The Bribery Act a new weapon in Britains soft power armoury

10 June, 2011

 

Richard Burge, Chief Executive, writes:

On the 1st July, the Bribery Act comes into force.  Simply, it makes it an offence to give a bribe, to accept a bribe, or to bribe a public official of an overseas government. The law applies to anyone or any organisation that has at least some of its operations in the UK, and it applies to their activities worldwide.

Of course, we could engage in a thoroughly sterile debate about cross-border jurisdictional issues. Will its only effect of British companies be competitiveness in the real world or for tourists simply to get through troublesome obstacles? In talking to Vivian Robinson QC, (the General Counsel of the Serious Fraud Office and the architect of the legal framing and guidance on this law), I have been struck by what a powerful instrument of soft power it may become. I could be accused of over enthusiasm in comparing its significance to the Slave Trade Act of 1807 but I do not think so.

As Joseph Nye keeps reminding us, soft power is having attributes that people want.  The Foreign Secretary makes it clear that the world requires us to inspire other people with how we live up to our own values rather than try to impose them, because now they are able to see in more detail whether we meet our own standards and make up their own minds about that.  The Bribery Act, as the Slave Trade Act did before, says that if you wish to engage with us as a nation, you need to reflect those standards which we impose on ourselves.

Nobody pretends this is going to have an instantaneous effect. The Act is not retrospective.  The judicial interpretation and reasonable but increasingly insistent application will be crucial to its success, not least in dispelling the cynicism that such exercises in addressing values provokes. Doubtless some will say this does not reflect the real world, that it is necessary to be pragmatic and not try to make the world what it is not.  But as Pitt the Younger pointed out, necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom; it is the argument of tyrants, it is the creed of slaves

Because the truth is that bribery is the primary vehicle for corruption. It corrodes the very fabric of the society it infects. It makes armies unreliable and politicians untrustworthy. It creates illegitimate wealth and starves the defenceless. It underpins the abuse of human rights and fuels oppression. It provokes war and destabilises peace. It descends from the high ground of honest commerce into the pit of organised and corporate crime.

In short, the Bribery Act says we value these standards and insist that we achieve them ourselves. And that is soft power.

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