THERE has always been, and will always be, corruption in public life.

Back in the day when I was a young and eager parliamentary candidate in Clydesdale, I remember true stories of “key money” being paid to certain councillors in order to get a local authority house.

In living memory, there was also a major government planning scandal, with the notorious “Gorgeous George” Pottinger, then a very senior Scottish civil servant, being jailed in 1974 for taking bribes.

However, the problem outlined by the 2022 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index published this week is of a different nature and has much wider – and more serious – consequences.

The good news is that small democratic nations with strong institutions and a regard for human rights perform well. Places like Denmark and Finland are amongst the most peaceful and happy places to live – and there is no reason why Scotland could not be like them.

But in this latest survey, some countries, like the UK, have recorded their worst position ever. The state in which we presently live has experienced what Transparency International calls a “significant decline”, and has been overtaken by a number of others – including our successful independent neighbour Ireland, which finds itself edging into the top 10 for the first time.

The UK is still a comparatively clean country in the classic definition of corruption (it still ranks fairly highly, at 20) but it is moving in the wrong direction in terms of reputation and performance – yet it remains without the willingness to acknowledge the difficulty. Indeed, we still hear regular braying calls from Westminster politicians regarding their “world-beating” status in all sorts of fields of activity whereas – in reality – the world is rapidly passing them by.

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Transparency International points out that corruption, conflict and security are profoundly intertwined. In places like South Sudan and Somalia, which sit at the bottom of the table, a complete breakdown in law and order is in part attributable to the fact that essential state resources are not available for the basic tasks of protecting citizens

and sustaining institutions. The fault lies in the simple fact that they are stolen via corrupt officials by criminals and terrorists who can then operate with impunity.

No one is suggesting that this is where the UK will shortly end up. But the normalisation of the lie in public life, the profiting from the public purse in ways that are unavailable except to an elite, and the attempted protection of said elite from the legal consequences of their actions – actions which would result in exposure and punishment if committed by the rest of us – are all elements in making the UK appear to the world as a more corrupt place than it used to be. And, moreover, one which is getting worse.

The chief deliberate normalisation of the lie by those in power who should know much better remains on the topic of Brexit. Though far from being the only lie, both Sunak and Starmer have this week spoke again about the non-existent “potential” of Brexit. Sunak and Hunt have then gone further still, claiming that no damage has been done and that people are no worse off as a result of what has actually been a unique act of economic and social self-harm. The figures prove it.

The Secretary of State against Scotland went to even more ludicrous extremes, claiming that there was “no desire in Scotland to have membership of the EU” when every successive poll has shown the opposite to be true.

The BBC and other media outlets have perpetuated this lie. They attribute the actual state of the economy and the manifest difficulties of doing business, working in, and even exchanging greetings (a calendar I sent to my brother for Christmas took eight weeks to get to Belgium) in other countries to anything but Brexit.

Of course, all this was foretold not just by the Scottish Government but by a wide range of knowledgeable organisations, companies and individuals. Even the attempt to hide the cost and outcomes behind the smokescreen of Covid was anticipated. That and the war in Ukraine have exacerbated what already was going to happen.

Brexit was won with lies and dirty money. The corruption continued under Johnson (to whom lying was second nature) and is being carried on by Sunak. The exploitation of the public purse during the Covid crisis, the bullying of staff, the promotion of those to whom a politician or a party is indebted, the attempted use of legal gagging to prevent criticism or investigation and rampant double standards fully in view (a £10,000 watch on the wrist of a government minister telling teachers their pay claim is “unaffordable”) all add to the picture.

This has alienated the public but it has done something more harmful too. Many now say “if some can get away with it, why not everyone? If unbelievably bad conduct is indulged in by a few, then who is to say that it is not being indulged in by many more?” Corruption, therefore, permits any level of social media abuse and fuels endless keyboard conspiracy theories. It debases our public debate and it deepens the already painfully yawning divides in society. It is, in other words, a poison that is spreading through us all.

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Consequently, fighting corruption is about much more than just weeding out individual dishonest acts. It is about demanding that the rule of law applies promptly to everyone, refusing to accept misinformation and disinformation, defending democracy and high standards in public life, and ensuring that legislation is robust enough to enforce such standards.

George Orwell once observed that: “speaking the truth in times of universal deceit is a revolutionary act”. It is also the necessary first step to ensuring that corruption returns to the low level we used to observe.

It would be naive to think it could ever be completely stamped out, even in a small, democratic, wealthy and human rights-valuing independent Scotland but we could do so much better than the current, increasingly corrupt, UK.

And, if we do it properly, we could be so much happier living here too.