

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If one were to imagine a family - father, mother, and son, let us say - on a sailing boat: the fatherly role would be to insist that the boy learn how to competently handle the life-threatening challenges of a boat at sea, while the motherly impulse might be to protect the son from a too-early harshness of life, or perhaps from any harshness at all.

It seems to me that the Nanny State duplicates this dynamic.

Although with the added element of politicians actually seeking to create a helplessly dependent 'client' class along the lines of the politics of Imperial Rome, especially in its decline.

Posted by: Publion at September 13, 2011 05:11 PM

I wonder if the good doctor would be able to identify the wishy-washy, namby-pamby liberal who said this:

"The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilization of any country…an unfailing faith that there is a treasure if only you can find it, in the heart of every man – these are the symbols which in the treatment of crime and criminals mark and measure the stored-up strength of a nation, and are the sign and proof of the living virtue in it."

Posted by: Louise at September 15, 2011 05:01 PM

Is it just me, or does the term "learning mentor" grate horribly? If nothing else, it's surely a tautology --- like a "learning tutor". Who thinks these titles up? Do they know the meanings of words they are using? I'm surprised that the author, pedant as he is, didn't bemoan the pleonasm.

Perhaps soon we'll see "legal lawyers" and "military soldiers"...

...By the way, interesting choice of ellipsis, Louise --- I see you omitted the section where Churchill says,

"a desire and eagerness to rehabilitate in the world of industry those who have paid their due in the hard coinage of punishment"

Were he still alive, he'd have little time for contemporary penal liberalism. The coinage of punishment is funny-money these days.

Posted by: Paul H. at September 21, 2011 05:28 PM

I believe David Stove said it best:

"Benevolence is the heroin of the Enlightened."

Posted by: Robert Speirs at November 2, 2011 06:00 PM
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