Honest Graft

Michael Brock

  • Corruption in British Politics, 1895-1930 by G.R. Searle
    Oxford, 448 pp, £19.50, November 1987, ISBN 0 19 822915 1

Dr Searle began by investigating the radical right in Edwardian Britain. He soon decided that the accusations of corruption constantly made by its members deserved serious historical attention: they could not all be attributed to anti-semitism and ‘political paranoia’. This led him to widen the scope of his work until it comprehended the whole ‘plutocratic era’ from the 1890s ‘to about 1930’. It became his aim ‘to show the essential unity of a 35-year period ... and to trace the connections between episodes ... which combined to form ... an intricate pattern of paranoia and suspicion’. He had to accept Walter Lippmann’s dictum. All that the historian ‘can really do’, this states, ‘is to write the history of the exposure of political corruption, in other words to describe and analyse political scandal’.

The result makes splendid reading. The detail is not always impeccable, the Marquess of Dufferin being elevated to a dukedom, for instance, and the editor of the Spectator appearing as ‘Loe Strachey’. These blemishes apart, however, the description provided could hardly be bettered. In the sphere of analysis, on the other hand, a good deal remains to be said.

It might have been wise, for a start, to cite the contemporary definitions of political corruption. In the Marconi debate of June 1913 Asquith produced six ‘don’ts’ for a minister. Three of these were concerned with the minister’s obligation never to put himself into a position in which his ‘private pecuniary interest might, even conceivably ... conflict with his public duty’. Two more forbade him to use ‘official information ... for his own private profit or that of his friends’. By the sixth – a ‘rule of prudence’ – he was told to ‘avoid all transactions which could give colour or countenance to the belief’ that he was breaking any of the first five rules. ‘Corruption’ was used then, and has been used since, in both a narrow sense, to apply only to the first three of these rules, and in a wider one where it applied to all six. When in the same debate Balfour called the charge of corruption against the Marconi ministers ‘perfectly futile and absurd’, he was using the term in the narrower sense. By contrast, he had been warned a few years earlier by his cousin, Hugh Cecil, that adopting tariff reform would lead ‘to corruption and ... a general Americanising of our politics’. Here Hugh Cecil gave the term a very wide application. How much political corruption was there in Britain during the ‘plutocratic era’ in either the narrower or the wider sense?

The social corruption of the Edwardian ‘smart set’ is hardly a matter of doubt. The testimony of a group broad enough to include Charles Masterman, Arthur Ponsonby, Father Bernard Vaughan and Arnold White cannot be dismissed out of hand. It would be implausible to suggest that this relaxation in the moral climate had absolutely no effect on politics. Churchill had the imminent prospect of office when late in 1905 he allowed Cassel to furnish the sitting-room in his new house; and even as a minister he continued to accept hospitality from Baron de Forest, and to press the latter’s claims on the Chief Whip. By 1911 the Baron’s ill-repute was such that, even if 450 new peers had been needed to give the Parliament Bill a majority, he would have been excluded from the list by royal command. These may be ranked as small imprudences, however, and when they are set beside Lord Randolph Churchill’s relationship with Lord Rothschild no decline in standards is discernible.

If ‘corruption’ is used in the narrow sense to denote the impingement of private interests on public decisions, even Dr Searle’s researches reveal very little. What is striking about Lloyd George’s Boer War charges against Joseph Chamberlain is how much Ll.G could make out of the exiguous materials at his command. A family as deeply embedded in Birmingham industry as the Chamberlains were bound to be involved in war contracting. Reginald McKenna may have hit on the right explanation for the undue favour shown to Kynochs in the cordite contracts in his remark: ‘when officials have to deal with companies which have the guarantee of great names behind them their judgment and independence are paralysed.’ It is equally probable that the forceful lobbying of the MP for Kilkenny on behalf of Kynochs’ Irish works at Arklow had reminded someone in the War Office that the Government aimed to ‘kill Home Rule by kindness’. Either way, Joseph Chamberlain’s defaults were minimal. He had once spoken about Kynochs in debate without mentioning his or his family’s interest; and, when he had taken office, though he had sold his own holding at a loss, he had not persuaded the members of his family to do the same. The insinuation that he was deeply concerned to turn his brother Arthur, the chairman of Kynochs, into Birmingham’s most successful war contractor was preposterous; and only Chamberlain’s political and family pride prevented him from saying so. Dr Searle omits one crucial fact here. As Arthur Chamberlain was a Liberal and a strong Home Ruler, his politics were anathema to Joe. Neville Chamberlain had his first taste of politics in an accusation about the number of partners in Hoskins. It was alleged that he had increased them to ten in order to free Austen from the provisions of the 1782 Contractors Act, of which, not surprisingly, the managing director of Hoskins had never heard. One of Haldane’s remarks to the Webbs during the Khaki Election summarises what underlay these attacks: ‘The Birmingham ring has made money out of the war ... the electors don’t like it.’

The period produced endless stories about politicians acting corruptly under pressure. In An Ideal Husband Sir Robert Chiltern has obtained the money which underpins his political career by disclosing a government secret when a young private secretary; and Mrs Cheveley tells Sir Robert that she will be in the gallery with his incriminating letter to ensure that he commends the rascally Argentine canal scheme to the House. In one way, that may not have been a thousand miles from the events of the time. In 1897 Joseph Chamberlain told the Commons that in the Jameson Raid nothing had been done to affect Rhodes’s ‘personal position as a man of honour’. Chamberlain may possibly have given this character certificate knowing that one of his fellow Members held the ‘missing telegrams’ and was prepared, should it not be given, to read these to the House. Significantly, the fictional account concerns money: the real event turned on the more complex and less thrilling matter of political misjudgment. After the Marconi affair some of Lloyd George’s actions were attributed by his critics to the ‘hold’ which certain colleagues were said to have on him. But these accounts reveal their purveyors’ states of mind rather than any political realities. In 1917, for instance, Rudyard Kipling was told by ‘a man in the train’ that Churchill had been brought into the Government because he was ‘able to blackmail the Prime Minister’. Kipling duly retailed this. It would have taken more than a world war to diminish his distrust of the two statesmen whom he regarded as the country’s most dangerous radicals.

When ‘corruption’ is used in the wider sense the picture is much the same. Lloyd George’s ‘flutter’ in American Marconis did not suggest that he was an expert at the political form of ‘insider’ dealing. ‘The Chancellor of the Exchequer’, wrote Frances Donaldson, ‘and the Master of Elibank had done what every tyro indulging in a half-guilty flutter does. They had bought half-way up a boom and sold excitedly at a profit. Then at the first serious drop they had bought again in larger quantities, on this occasion half-way down a slump.’ It may be contended that a great deal of corruption went undetected. This view involves the proposition that while the corruption targets at which the National Review and the Eye-Witness fired so ceaselessly were very large, neither journal managed to hit them. Maxse and Cecil Chesterton can hardly have been such bad marksmen as that. The British politicians of the period were a deal less pure than they made out: but when they said that their country had nothing to parallel France’s Panama scandal, or the seamier side of Mark Hanna’s America, they were right. The fires beneath all the smoke were fairly small.

There were, however, at least two areas in which by present-day standards much laxity prevalied. The first was the granting of honours. Even here, some of the trouble was rooted in the social, rather than the political, system. Edward VII made four additions to Balfour’s resignation list in December 1905. The most significant of these was the peerage bestowed on Alfred Harmsworth, allegedly because he had given financial aid to Mrs Keppel. The vast majority of questionable honours were, however, given to reward contributions to party funds. Recent research has shown that this system of honouring contributors had been operating long before it became a major scandal during the coalition years just after the 1914-18 war. Selborne’s efforts to establish by Resolution in both Houses that ‘a contribution to party funds should not be a consideration ... for an honour’ met with little support from either party. Each feared an enquiry into the honours system: each had pending claims. Yet it is not clear at first glance why statesmen such as Balfour, Asquith and Bonar Law tolerated such a system. Here it seems unfortunate that Dr Searle decided to exclude electoral corruption so rigorously from his account.

During the formative years of these Edwardian statesmen large parts of the electoral system had still been very corrupt, and memories of Melbourne’s day had scarcely faded. When Melbourne remarked that there was ‘no damned merit’ about the Garter, he stated the fact with his usual downright quaintness. The Garter was given to secure the support, or neutralise the opposition, of a great magnate. Honours were part of the power-broking system. It was said of Cleveland with some truth that he gained his marquessate in 1827 for acquiring his boroughs, and his dukedom in 1833 for surrendering them. Goderich wanted to use them, Grey to abolish them: Cleveland obliged in both cases. When Buckingham left Peel’s government in 1842 in protest against the change in the corn law, his acceptance of the Garter was recognised as a pledge that he was not joining the opposition. The prime ministers for whom that world was the recent past saw little harm in someone buying an honour: what mattered was that power could not be bought with it. ‘The mere fact that a man takes a peerage [as a reward for a contribution],’ the Westminster Gazette pronounced in February 1914, ‘is proof that his claims are exhausted, and, so far as the public are concerned, in an innocent way. [He] receives a consideration which has no effect on the course of policy ... The newly created peer considers himself in a position of complete independence.’ The Westminster’s editor, J.A. Spender, was close to Asquith, and their views on honours trafficking probably coincided.

The second area of lax practice concerned dealings in land on the public’s behalf. A survey of this would entail asking how far action which accords with legal rights can be deemed corrupt. Dr Searle gives details of the purchase for Army use of Hicks Beach’s Netheravon estate. This aroused criticism because the seller was a leading cabinet minister: but a landowner’s position was so powerful in such a case that he did not need cabinet office in order to hold his countrymen to ransom. The Netheravon purchase could be paralleled by a slightly later one which Dr Searle does not cite. The Balfour Administration bought the land for Rosyth dockyard from the Marquess of Linlithgow. To protests about the price paid the Government replied, no doubt truly, that if compulsory purchase had been used the public would have ended by paying still more.

Local authorities, who are outside Searle’s purview, had long been some of the worst sufferers. They knew, whenever they promoted a Bill, that opposition to it could cost them huge sums. When Bolton promoted a boundary extension in 1877, frantic efforts were made to appease possible opponents. There being then no derating, the Earl of Bradford was promised specially low rating in perpetuity for his agricultural land within the borough.

It is diverting that Selborne, the campaigner for untainted honours, had been a P and O director when Colonial Under-Secretary; and he may possibly have been too tender with the P and O in the matter of the Lascar seamen’s conditions. But the basic fact about Britain was the one with which Dr Searle starts: the central administration had been made meritocratic. The rich could buy honours, most constituencies liked Parliamentary candidates who were generous to local causes, and the luckier landowners could recoup their losses from the agricultural depression out of the public purse: but the spoils were limited and real influence, in national politics at least, was not for sale. To the British middle class, corruption signified the rule of the few in the bad old days. In the United States, by contrast, the connotations of the spoils system had been democratic ever since Jackson. There was no echo of this across the Atlantic. In 1905 no British public man could have spoken as George Washington Plunkitt of Tammany Hall did about ‘honest graft’. That was what underpinned the sometimes frail virtue of Dr Searle’s large and varied cast.