As Great Britain hosted the world and the world continues to celebrate her, I should first observe that broadly speaking Nigerians have a love-hate relationship with the British people. I think this is because in spite of centuries of chequered association from slave trade through colonial to sovereign relationship, and notwithstanding contacts in the areas of education and commerce, the two peoples know little about each other.
As a result, they resort to stereotypes created largely by the media and second-hand perception. I have been a close observer of British society since I came to live and work in the UK some 27 years ago, initially as the Regional Editor for Europe and North America for The Guardian newspaper. Over that period, I have come to know a bit more than the Nigerian who is in the UK as a tourist or a student.
My first observation on the typical British person is that he is an amusing and sometimes eccentric character. For example, you can spirit away a British man’s wife or mistress and he would regard the entire mishap with a stiff upper lip. But try reading the same person’s newspaper over his shoulder and he would give you a how-dare-you stare that is worse than a death threat. He would lend a complete stranger a stick of his cigarette that cost him more than a full pack would in Nigeria, but he would not let go of his plastic lighter that cost no more than N10, preferring to light up for the stranger while holding tightly to his precious plastic!
Of course from the distance of Nigeria, many of us grew up to hear about “the English Gentleman”: the man in three-piece suit, a rolled umbrella and a bowler hat. That gentleman represented more than sartorial excellence and impeccable social graces. He was a proud and upright man who observed the law to the letter, not because it was the law, but because he saw himself as the law – a man of probity for whom it would be infra, beneath his dignity, to be seen to do anything untoward; anything outside of himself.
He was the law because it was his values, conventions and concept of right and wrong which laid the foundation of the law in the first place. The state merely codified these values. He was the source of the state’s sovereign power. His is the only society that operates without a written constitution. He might concede that his old Judeo-Christian heritage from 400 years of Roman rule enriched his values. He might even claim that the Ten Commandments rather than statues, conditioned his upbringing. Thus the idea of the English gentleman being seen, for instance, with his hand in the public purse was an anathema. For him, public office was uncompromisingly sacred. You did not go there for self service but for public service.
The public would regard with amusement the occasional sexual peccadilloes of the public official who is caught with his trousers down outside of his marital bedroom. This would always inevitably lead to resignation as happened to War Minister John Profumo in the government of Harold Macmillan in 1963, and more recently to ministers and other top politicians like David, the late Robin Cooke and Paddy, to name a few. But to be caught in the opprobrium of financial misconduct? Good heavens!
Well, we can no longer perish the thought, for it would appear that over the past half decade, the English gentleman has largely disappeared like Britain’s former colonial possessions. What was once the unthinkable has happened almost routinely. Members of the Houses of Commons and the Lords, the Mother of Parliaments, have actually not just been caught but convicted for fiddling their official expenses. Lawmakers have, in the manner more accustomed to Third World politicians, been breaking the law, claiming allowances for homes they did not live in or lived free of charge, and collecting money for journeys not made and inflating allowances for those journeys that were made.
These gross breaches of public trust were not limited to any one party, but involved all the three main political parties – Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats. All their fingers were so soiled that none had the temerity to stand on a white sheet and point to the other.
As if that was not enough, more disgrace was piled on the nation’s other once respected institutions, suggesting a society in moral free-fall. The banking sector, the backbone of Britain’s financial services industry which placed the City of London at the apex of world finance, joined in this disreputable behaviour. Several leading banks were found to have engaged in the serious malpractice of cheating their customers of hundreds of million pounds by miss-selling them insurance cover on loans and credit cards. Soon after that a new scandal engulfed the banks. It was revealed that major banks, led by Barclays, had manipulated the rate at which they lent money to fellow banks. Dogs were eating dogs!
Even the media, the proud watchdog that had long acquired the ferocity of a bulldog, was found to be nothing like Caesar’s wife: beyond reproach. With its tail between its legs, the bulldog found itself toothless as it had to admit guilt to allegations of illegally accessing the telephone and email accounts of leading public and celebrity figures, paying money to police for information, and generally behaving in the manner of the politicians that the media loved to excoriate.
With this plethora of misdeeds at all levels of British society, you will be right to wonder where I saw this re-birth. Well, as I tell my British friends, those of us from the Third World have a particular reason to feel let down by the misconduct of this people. That is because they have knocked three wheels off the wagon on which we usually rode to charge against our own public officials when they misbehaved. We can no longer point to the political and business probity of a country like Britain as an example; a model. But that is only one side of the coin.
Turn the other side of the coin and you see a nation that is truly embarrassed by the misconduct of its trustees in politics and business, the disgrace of its traditional values, and its genuine effort to bring the miscreants to justice or take justice to them. You see a nation that is genuinely remorseful; not one that will swear to “leave no stone un-turned” and then leaves every stone un-turned!
Or vow to “fish out” the culprits and then hides the culprits, counting on the unfailing amnesia of the public. Britain does not promise “no sacred cows” and then create a safe haven for sacred cows. In practically all the instances of wrongdoing that I have mentioned, the law has taken or is taking its course, without a single exception.
All the parliamentarians involved have refunded all the excess claims they made and at least one was jailed. The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, the equivalent of our IG, resigned for the misdeeds that happened under his watch, even though he was totally innocent. The policemen who took bribes from journalists are all being prosecuted and the journalists who compromised them have lost their jobs, been jailed or are facing prosecution. In the banking sector, no chairman or chief executive of any of the offending banks is still in office. Customers are still receiving huge refunds for what they were cheated out of by the banks.
As we now know, The News of the World, Britain’s highest circulation newspaper, was closed by its owners for its role in the phone and email hacking scandal. Its owners also abandoned their bid to take over Sky TV as mea culpa for the behaviour of their newspaper. More significantly, the government set up a judicial panel headed by the respected Lord Justice to ensure that probity returns to the media industry. Parliament set up another panel for the banking industry.
Their reports will be made public in a White Paper; not put away to gather dust. Their recommendations will be implemented. More importantly, the citizen can be reasonably sure that these misdeeds will not repeat themselves, certainly not on this scale and not for a long time to come. Outside of these scandals Chris Hunne, a cabinet minister, resigned his office when faced with a mere traffic offence.
A nation is re-born when it recognises, addresses and learns necessary lessons from them. From the debris of these scandals, a new ethos is emerging, because Britain has always taken pride in the fact that although the Greeks gave the world democracy, it is Britain that popularised it.
The spectacle of the Olympics celebrations is an outward manifestation of a nation that recognises its past but is not afraid to admit its errors – and have the resolve to tackle them.