Fergus Finlay: Marvelling at the madness of Britain as a mango monarchy

Maybe the lesson we need to learn from our next-door neighbour is that some things never change
Fergus Finlay: Marvelling at the madness of Britain as a mango monarchy

Nadhim Zahawi was sacked as Conservative Party chairman after an inquiry into his tax affairs found a “serious breach” of the ministerial code.

You can’t call Britain a banana republic. It would be totally wrong. Because Britain, after all, isn’t a republic. It’s very proud of the fact that its head of state inherited the job — although you’d have to wonder if the pride isn’t diminishing a bit, watching the antics of the royal family.

But still, the very fact of a royal family means that you can’t stick any old tropical fruit in front of its name and hope to have an accurate descriptor. So what do you nick-name a country whose political system has been corrupted from the top, to the point where it is impossible to be anything but cynical?

A mango monarchy, that’s what we’re looking at. What fascinates me is how should we define it — and how should we compare it to what’s happening here at home?

The distinguished journalist and writer Robin Wright set out to answer the question “Is America becoming a banana republic” a few years ago in the New Yorker magazine. Her definitions were as good as anything I’ve come across.

“Over the past century,” she wrote, “banana republic has evolved to mean any country (with or without bananas) that has a ruthless, corrupt, or just plain loopy leader who relies on the military and destroys state institutions in an egomaniacal quest for prolonged power.”

We haven’t seen the military deployed in the UK yet, just unremitting and endless corruption — and a couple of loopy leaders, some of whom give egomania a bad rap. So let’s stick to mangos for a while.

Over the weekend, after very considerable dithering, the British Prime Minister sacked the former Chancellor of the Exchequer and current Chair of the Tory Party (it carries a place in the Cabinet in the mango monarchy, that job). He sacked him after he got a report confirming that Nadhim Zahawi had broken the so-called Ministerial code, not once but seven times.

And he didn’t break the code seven times one Tuesday morning. He’s been at it for the best part of two years. He knew there was an investigation into some of his dodgy tax dealings, he participated in the investigation; when he settled it, he incurred a large penalty, and he knew he had an obligation to let all that be known to the proper authorities. Not only did he pretend there was nothing going on, but he threatened journalists with libel if they ever had the temerity to report true facts.

It was like something straight out of the Ray Burke school of Dodging and Diving. 

You remember Ray’s technique, I’m sure. Stand up in the Dáil, tell a bare-faced lie, declare you’ve drawn a line in the sand, and see what you can brazen out.

And if you’re doing it while relying on a leader who doesn’t want to confront you and keeps invoking “due process” as a way of delaying the necessary confrontation, so much the better.

In this case Zahawi’s Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, had clearly attended a few seminars in the Bertie Ahern school of How to Avoid Political Accountability.

Or maybe they all just learned their tricks from Boris, the man who believed that if a lie could help you survive to the end of the week, sure you never know what might turn up to get you through the following week.

Johnson funds

Talking of Johnson, it has now emerged that the man he appointed as Chair of the BBC was instrumental in helping to organise a guarantor for a hefty credit facility to help fund Johnson’s chaotic lifestyle. The guarantor was a Canadian billionaire called Blyth. The whole thing stank to high heaven and should have been investigated by the Cabinet Secretary. He apparently decided, since Johnson and Blyth had a family relationship, no investigation was necessary.

Family relationship? I actually laughed out loud one night when Channel 4 News traced the actual relationship. Possibly, stretching a point, fifth cousin once removed. I bet if I worked hard enough, I could find a fifth cousin once removed among the ranks of North American millionaires. Not that it would do me any good!

So what about us then? Am I the pot calling the kettle black?

We’ve had our moments, that’s for sure.

 I will go to my grave convinced that Charles J Haughey and his cronies came as close as possible to destroying the democracy that matters to us.

 We have never seen corruption like that in Ireland — and it was a spectacularly venal type of corruption because its primary purpose was to support his jumped-up lifestyle. In that sense at least, Haughey might have been the godfather to Johnson.

But we cleaned up our act. For quite a while now, the laws and structures have been in place to try to ensure that corruption won’t become embedded in our politics. They’re not strong enough yet, but they’re there and there is evidence that they work reasonably well. And there is evidence too that our politicians live by the rules.

And yet in the last fortnight or so we’ve had febrile excitement about Paschal Donohoe’s election expenses. I’ve lost count of the number of times he had to parade himself in the Dáil to explain his errors in election accounting. There is no doubt whatever in my mind that we are talking about errors here — errors about tiny amounts of money in election terms — and not deliberate concealment.

Don’t get me wrong. If Paschal Donohoe, for example, had made a tax settlement with the Revenue while he was Minister for Finance, and had lied about it, I’d be in the queue demanding his resignation. But he did nothing like that. Opposition deputies did what they have to do — and I’ve no problem with that either — but it was clear from the start that none of them believed we were dealing with an act of corruption here.

And if the truth be told, I suspect every single member of Dáil Éireann had the thought running through their heads, “there but for the grace of God …”. I’ve been there, and I can tell you that when you set out to be as compliant as possible with the law in relation to election expenses, you’re taking on a full-time and painstaking job.

Exactly the same thing applies to Sinn Féin. You’ll know I’m no fan of that party, but I was a bit boggle-eyed by the stick they have had to take for forgetting to report some of their election spending. Apparently, they forgot to report it because it was in respect of bills they forgot to pay.

You'd have to say, enough already. We’re not perfect, and we’ve never been perfect. There’ve been many times in the past when political heads needed to roll. This was no such occasion, and in fact, it made the whole of politics and political coverage look silly.

Maybe the lesson we need to learn from our next-door neighbour is that some things never change. Political corruption is never too far away. Ultimately, it’s the lack of openness — secrecy where there’s no room for secrecy — that aways does the damage. And it was ever thus.

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