How do you say ‘corruption’ in English?

Felix Bazalgette

Jeremy Deller recently made a poster that says: ‘Cronyism is English for Corruption.’ I’ve been trying to collect the other words that journalists and politicians in England use for it. There are a lot of them.

We’ve got revolving doors, outside work, private earnings, temporary secondments and second jobs. There’s lobbying, bias, cash for honours, cash for access, cash for questions. A chumocracy with preferential access, paid advocacy, sleaze, side hustles, a lack of transparency, special treatment, favours in kind, treats and gifts, patronage and not fully declaring an interest. Purges, packed boards and preferred appointees. VIP or high-priority lanes, undue influence, bending the rules, changing the rules. Conflict of interest, actual and perceived. Unenforced procurement protocols.

One reason for this varied vocabulary could be that there are many forms of corruption and it helps to be specific. Accepting a ticket to a football match from a gambling firm (a favour in kind) is different from working for an arms manufacturer immediately after leaving your job as defence minister (the revolving door), or being paid a salary by a food company to try to change the law to their benefit (lobbying), or getting your friend a PPE contract (VIP lane, procurement protocols), or trying to alter a committee in charge of standards and regulations (purges, packed boards).

The fact that we have particular terms for all these activities could be a sign that the system is working, as Oliver Dowden would have us believe. ‘We are constantly improving standards,’ the Conservative Party chairman said on Monday. ‘We’ve made mistakes and we regret that. We’ve accepted that, we’re moving on.’

Yet the proliferation of euphemisms is also meant to imply that corruption varies not only in kind, but in degree. There are grades of bad behaviour, and some of it may be acceptable, inevitable or even relatable. Who wouldn’t have a good side hustle given the chance? Who wouldn’t want to be ‘the highest earning MP in the UK’, as the Esher and Walton Conservatives advertised their guest speaker Geoffrey Cox last month?

Asked on Monday if Britain could ‘slip into being a corrupt country’, Dowden said that ‘we are an exceptionally long way from that,’ as if corruption were always something that happens elsewhere, a long way away. In a gilded room at Buckingham Palace in 2016, at a 90th birthday party for the queen, David Cameron was caught on camera chortling to the monarch and the archbishop of Canterbury about ‘fantastically corrupt’ countries such as Nigeria and Afghanistan. Writing for al-Jazeera this week, Patrick Gathara, a writer and cartoonist based in Nairobi, describes the UK using the kind of language that British journalists tend to reserve for reporting on African nations: ‘the ethnically divided country, which is plagued by tribal separatist movements’; ‘the kingdom where, according to the humanitarian agency FareShare, one in every eight people struggles to afford enough to eat’.

‘MPs in the UK are paid by companies to “lobby” for public contracts which are then placed in a “high-priority lane”,’ Gathara writes. ‘When much the same thing happens in Kenya, MPs are said to have received “bribes” and money is “funnelled” into the pockets of their corrupt benefactors in the private sector.’ The fact that the UK’s banks and property market are such a well known laundry for international dirty money makes the linguistic double standard all the more offensive.

‘Words mean what we choose them to mean,’ the Tory MP Sir William Cash announced on the Today programme in 2019, when challenged on his use of violent language. He was giving voice to the oddly Baudrillardian strain in modern Conservatism – all about narratives, spectacle, chaos, and the forceful creation and maintenance of a self-serving, singular reality. But where violence is done to language, as Primo Levi contended in The Drowned and the Saved, it is also done to people. The many different terms for corruption don’t only represent the shuffling around of tokens between elites, but are signs of actual harm done to real people – deteriorating public services, terrible jobs, expensive, unhealthy housing, more illness and earlier deaths.


  • 18 November 2021 at 6:44pm
    Joe Morison says:
    ‘Words mean what we choose them to mean.’
    Sir William Cash MP

    ‘He that applies his names to ideas different from their common use [...] speaks gibberish.’
    John Locke

    • 30 November 2021 at 1:13am
      Graucho says: @ Joe Morison
      So Cash identifies with Humpty Dumpty. Well we all know what happened to him.

  • 19 November 2021 at 8:25pm
    Peter Morningsnow says:
    In American there is only one standard definition of corruption, thanks to our entirely incorruptible Supreme Court, and that is quid pro quo. If quid pro quo cannot be established beyond the shallowest shade of a doubt, it is all very simple and legal: no corruption. Backwoods Europeans need to stop inventing more words for a concept that at any rate can probably only legally exist as an idealized abstraction, like Spinoza's God, and rather start cherrypicking their definitions like we do.