Trust and Distrust: Corruption in Office in Britain and Its Empire, 1600-1850 
by Mark Knights.
Oxford, 488 pp., £35, December 2021, 978 0 19 879624 4
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Oliver Dowden​ , the co-chairman of the Conservative Party, appeared twice on the Today programme late last year. First, on 15 November, he answered questions about his party’s handling of the corruption allegations against the MP Owen Paterson, and then again on 17 December, he discussed the loss of Paterson’s North Shropshire seat at the by-election necessitated by his resignation. On both occasions, Dowden insisted that what voters really wanted was for the government to ‘get on with the job’. This was an unfortunate choice of words. Jobbery – the improper use of public office for private gain – was a charge levelled at the British political class for 150 years, and it still has weight today. Allegations of political corruption cut through to voters because the terms involved are immediately comprehensible: money and greed. Yet while the issues raised are at one level universal, they are also historically contingent. Corruption scandals tend to be triggered when abnormal strains – such as war, or a pandemic – affect the body politic. The resulting debates also reflect larger conflicts, relating to political values and cultural norms.

Our modern idea of political corruption is shaped by modern notions of what office-holding involves. Since the early 19th century, office has generally been understood as a trust held on behalf of the public, with a specific reward attached, usually a moderate salary. Other forms of profit – fees or gifts – are prohibited, and a high standard of financial and moral behaviour is expected. Yet this ideal took a long time to emerge. In 1600, political offices were usually seen as the property of the monarch, bestowed as a reward for service. Many offices were unpaid, but most conferred social capital of various kinds and also carried the expectation of profit, to be obtained through the collection of fees and opportunities for patronage.

The aim of Mark Knights’s book is to explain why Britain took so long to move from the old conception of office-holding to our present one by showing how the issue was debated over more than two centuries. A historian of the 17th century by training, Knights stresses that ideas of fiduciary public trust were first advanced by critics of royal power during the Civil War. These men talked of a public good: the ideal office-holder should be impartial, selfless and accountable; any corruption or venality was a ‘breach of trust’. They drew up a ‘black list’ of MPs who had accepted offices and rewards from the king, claiming that this was a conflict of interest. In 1700 and 1701, after the constitutional revolution of 1688, excise and then customs collectors were disqualified from sitting in Parliament for this reason. Earlier, in 1644, Parliament had established an accounts committee to scrutinise the handling of public money. Though it didn’t last long, a similar commission of MPs was re-established in 1691, and functioned for six years.

These proposals and arguments came up against powerful social and political cross-currents. Patronage networks founded on kinship or friendship were deeply entrenched, complicating notions of public trust and blurring the boundaries between public and private. Opportunities to rise through examinations, or retire with pensions, were very rare; almost everyone relied on connections in order to advance their careers and secure an income. On becoming prime minister in the 1720s, Robert Walpole gave posts to six members of his family (brothers, sons and in-laws), as well as to other long-time supporters, prompting the charge that Britain was governed by a ‘Robinocracy’. As late as 1831, Earl Grey was accused of securing offices for his family retinue worth £60,000 a year, even as his government introduced sweeping parliamentary reform. Gift-giving was just as established as patronage; most saw it as bargaining, not bribery. The sale of office wasn’t prohibited until 1809. Even then, commissions in the army were excluded, because royal and aristocratic families were used to buying them and claimed that, by doing so, they were protecting the country from sinister government influence over the military. Most voters were happy with a low-cost state unburdened by high salaries for civil and military officers. This meant that there was little pressure to reform positions that depended on the collection of fees; it also ensured a general tolerance of the petty corruption practised by needy customs officers. Seventeenth-century republican demands for selfless officials working under the scrutiny of parliamentary committees fell out of favour, mainly as a result of the growth of political partisanship from the 1690s. Supporters of party-based politics claimed that it was a better way of probing government behaviour, and of involving voters in public debate. But the rise of parties also helped to spread the idea that interest groups and patronage networks were necessary if governments were to maintain parliamentary support. Walpole, the pre-eminent Whig, succeeded in frustrating an attempt to restore a commission of public accounts, calling it a Tory conspiracy.

The other major difficulty for those seeking to purify office-holding was the enormous increase in state activity between 1690 and 1820, a consequence of repeated costly wars for global supremacy and the associated acquisition of new imperial territory, as well as startling growth in the domestic economy. The expansion of wealth at home led to the appointment of more excisemen, to collect the increased tax revenues. In addition, in an attempt to keep its costs down, the state gave major official responsibilities to private and corporate bodies – most notoriously to the East India Company, but also, for example, to contractors that provided food, equipment and money to the army and navy abroad. In 1761, during the Seven Years’ War, 27 contractors were elected to Parliament; they had, it seemed, recycled their profits as electoral bribes so that they could now sell their parliamentary vote to the government in return for new favours. These individuals and bodies appeared to be out of control; charges of corruption, venality and vested-interest incompetence became central to perceptions of the British state’s activities in Europe, India and North America. India became notorious as the place to get rich quickly, if you could do so before succumbing to the climate. Harry Verelst thought that £30,000 would be ‘sufficient to set down with myself and also to serve my friends’, but George Vansittart advised his nephew to get £60,000. The impeachment in 1787 of the former governor-general, Warren Hastings, was intended to expose government malpractice in India, but it lasted eight years and ended in his acquittal.

Knights’s achievement is to set the attack on ‘Old Corruption’ in a much longer timeframe and a more interesting framework than the conventional view, which has always presented it as a development of the period after 1780. Different themes – accountability, disinterestedness and gift-giving, but also impeachment and press freedom – are treated in separate chapters. His treatment is cautious and cerebral, and conceptual much more than contextual. The emphasis is on political thought rather than practice, with the result that his 18th century looks rather different from that presented by Lewis Namier and his historical school. Though Knights is conscious of the varying circumstances and pressures faced by particular generations, he is less interested in these than in the range of views that periodically emerged, and in the persistence of obstacles to major change. As a result, he makes light of the idea of the 1780s as some sort of dividing line.

Even so, most of his chapters show that major shifts did occur around this time. In 1780 commissioners were appointed to examine the public accounts, and in fifteen reports over seven years they set out the core principles of public accounting. A trial in 1783 laid down the principle that a clerk in a government office was accountable to the public, not to the private interests of his boss. In 1782 the Treasury prohibited payments of fees and gifts to its staff and established the principle of paying fixed salaries from its pooled fees, while in 1786 commissioners recommended the introduction of official pensions. The context for all this activity was the humiliating failure to defeat the American colonial rebellion, which coincided with a severe economic depression. Ongoing tensions with France, as well as the absence of effective control over Indian and Irish affairs, contributed to a sense of general crisis. MPs demanded better government; William Pitt’s premiership after 1783 depended not just on providing it but on being seen to do so. Since the 1760s, popular tribunes like John Wilkes and John Cartwright had been changing the terms of debate by demanding more press freedom and more political engagement with the people. They claimed that the public interest could be defined and defended only if newspapers reported what was spent on whom, and if politicians were obliged to respond. And now cartoonists were able to grab popular attention with graphic portrayals of ruling-class greed and excess, especially when they were presented with a particularly juicy scandal, as in 1809, when it was discovered that Mary Anne Clarke, the mistress of the Duke of York, commander-in-chief of the army, had been using her position to broker the sale of commissions.

Historians​  of later periods will benefit from applying Knights’s big themes to subsequent stages of the corruption story. Just as empire and war were crucial to the undisciplined expansion of the 18th-century state, global peace and the slackening of imperial acquisitions after 1815 allowed for more systematic institutional reform and the creation of a distinctively Victorian state culture. After Waterloo, long-term peace was possible (because of the European diplomatic concert) and nationally advantageous (because of British naval and commercial superiority). There were occasional invasion panics, leading to expenditure spikes, and there was a serious war in 1854-56, but for most of the sixty years after 1815 state spending could be kept under control, since it went mainly on the army, the navy and the interest payments on the wartime national debt. The cost of empire outside India was modest, especially once self-government was granted to the settler colonies in the 1840s and 1850s, and the Indian regime paid for itself (as far as the domestic taxpayer was concerned), even after the East India Company was effectively abolished in 1858. Government and Parliament shared a desire for a cheaper and more accountable state, reflecting a growing consensus about what constituted the public interest. By the 1830s, sinecures had been abolished, ministers had stopped employing patronage as part of election contests, and nearly all the offices of the crown had been brought under parliamentary control. After the 1832 Reform Act, Parliament increased the pressure for transparency and economy, radical MPs criticised spending on the army and the monarchy, and in 1861 a permanent Committee of Public Accounts was created. Most of these developments were supported by the Treasury, which began its campaign for ‘Treasury control’ over other departments’ spending. No one was keener on this than Charles Trevelyan, its chief civil servant from 1840 to 1859, who had made his reputation in India, aged 22, with a campaign against East India Company officials who took gifts.

Yet it was impossible to root out all vested interests – not least because there were many differing definitions of what a vested interest was. Most cabinet ministers found their moderate salaries unobjectionable because they had estate revenues to fall back on, while it was assumed that MPs, being public-spirited men of property, needed no salary at all (they didn’t receive one until 1911). Governments tried to purify the House of Commons by legislating to prevent unsavoury individuals from winning elections by unsavoury means. Anti-bribery measures also aimed to reform the ungentlemanly voter by forcing him to give up the treats he expected during election contests – free feasting and sometimes job offers from candidates. Before 1883 these measures had limited success, while social deference to landlords remained widespread. The mid-Victorian state looked much less pure at election time than it did in the Treasury ledgers. ‘New men’ jostled to gain entry to Parliament: this would prove their gentlemanly status, but also safeguard their financial concerns. George Hudson, Robert Stephenson and Edward Watkin were merely the most famous representatives of the substantial ‘railway interest’ in the Commons, while several Rothschilds and Barings also held seats, allowing them to assist discreetly on their speciality, enormous international loans.

The 1867 Reform Act greatly increased the urban male electorate. It was a watershed in the history of political corruption, but not for the reasons that reformers had hoped. John Stuart Mill and the liberal intelligentsia of the 1860s campaigned for franchise extension largely as a way of defeating the emerging ‘plutocracy’ in Parliament; they were confident that intelligent working men would accept their leadership instead, in an alliance of ‘brains and numbers’. As usual, Mill’s ideals were unrealistic: by 1880 there were more complacent, conservative bankers and businessmen in the Commons than ever. The Second Reform Act opened the way for measures that purified the state a little more: competitive examinations in the civil service in 1870, the abolition of the purchase of army commissions in 1871. But, suddenly, radicals found that there was little public interest in further reforms of this sort, because after the high-profile democratisation of 1867 it was hard to claim that the state was still in the hands of aristocratic vested interests. Indeed, these limited reforms had actually laid the ground for a late 19th-century explosion of support for the great institutions that radicals had spent decades criticising: empire, army and crown. The modern Conservative Party was born.

In 1883 a far-reaching Corrupt Practices Act finally put a stop to electoral bribery. Strict limits were imposed on candidates’ spending in constituencies. (Rich men continued to have an advantage when it came to being selected, however, and Conservative MPs were usually expected to pay their election expenses until after the Second World War.) National party organisation became more important. Parties needed a fund for each general election, so they courted the wealthy more assiduously and used the honours system to gratify the desire for social acceptance. In 1895, Lord Rosebery’s short-lived Liberal government gave peerages to a banker and a linoleum manufacturer in return for assistance. In the following decade, Conservative ministries created 1447 knights, against 448 in 1875-84. By the late 1890s, the ‘plutocracy’ problem had become a major subject of discussion, underpinned by a degree of antisemitism, anti-Americanism and distrust of City speculators.

Empire and war further inflamed the debate. Liberals charged that the Conservative government was drawn into the Boer War by the greed and jobbery of the ‘Randlords’. Punch drew a giant snake, the ‘Boa-War Contractor’, squeezing the life out of the powerless taxpayer. Later, in 1912, Lloyd George, the Liberal chancellor of the exchequer, was found to have invested in a branch of the Marconi company, with which the government had recently signed a major contract to provide wireless stations in far-flung imperial territories. Hilaire Belloc’s National League for Clean Government had a field day, as did others who hated Lloyd George’s demagoguery and radicalism. After Lloyd George became prime minister in 1916, many wealthy businessmen who had benefited financially from the expanded war state received honours: more than 1800 new knights were created in five years, a baronetcy was given to a convicted food hoarder and the 1922 honours list included a South African diamond magnate who had been fined half a million pounds for fraud. An associate of the prime minister called Maundy Gregory brokered the sale of honours in order to establish an electoral fund which would allow Lloyd George to continue his career. This was necessary because, by 1922, he had fallen foul of both the Liberal and Conservative leaderships.

Here was another alarming constitutional novelty: Lloyd George seemed to be using corrupt money to free himself from the constraints of party and become dictator. It was easy for his Conservative opponents to marshal these allegations – not least because of Lloyd George’s reliance on the ‘hard-faced men’ who had done well out of the war – and bring his regime down. This didn’t prevent the Conservatives themselves from successfully seeking donations from many wealthy businessmen, exploiting in particular the new electoral threat from a Labour Party funded by the major trade unions. In the elections of 1929 and 1935, Conservative Party spending reached modern levels in real terms. A law against the sale of honours was passed in 1925 – but, for lack of concrete evidence, only Gregory has ever been successfully prosecuted under it, and this was in relation to the sale of Vatican knighthoods rather than British ones.

Is this long history​  of any use when examining the political controversies of 2021? The opposition parties have sought to tar Boris Johnson’s government with corruption, and this has required them to emphasise the uniqueness of its misdoings. Even so, history may supply some useful parallels.

The shock of the pandemic has exposed some uncomfortable truths about the modern British state: its vast emergency powers, but also its unpreparedness for the unexpected, its scope for inefficiency under lax leadership, and its instinctive reliance on corporate contracts. In November 2020, the National Audit Office reported that the government had awarded £18 billion in Covid-related contracts between March and July that year, more than half of it without competition. Labour claimed around that time that at least £1 billion had been awarded to companies with connections to the Conservative Party; by October 2021 it suggested that the figure had grown to £3.5 billion. In November 2021, the government was forced to release details of 47 companies awarded contracts for PPE through a high-priority lane set up to allow officials and NHS professionals, but also MPs and members of the House of Lords, to make rapid referrals of firms deemed particularly good prospects. Unsurprisingly, some of these deals were signed without due diligence, resulting in the production, for instance, of millions of unusable face masks. On 12 January the High Court ruled that these high priority lanes were unlawful and that the justification for them was flawed. As Abby Innes has argued (LRB, 16 December 2021), the outsourcing of government functions since the 1980s, originally advocated in the name of efficiency, has produced vastly complicated and often questionable state relationships with business and third-sector agencies.

But does this mean there is no scope for the reassertion of rigorous Treasury control over departmental spending? Trevelyan’s vision was consolidated between 1919 and 1956 by his successors as Treasury chiefs, Warren Fisher and Edward Bridges. It has never been absolute, especially in relation to the Ministry of Defence, but it has always been government’s main weapon in the fight against incompetent Whitehall extravagance. Ambitious and independently wealthy, Rishi Sunak, the current chancellor, may have an incentive to position himself as an advocate of financial rectitude, in the 19th-century manner (he has hung a portrait of Gladstone in his office). If the official inquiries into the government’s pandemic management turn out to be as damning as the initial newspaper reports suggest, he would be wise to do so, for they have the potential to change the terms of debate about corporate influence over the state, and saddle his party with a negative image for years to come.

The second plank of the November 2021 scandal was the Conservatives’ attempt to overturn the suspension of Owen Paterson after the Commons Select Committee on Standards decided that he had broken the rules on paid advocacy by making repeated approaches to government agencies on behalf of the diagnostics firm Randox and a sausage manufacturer, Lynn’s Country Foods. The committee, and Parliament’s own standards commissioner, Kathryn Stone, exist to scrutinise such behaviour, and, as Theresa May pointed out, the rules are clear and have been enforced often enough. The House of Commons first declared in 1695 that nobody should gain an advantage by paying an MP to advocate a particular cause. Yet Johnson’s government still chose to impose a three-line whip in an attempt (successful, but short-lived) to force its MPs to support a motion to delay Paterson’s suspension while a new committee with a Conservative majority was set up to decide on revising the rules. It seemed to want to undermine the standards regime implemented in the 1990s by John Major and triggered by controversy about financial rewards given to two Tory MPs, Neil Hamilton and Jonathan Aitken. This was when the select committee and the role of parliamentary commissioner were established, together with an extra-parliamentary Committee on Standards in Public Life. The latter drew up seven principles of public life – selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership – named for its first chair, Lord Nolan. Conservative MPs have recently criticised Stone’s unusually high-profile actions as standards commissioner, such as her determined investigation of Johnson’s holiday arrangements on Mustique, though the committee ended by concluding that his declarations on the matter had not been irregular.

Major has drawn a link between the government’s distrust of the standards regime and its resentment of challenges from other independent bodies such as the Supreme Court and the Electoral Commission. The new Elections Bill proposes to allow the government to set the Electoral Commission’s priorities, as well as to give Parliament the ability to reprimand it for any failure of compliance and to remove the commission’s power to prosecute those who break election rules. This follows recent Conservative criticism of the commission, for example of its investigation into the Vote Leave campaign, which led to fines against the campaigners but also a successful appeal by Darren Grimes against the fine levied on him. The commission also recently fined the Conservative Party £17,800 for failing accurately to report the funding arrangements for the redecoration of the prime minister’s Downing Street flat.

The furore​  over regulation should therefore be seen in a wider context. Conservative MPs who justify the government’s counterattacks often present them as assertions of democratic accountability. These bothersome unelected bodies represent a worldview many Tories distrust as biased: as bureaucratic, indeed Eurocratic, and Blairite. Against the conventional assertion that their independent scrutiny of official power serves the public interest, the claim is now rife, especially when these bodies slip up, that they are politicised participants in a culture war. The Electoral Commission (2001) and the Supreme Court (2009) were both New Labour innovations. The standards regime was also strengthened under Blair: the House of Lords Appointments Commission was set up as a vetting body in 2000. In December 2020 Johnson rejected the commission’s advice that he should not grant a peerage to the online stock-trading magnate and former Conservative Party treasurer Peter Cruddas, who, like most recent treasurers, has given the party at least £3 million. Johnson also disregarded the findings of Sir Alex Allan, then his independent adviser on ministerial standards, that the home secretary, Priti Patel, had breached the ministerial code by bullying her staff. He wasn’t constitutionally bound to act on this because the post (created by New Labour in 2006) has no independent powers of investigation. Similarly, Britain doesn’t have an anti-corruption agency, though many other countries now do. Instead it has an ‘anti-corruption champion’, an unpaid post (created by Blair in 2004) appointed by the prime minister. It is now held by John Penrose, a Conservative MP who, according to his official webpage, ‘enjoys fishing and beekeeping’. Penrose is married to Dido Harding, the Conservative life peer appointed by the government to successive senior NHS roles, who has been extensively criticised for the cost of the Test and Trace programme, particularly the use of expensive private consultants.

Charles Moore recently complained in the Daily Telegraph about an unelected bureaucratic establishment or ‘blob’, and encouraged the government to challenge it. Clearly this is a different establishment from the one patronised by Lord Moore, an alumnus of Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, a famous foxhunter, ex-editor of the Telegraph and recipient of a peerage from Johnson. In November 2021, Johnson and Moore both attended the Garrick Club dinner at which, allegedly, it was decided that Johnson should challenge the Standards Committee’s judgment on Paterson, a friend of Moore’s since they studied history together at Cambridge. Moore’s ideal establishment is a profoundly historical one, and so, surely, is Johnson’s. They want to preserve what they regard as the traditions and idiosyncrasies of British political life from those they consider unimaginative, humourless, ahistorical enforcers. There is a type of historical biography that idealises the shrewdness of a small cadre of 18th and 19th-century male politicians: their plots against domestic rivals, their canny and extensive patronage, their parliamentary bon mots and their nonchalant forays into international affairs, all of which left ample time for hunting, dining and writing elegant works of history. In forty years of teaching history, I have often encountered undergraduates (usually Tory student politicians) whose touching enthusiasm for this Great Man version of history I have rarely managed to unsettle. Johnson seems to share it. The attempt to lump him in with the Bannon-Trump new right has always been problematic: his view of the world is much more instinctively historical than theirs, though imaginary in its own way.

Ironically, Johnson is likely to succeed in being viewed like his 18th-century predecessors, but for the wrong reasons, because of the third element of the corruption scandal: the revelations about Downing Street life that ran parallel to the Paterson affair. They began with reports about the refurbishment of the prime minister’s flat, initially focused on the £840-a-roll gold wallpaper apparently required by his wife (christened ‘Carrie Antoinette’ by the faction opposed to her) and moving on to the question of whose money was used to pay for it, and what they might have wanted in return. This saga has now been investigated twice by Johnson’s new adviser on ministerial standards, Lord Geidt, but his lack of powers, on top of his background as an army officer and senior courtier, has led to calls that scrutiny of this sort should be conducted by a more high-profile tribune of the public interest.

More damagingly, a series of stories then broke about parties at Number Ten during the 2020 lockdown, helpfully leaked from within the government. The sequence of revelations has forced the government into ever more absurd defences of its behaviour, inviting public ridicule, but the basic story is one of feasting, entitlement, hypocrisy and abuse of the public’s trust. Those who eat, drink and make merry, potentially at public expense, while imposing severe restrictions on the liberties of the vast majority of citizens, cannot expect any favours. That was the main lesson of the potent and often scurrilous popular allegations of the post-1780 period. Just as these had most effect at times of severe economic depression, so voters now have particular cause to resent politicians who disregard the rules that have forced millions to make repeated sacrifices of companionship, earnings and freedom (as well as compelling them to pay hundreds of pounds to private companies for simple tests before travelling abroad).

Two judgments will be cast on the Johnson government, one electoral, one historical. As the polls show, the affair of the Downing Street parties has rekindled a long-standing popular assumption that governments are staffed by suspect elites: that the snouts in the trough are all much the same. This is particularly damaging to an administration whose electoral majority and political messaging rely so much on its boast that it will protect ordinary Britons against hostile threats at home and abroad. (This populist appeal was already under strain as a result of the difficulty of showing any tangible Brexit benefits.) Even if the effectiveness of the corruption charge has waned by the next election, the government must still negotiate the challenges of inflation and energy price increases in such a way as to suggest that it remains on the side of ordinary voters. The opposition will no doubt seek to turn the election, when it comes, into a referendum on ministerial competence and character.

Historically, the government will be judged in the first instance by the evidence from the various inquiries into its behaviour: on its conduct during lockdown, and then on the management of Covid. Later, the historians will descend, and they will look for consistency and plausibility in the government’s public presentation, coherence in its core policies and success in delivering on its stated promises. They will do this not because they are a ‘blob’ but because it is the way they work.

It seems unlikely that Johnson will lead his party into the next election. This raises the broader question of whether the government’s handling of patronage and contracts merely reflects his personal style as a chancer for whom politics is the art of transcending rules and constraints – or whether there is a more ambitious agenda. Clearly, many Conservatives want to challenge the Blairite state settlement. The underlying issue is whether, intentionally or otherwise, their cavalier approach to government will upend the whole 19th-century idea of the public interest on which the popular legitimacy of the Victorian state rested. A lot may depend on who succeeds Johnson as party leader. In any case, it’s a fair bet that ‘Boris’, the beneficiaries of his patronage and his media cheerleaders will come to be seen as symbolic of the shortcomings of a political generation, in the same way that ‘Old Corruption’ is inseparable from ‘Robin’ Walpole and his ‘Robinocracy’.

14 January 2022

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