Select Committee on International Development Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence



Memorandum submitted by Philip Allott[1]


  1.  History shows that the threat of governmental corruption is a natural condition of society, an endemic disease of the body politic. All public power is always and everywhere corruptible. Governmental corruption is a sort of social entropy. It requires a powerful and sustained social effort to overcome it. We in Europe have struggled for centuries to overcome governmental corruption, not only in the absolute monarchies, but also in the earlier forms of constitutional monarchy (as in Britain), and in the urban republics.

  2.  And we must frankly say that the natural tendency to corruption is never finally overcome. Even in the most sophisticated democracies, the corrupting of public power through the improper use of money and influence is an every-present threat, a threat which takes new forms, ever-more complex and subtle forms going beyond the age-old buying and selling of public decisions. Every society, each in its own way, struggles with the shared human genetic inheritance of governmental corruption.

  3.  It follows that it is a double error to suppose that governmental corruption can be cured by institutional fixes, by narrowly focused law-making and law-enforcement, or to suppose that there is one solution that fits all societies. The infinite cultural and systematic diversity of human societies means that there must be an infinite diversity of responses to the corrupting of public power. But one thing we seem to have learned is that the only sustainable remedy lies in a profound remodelling of society at the level of general ideas, a re-imaging which, in its practical application, must be tailored to fit the particular condition of each particular society.

  4.  In Europe there have been, and there still are, different attitudes and different practices in the treatment of the disease of governmental corruption. But our collective experience and collective thinking have led us to find a long-term remedy in something which has been encapsulated in the idea of constitutionalism, a sort of philosophical social revolution which has meant different things in our different countries but which has a common core of theoretical and practical significance.

  5.  Crucial to the treatment of the problem of the corruption of public power are three aspects of the society-changing philosophy of constitutionalism.

    (1)  It involves accepting the idea that the public wealth of society is distinct from the personal wealth of the holder of public power. The wealth of a commonwealth is common wealth. And the public wealth of a society includes its natural resources, the economic product of its citizens, and all forms of public revenue, including foreign public and private investment.

    (2)  It involves accepting the idea that the public interest of society is not the same thing as the private interest of the holders of public power. The survival and prospering of a society is the survival and prospering of all of its citizens.

    (3)  It involves accepting the idea, which European monarchs found very difficult to accept, that public power is a product of the law, not the source of law. It follows that the limits of public power are determined by, and enforced by, the law.

  6.  Unless and until these ideas begin to be accepted by the holders of public power, the mere criminalising of particular acts of corruption is the application of bandages to a body stricken by the plague.

Philip Allott

June 2000

1   Reader in International Public Law, University of Cambridge. Back

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