In 1929, Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy wrote a short story called ‘Chains’, in which he considered the implications of his fast-shrinking world. Karinthy’s characters invent the game ‘Six Degrees of Separation’: you pick an inhabitant of the earth—anyone at all—and create a network of personal acquaintances from you to them, using no more than five intermediaries.
Karinthy wrote ‘Chains’ a hundred years ago, when the Earth’s population was considerably smaller. Today, technology and population density make his theory stronger: more people on the planet means everyone knows more people; the internet opens up the definition of ‘knowing’; you and any random person at the other end of the country edge that bit closer together.
Given Karinthy’s thesis, one could reasonably argue that the pivotal role played by overlapping personal and political relationships in the UK’s response to Covid-19 is nothing more than coincidence. This type of argument has been made by leading Conservative politicians. There are so few competent, professional operatives: how could they not know each other?
The events of Covid, however, cast doubt on Karinthy – not because six connections is too few, but because it seems too many.
Dido Harding—Tory peer, graduate of the same university as David Cameron, wife of Tory MP John Penrose, fellow member of the Jockey Club along with Matt Hancock, and until recently, head of NHS Test and Trace—could apparently link to anyone in two degrees or fewer. The same goes for Kate Bingham, who’s a schoolmate of Boris Johnson’s sister, the wife of Tory MP Jesse Norman (himself an old Etonian), and was the first head of the government’s vaccine taskforce.
If you dig into the government’s Covid contracts record, this small-world serendipity grows. Randox, a healthcare company paid £133 million to produce Covid testing kits, employs another Tory MP and is the formal healthcare partner of the aforementioned Jockey Club. Policy consultancy firm Public First, which billed the government around £550,000 for public opinion research, is run by a political associate of former Downing Street advisor Dominic Cummings and a former advisor to Michael Gove.
The list goes on: Hanbury Strategy, paid just under £600,000 to conduct public opinion research, worked with Cummings on the Vote Leave campaign. Topham Guerin, awarded a £3 million contract for comms, worked on the Tories’ 2019 General Election campaign (remember ‘Factcheck UK’?). Hinpack, awarded a £30 million contract to make test tubes despite no previous medical manufacturing experience, is owned by Matt Hancock’s former neighbour.
PPE provision alone has served to achieve a series of heart-warming Conservative reunions. The deal in which Ayanda Capital was awarded a substantial contract for face masks—millions of which ended up faulty—was brokered by an advisor who previously worked for the Board of Trade, chaired by Liz Truss. P14 Medical, which was given a £156 million contract to import PPE from China, is run by a (now former) Tory councillor. The owner of Globus (Shetland) Limited, which won a £93 million contract, has donated over £300,000 to the Tory Party over the last three years. PPE Medpro, which won a £122 million contract just seven weeks after it was set up, is run by a former business associate of Tory peer Baroness Mone.
That’s only a sample of the contracts called into question.
In light of these connections, the National Audit Office’s November report found that companies with political connections have access to a ‘high-priority lane’ that makes them ten times more likely to win government procurement contracts for which they bid – and that those connections are not always clearly, comprehensively, or immediately documented. A report by Transparency International has now found that as many as one in five contracts raised red flags for possible corruption. Luckily, the government has an ‘anti-corruption champion’ of its own: Dido Harding’s husband.
More recently, the government published a green paper which made proposals to improve the system’s transparency – the need for which was further demonstrated when Matt Hancock was found to have acted unlawfully in regards to procurement contracts in February. Of course, it’s worth noting that not all of the relationships have been complimented by a cash exchange: Harding and Bingham’s appointments are to unpaid positions, but it’s likely that they’ll pay professional—and therefore financial—dividends once the worst of the virus is, one day, over.
Nonetheless, focusing our critiques on financial transactions alone risks obscuring the bigger democratic problems made evident by ‘chumocracy’. In a country in which around 50 percent of the top positions in the judiciary, the civil service, the media and, crucially, business, are taken by the 7 percent of the population that attend private school, the intrusion of for-profit companies into the state is inevitably coloured by personal relationships. As Dan Carden observed in Tribune in Februrary, almost half of the UK’s top 50 corporations have connections with a sitting MP; the uncovered Cameron-Greensill and Johnson-Dyson relationships have made clear that the country’s corruption issues are not confined to Covid.
The Tories’ argument is right, then, in a way – if you swap ‘competence’ for class. It’s not just that individual friendships facilitate state corruption, although that’s undoubtedly a factor; it’s also that when power is concentrated in the hands of a select few—who are all graduates from the same schools, or members of the same clubs—the intrusion of private enterprise into public funds by constant, ideological outsourcing means they all work together, regardless of the sector they choose. Chumocracy is an inevitable by-product of a revolving-door culture utilised by a small social elite interested, above all, in protecting its own.
The reason these relationships and their attendant catastrophes have come under such scrutiny this year is that, yes, the problem has grown worse as the conventional rules of competition have been suspended, but also that the country needs someone to blame. In truth, outsourcing public services has often led to failure, whether mediated by ‘chums’ or not. Campaigner John Lister, writing this year for the Lowdown, observed that the early contracting-out in the NHS driven by the Thatcher administration led to ‘a disastrous drop in hygiene standards that created ideal conditions for the spread of a new “superbug” MRSA.’ Overcrowding proliferated; waiting lists grew.
Forty years later, little has changed. The limits of buying-in from the likes of Serco, Sitel, or any of the above companies with or without personal connections to Tory higher-ups is evident in the fact that the UK’s death rate is, at the time of writing, 126,862.
It’s perhaps telling that the narrator of ‘Chains’ sees the new interconnectedness of the world as a means to gain social status or material assets:
I proposed a more difficult problem: to find a chain of contacts linking myself with an anonymous riveter at the Ford Motor Company — and I accomplished it in four steps. The worker knows his foreman, who knows Mr. Ford himself, who, in turn, is on good terms with the director general of the Hearst publishing empire.
I had a close friend, Mr. Árpád Pásztor, who had recently struck up an acquaintance with the director of Hearst publishing. It would take but one word to my friend to send a cable to the general director of Hearst asking him to contact Ford who could in turn contact the foreman, who could then contact the riveter, who could then assemble a new automobile for me, should I need one.
Karinthy’s degrees of separation are the connections which underpin the bourgeoisie. Directors-general and business owners are united by both actual friendship and simple mutual interest; workers are included only by relations of labour.
Capitalism has always been mediated through the relationships of the powerful, and in recent decades, those relationships have been allowed to pervade our public sector in increasingly aggressive and obscure ways. Banishing chumocracy from public life will therefore take more than punitive action against a few bad apples. It will take a new economic system altogether.