In discussing the colossal good fortune of Hunter Biden in the Ukraine, a friend quoted the delicious remark of Sam Goldwyn: ‘The son also rises.’ (Yes, the computer did query this.) We don’t like seeing people in public office on the take. They should be in it for us – not themselves. Diverting the profit to the family does not achieve deliverance – at least for those who did not come down in the last shower.
Putting someone in office under obligation inevitably creates conflicts of interest. And the risk of the donee, the recipient of the gift, being, or appearing, compromised. It is of course worse if someone is obviously appointed above their pay level. They are some of the reasons decent people are nauseated by the gifts showered by Trump on his daughter and son-in-law. (The claim of Jared Kushner, to advise on jails appears to rest on the fact that his dad went one up on his dad-in-law by doing time for fraud.)
Writing in The Guardian, a writer from New York said:
When you are the son of a famous and powerful politician, you are showered with opportunity, whether you deserve it or not. This is nepotism, but it is also, if we are being direct, a form of corruption. Moral corruption. Not only because these prestigious positions are not earned, and because these celebukids are taking something that rightly should have gone to someone more deserving; but also because, even though there is rarely anything so crude as a direct quid pro quo, this undeserved largesse is always motivated to some extent by a desire by some powerful interest to take advantage of the halo of influence cast by the parents. That influence should properly accrue to the public, who their parents work for. The lavish lives afforded to famous kids are, in effect, stolen from the American people. Each coveted job handed to a president’s kid represents a small quantity of subversion of the spirit of the democratic process.
This particular form of injustice is often waved off as just be the way of the world. Seven-foot-tall people get to be in the NBA, and the children of presidents and vice-presidents get sweet, lucrative gigs whether they’re qualified for them or not. We shouldn’t take this so lightly. We should, in fact, be enraged by it. Politics is not just another way to get rich. It is a public service field, and the more important the position, the more stringent the ethical requirements it should carry.
The next three generations of a president’s family should have to work the checkout line at Family Dollar. What better way to stay in touch with the pulse of America? What better way to demonstrate how much they value hard work, and the gargantuan struggle to join the middle class?
All this reminded me that England, the home of our parliamentary democracy, ran on what they called patronage and what we call corruption during for most of the 18th century. The story was luminously illustrated by Sir Lewis Namier in something of a revolution in the writing and teaching of history.
The proper attitude for right-minded Members was one of considered support to the Government in the due performance of its task…But if it was proper for the well-affected Member to co-operate with the Government, so long as his conscience permitted, attendance on the business of the nation was work worthy of its hire, and the unavoidable expenditure in securing a seat deserved sympathetic consideration. ….Bribery, to be really effective, has to be widespread and open…
Richard Pares referred to the difficulty of one MP on a conscience vote: ‘It will hurt my preferment to tell.’ There you see the conflict of interest. He quoted the advice of one MP who would be called an ‘old lag’ in another context:
Get into Parliament, make tiresome speeches; you will have great offers; do not accept them at first, – then do; then make great provision for yourself and family, and then call yourself an independent country gentleman.
What, old boy, could be simpler – or fairer? If you read any biography of Abraham Lincoln, you will see that on the eve of war, the incoming president had to spend days rewarding those who put him there. It’s as rewarding as giving Christmas presents to sisters – God preserve you from any seen inequality.
Now, ‘you scratch my back and I will scratch yours underlay’ feudalism and the Mafia; Napoleon was shockingly greedy in looking after his family – with thrones; the Nazis were as corrupt as the Spartans.
But we are now shocked to see the establishment looking after its own when anyone with a modicum of ability can make their way up the bourgeois ladder on their own. As I recall, one act of nepotism came back to slap George W Bush square in the face after Katrina, but Ivanka and Jared are as in your face as any other aspect of the present White House.
All this occurred to me reading again the luminous East India Company in Eighteenth Century Politics by Lucy Sutherland.*
Clive of India was unlovely – largely for the same reason as Trump – you get the same combination of greed and banality – and without shame. Although to be fair, Clive was anything but downright stupid.
With Clive you get the corruption of Georgian politics with the corruption of the English doing business – committing something like daylight robbery – in India. The engine of the business was the company of the title of the book. It was a magnificent edifice that so beautifully delineates the ruling class of England at the time and their innate capacity to bulldust their way out of the gutter with some affable condescension of the kind that would have propelled Mr Collins to the feet of Greer Garson. As Dame Lucy Sutherland drily remarks early on: ‘The Company was very unsuccessful in checking corruption even when it was discovered.’
To make a comfortable fortune in the public service and to establish those dependent on him in situations of profit was the major (and to contemporaries) the legitimate ambition of the ordinary politician…As a result, there emerged, not an orgy of corruption, but a fragile balance between public and private interests expressed in the system of ‘political connection’ and ‘political management.’
Clive was a latterday proconsul. The Company was ripping off the natives – ‘gifts’ – and its servants were making their fortune on the side. Here is Clive on gifts.
When presents are received as the price of services to the Nation, to the Company and to that Prince who bestowed those presents; when they are not extracted from him by compulsion; when he is in a state of independence and can do with his money what he pleases; and when they are not received to the disadvantage of the Company, he holds presents so received not dishonourable.
What is the word price doing in there? That suggests that the ‘gift’ has been bought. That is a contradiction in terms. If the Prince is paying the price of something done for the Company, then the Company is being deprived of an entitlement. If the Prince is paying the price of something done by an agent of the Company on the side, then the chances are the Company is not getting the full benefit of the promise of that agent to work in good faith in the interests of the Company. Either way, the gift is ‘received to the disadvantage of the Company.’ And if the gift is large, is not the agent’s ‘independence’ impugned? It is one thing for bank manager to accept a bottle of wine or Scotch; but a whole new vista unfolds if the gift is a first class return ticket to Monaco for the Grand Prix.
The truth is that while people may refer to the transactions as ‘gifts’ or ‘presents,’ they are for most part not made from any spirit of benevolence, but as an attempt to acquire, or buy, influence. In that, they are just like most donations to political parties – and, on the same ground, fair game for the epithet of ‘corrupt’.
For instance, a person of interest in the Ukrainian–Trump corruption scandal is the U S Ambassador to the E U. He appears to have three qualifications for that position – like the man who appointed him, his business is in boozers; he gave his wife a signed copy of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged; and, most importantly, he is a big donor to the Republican Party. Indeed, it does appear that he bought this ambassadorship for a snip – a mere one million dollars (on which, we may be sure, he has paid no tax). The notion that he might be a disinterested diplomat is fanciful. Like everyone else appointed by this President, he is there to do the bidding of the appointer – and if he doesn’t, he will be sacked loudly on Twitter.
Clive’s defence of ‘presents’, then, does not hold up. As it happens, our law is, now at least, clear that the agent would have to account for that gift to the Company. It does not matter if the agent acted in good faith – or in a criminal way. A member of the armed forces who used one of their trucks in smuggling was found to hold his resulting profit on trust for the Crown.
In my judgment, it is a principle of law that if a servant takes advantage of his service by violating his duty of honesty and good faith, to make a profit for himself, in this sense, that the assets of which he has control, or the facilities which he enjoys, or the position which he occupies, are the real cause of his obtaining the money, as distinct from being the mere opportunity for getting it, that is to say, if they play the predominant part in his obtaining the money, then he is accountable for it to the master. It matters not that the master has not lost any profit, nor suffered any damage. Nor does it matter that the master could not have done the act himself. (Denning, J, upheld on appeal to the House of Lords: Reading v A-G  A C 507.)
Nor did Clive feel any need to pussyfoot about using wealth to increase his political power. (On a bad day he may have resembled Mr Kurtz in A Heart of Darkness.)
…a large fortune honourably acquired will be the source of great honours and advantages….believe me, there is no other interest in this kingdom but what arises from great possessions, and if after the Battle of Placis I had stayed in India for myself as well as the Company and acquired the fortune I might have done, by this time I might have been an English Earl with a Blue Ribbon instead of an Irish Peer (with the promise of a Red One). However the receipt of the Jaggeer [jagir – an annuity paid by an Indian Prince] money for a few years will do great things.
As soulless materialism goes, Trump could hardly improve on that – but at least Clive had put on the uniform and put himself in harm’s way.
The jagir was worth £25,000 a year. That puts the windfall of Hunter Biden (US $ 600,000) in the shade. But common jealousy did its work and the struggle to retain that benefit, which the law would not I think now tolerate, dominated the life of Clive and the Company. When he lost the benefit, he consulted Lord Hardwicke, a master of Equity, who said Clive and his father ‘either could not or were not willing to tell me what pretence of right was alleged for this proceeding.’ Later on, Horace Walpole, the first prime minister, said: ‘The Ministry have bought off Lord Clive with a bribe that would frighten the King of France himself; they have given him back his £25,000 a year.’ That does give new meaning to the word mercenary. Walpole did say ‘that [Clive] owed his indemnity neither to innocence nor eloquence.’ And Dame Lucy did not exonerate Clive from guilt on the more modern charge ‘of using his inside information to gain profit on the market.’ (Clive did not buy the stock in his own name.)
Mind you, Clive gave good consideration to get his fortune back. He promised the Government:
…..my poor services, such as they are, shall be dedicated for the rest of my days to the King, and my obligations to you always acknowledged, whether in or out of power….If these conditions are fulfilled, I do promise, Sir, that I never will give any opposition to the present or any other Court of Directors, and never will interfere in any of their affairs directly, or indirectly.
It’s ‘peace in our time’ all over again. And is it not inherently vulgar for a subject of the King to make his loyalty to the King conditional upon the execution of a promise?
In the just released book, The Anarchy, The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, William Dalrymple says that Clive was a ‘violent, utterly ruthless and intermittently mentally unstable corporate predator.’ He was also an utterly fearless guerrilla fighter. Calcutta should have suited him: ‘one of the most wicked places in the Universe….Rapacious and Luxurious beyond conception.’
Dalrymple says the jagir would now be worth £3,000,000 a year – and income tax had not been invented. In addition, this swashbuckling buccaneer took plunder – called prize. ‘Not since Cortés had Europe seen an adventurer return with so much treasure from distant conquests.’ And now the financial rape got serious. The English called it ‘the shaking of the pagoda tree.’
And of course the white man did to the coloured man things he would never do to one of his own. Dame Lucy records that Clive’s English attorney said the question ‘was this, whether it would go into a black man’s pocket or my own.’ And of course, in the tropics on the wrong side of the world, all decency had gone clean overboard. Macaulay was up for it.
A succession of nominal sovereigns, sunk in indolence and debauchery, sauntered away life in secluded palaces, chewing bang [cannabis], fondling concubines, and listening to buffoons. A succession of ferocious invaders [Persians and Afghans] descended through the Western passes to prey on the defenceless wealth of Hindostan…
Before them, Alexander. After, them, the English and Clive. And, yes, Mr Kurtz.
Well, well, well …..Clive’s men kept the doctors busy. Now Trump’s men keep the lawyers busy. The one difference is that you would have known you were going bad if you had run into your doctor in a Calcutta knock shop. Manhattan’s slammers are filling up with Trump’s lawyers.
*F.n.: Lucy was a Geelong Girl educated in South Africa and Oxford. According to Wikipedia, she was the first woman undergraduate to address the Union there. She was the Principal of Lady Margaret Hall for more than a quarter of a century. She was an acolyte of Namier – and it shows – to her benefit. (I am a Namier fan.) God bless her – but I do fear that Lucy may have gone to God without having once seen in action the Mighty Cats of Geelong – let alone the late, great Polly Farmer, a blackfella who could punch a footy through the window of a moving car.