May 14, 2022

Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption blog

In a recent blog for the Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption I outline some of the ways that historical data can be useful for those concerned with corruption today.

March 07, 2022

Unexplained Wealth

Today’s Economic Crime bill extends the reach of an ‘unexplained wealth order’ (UWO). This enables the government to confiscate assets thought to derive from corruption or money laundering, something that seems a relatively recent idea. UWO’s have their origins in the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 which introduced Civil Recovery Orders (CROs) which permitted the confiscation of criminal property using a lower “civil” standard of proof. Instead of needing to prove a crime was committed, law enforcement bodies only needed to show a court that on the balance of probabilities (or “more likely that not”) unlawful conduct had occurred. But to cover instances when even a prosecution was undesirable or impracticable, UWOs were introduced via the 2017 Criminal Finances Act, partly as a result of pressure from Transparency International. UWOs allow for a court order requiring someone to explain their interest in property and how they obtained it; failure to comply can then lead to confiscation.

But these issues have a much longer history, as two East India Company cases (one eighteenth and the other, nineteenth century) illustrate. The idea of unexplained wealth orders was aired in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, even if at that time it failed to find support, in part because of Britain’s nervousness about undermining the sanctity of property.

Sir Thomas Rumbold, about whom I have written earlier, was the subject of a parliamentary ‘bill of pains’ in 1783 which claimed that the money Rumbold had sent back from India – many thousands of pounds - should be ‘considered proofs of a corrupt acquisition of his fortune’. Rumbold nevertheless successfully resisted attempts to force him to reveal what he saw as his ‘private’ accounts.

There are interesting similarities between Rumbold’s case and that of Mordaunt Ricketts, Resident at the Court of Lucknow. His case highlights the challenges involved in enabling authorities to investigate the private affairs of those suspected of corruption, and whether such people should be considered ‘innocent until proven guilty’.

Ricketts was born into a well-connected family and, as a result of some high-placed patronage, was appointed Resident at Lucknow. This was the wealthy and luxurious capital of the Kingdom of Oudh, a nominally independent state that was used by the British as a buffer state over which they sought to exercise a large degree of control. Ricketts’ duties included crowning the King in a pageant that included 400 elephants and the close relationship between the monarch and Ricketts seems to have continued for many years, even after the latter left India (see a miniature portrait he received as a gift). One visitor to Lucknow noted that the inhabitants regarded him as ‘a parent and a friend’ and shed ‘many a tear’ when he left in 1829.

Panoramic painting in three sections, illuminated, Illustrating the state entry of Ghazi ud-Din Haidar (nawab 1814-1819; king 1819-1827) of Oudh passing through the crowded streets of Lucknow

Panoramic painting in three sections, illuminated, Illustrating the state entry of Ghazi ud-Din Haidar (nawab 1814-1819; king 1819-1827) of Oudh passing through the crowded streets of Lucknow

Ricketts both married into corrupt money and faced allegations himself. In 1825 he married Charlotte, the wealthy widow of George Ravenscroft who had been collector of land revenue in the Cawnpore region and had absconded with large sums out of the treasury. In 1829, shortly before a planned return to England, Ricketts was told that he was himself the subject of corruption allegations. He nevertheless decided to board ship rather than remain to face down the charges which related to unexplained wealth accrued during his time at Lucknow and to monetary bills ‘drawn in his favour for great sums of money on the Company itself’. Amongst other things, Ricketts was accused of sending far larger amounts of money back to Britain than his salary could have enabled him to save. In June 1834 he was formally dismissed from the East India Company’s service, even though he had already retired. The Company had decided that not to punish ‘the strong presumption of guilt’ would have set ‘an example of the impunity of official misconduct highly prejudicial to the public service’ and ‘be adverse to the first principle of Justice’.

Ricketts was stung into publishing a Refutation of the Charges to try to vindicate himself from the allegation of ‘personal corruption’. He argued that the accusations lacked proof, that he had not been heard in his own defence, and that he could not be expected to open his private accounts, as the Company had demanded, for public scrutiny - something he saw as ‘tyrannical’. His refusal, his insisted, should not be considered grounds for suspicion, since it was wrong to jump to the conclusion that the mystery money must be dirty. The Company, he was adamant, had ‘no title whatever, to make inquisition into my affairs’. He refused ‘this unprecedented call upon me, [which] resolves itself into a claim, that I should forward my private account books to Government, to shew whether they may not contain matter implicating myself’. To surrender in this way was also to sacrifice ‘one of the best features in the character of an English gentleman’.

The Company retaliated with counter-claims. Any honest man would be happy to disclose his accounts, they argued, to clear his name – something necessary given the rumours of Ricketts’ corruption that swirled round India. The paper also attacked ‘a class of twaddlers who, having the phrase “no man is obliged to criminate himself” by rote, constantly apply it on every occasion’. The maxim was, the paper added, one of those ‘judicial fallacies’ for if there was a way (short of torture) to get a criminal to confess falsehoods, ‘its adoption would be defensible by every just principle of criminal jurisprudence.’ By refusing to disclose his accounts, Ricketts ‘voluntarily registered the consciousness of his own dishonesty’.

But it was Ricketts who won. The Company never forced him to disclose the origins of his wealth and never recovered any of it. It was even forced by a High Court ruling to continue paying his pension. Ricketts bought a stylish house in Cheltenham and threw himself into the social scene of the spa town, including heading the Freemasons and helping to found the Cheltenham Horticultural and Floral Society. He also acted as patron for a local balls, fetes and banquets. According to the local newspaper, an Indian in full native costume welcomed guests to a ball in 1834, which was decorated with Indian birds and even an elephant’s head.

As the case suggests, the obstacles to forcing individuals to explain seemingly unaccountable wealth proved overwhelming in the early nineteenth century. It would take almost another two centuries for the principles expressed by Ricketts to be reversed. Today, as a result of the outrage provoked by the war in Ukraine, we witness a further strengthening of this significant change of attitude, both legal and political.

December 13, 2021

Trust and Distrust: Corruption in Office in Britain and its Empire, 1600–1850 is published!

My book, Trust and Distrust: Corruption in Office in Britain and its Empire 1600-1850, has now been published by OUP. My copies arrived, appropriately enough, on International Anti-Corruption day.

cover from pdf

The book seeks to show

  • the importance of seeing corruption and anti-corruption over a 'long early modern' period, joining the eighteenth and early nineteenth century to important seventeenth century developments
  • the protracted and hard-fought nature of the development of the state, public office and office more generally. Sale of office, for example, took over 150 years to legislate for, and even then the process was not fully complete until 1871.
  • the development of the legal notion of 'trust' as it was applied to office, a concept that required standards of accountability, accounting, disinterestedness, care and integrity; but also the role of distrust of politicians and officials in limiting their ability to use their positions for private gain.
  • how domestic and imperial debates about corruption intertwined, and how hybrid public-private institutions and outsourced powers (such as the East India Company) often blurred the boundaries between licit and illicit behaviour
  • how ideas about, and definitions of, 'corruption' and 'office' evolved and changed over time
  • the growing importance of ideas about 'public money' and its accountability through commissions for public accounts, parliamentary inquiries and impeachments; but also of informal accountability mechanisms such as the press (which anti-corruption campaigners insisted ought to be free), public debate and whistleblowers
  • how rules were not in themselves sufficient to restrain behaviour and that public discussion about the ethics of office played an important part in calibrating what was acceptable
  • how anti-corruption was contested and therefore also both political and politicsed
  • the gestation of the concept and language of 'conflict of interest'
  • the ways in which social and cultural institutions such as friendship, gift-giving, patronage and kinship frequently meant that the dividing line between public and private was difficult to draw and how such institutions were (and arguably still are) invoked to legitimise what others condemn as corrupt behaviour. Understanding the restraints on reform may be as important as the factors pushing in its favour.
  • the study of corruption and anti-corruption offers a lens through which to explore tensions in state formation, tensions that resulted from war and colonial expansion as well as developments at home.
  • a shift from seeing some offices as sources of private gain to a more impersonal duty to the public
  • how the past can be instructive about the moral dilemmas involved in holding an office or exercising power, and how a historical cultural context shaped the evolution of British anti-corruption mentalities and processes.
  • how the study of ideas and of practice can be productively yoked together

November 09, 2021

Parliamentary Lobbying as a 'High Crime and Misdemeanour'

The debate over Tory MP Owen Paterson’s lobbying activities, following on from former Tory prime minister David Cameron’s lobbying on behalf of Greensill Capital, and the large number of Covid-related contracts awarded to friends of Tory MPs, has turned attention to the measures preventing MPs from indulging in the pursuit of their own interests or the interests of private companies rather than of the public that elected them. In particular, the rules governing MPs’ financial interests have come under scrutiny, something seemingly made more urgent by the disclosure that another serving Tory MP and former cabinet minister, Sir Geoffrey Cox, allegedly earned almost £1m working for the offshore tax haven, the British Virgin Islands, reportedly to defend the island’s authorities against a corruption probe.

In the House of Commons debate about Paterson on 3 November 2021, Chris Bryant, the chair of the Committee on Standards, and a number of other MPs invoked 1695 as the year in which rules on lobbying were first formulated. The key resolution came on 2 May 1695 when the House of Commons resolved that ‘the offer of money, or other advantage, to any Member of Parliament for the promoting of any matter whatsoever, depending or to be transacted in Parliament, is a high crime and misdemeanour and tends to the subversion of the English constitution’. So this blog will explore why 1695 deserves to be remembered. One reason is that, just like now, it involved a combination of domestic and colonial interests.

The first MP to fall in the scandals of 1695 was no less than the Speaker of the Commons, Sir John Trevor (who was also a prominent lawyer and judge). On 7 March the House heard that it ‘was said both public and private business came to market there and neither could be done unless paid for’, so the Commons appointed a committee in order to investigate. When the committee reported its findings, Trevor was expelled from the House for accepting 1000 guineas from the City of London. This was to facilitate the passage of a bill which essentially sought to protect the City after it had repeatedly raided a fund for orphans and used the money to cover its own financial deficits. A smaller sum had also been paid to another MP, John Hungerford, who chaired the orphans bill committee. He, too, was expelled from Parliament. But these attacks were related to another scandal which was the one that pushed the Commons into making its resolution.

The roots of the second 1695 scandal lay in the commercial interests of the East India Company which had enjoyed a royal charter giving it a monopoly to trade in the east. Following the recalibration of the powers of the Crown, as a result of the 1688 revolution, the Company now needed a parliamentary charter instead. It had a lucrative trade but faced opposition from commercial rivals who wanted the monopoly abolished. The Company was thus prepared to pay large sums to win MPs over; and MPs were themselves involved in lobbying on the Company’s behalf.

An internal power struggle within the East India Company led to a critical internal report in March 1695 which made damaging revelations about irregular payments at the time of the charter renewal. This sparked a Commons committee that found that £90,000 (worth around £10m in today’s values) had been set aside by the Company for ‘private service’, or, in other words, to buy favours covertly. A joint Commons-Lords committee was set up to investigate the allegations of corruption and this found that in 1693 Sir John Trevor had received 200 guineas for his part in securing a new charter for the East India Company in late 1693. But this sum paled into insignificance compared to the huge amount distributed to, and in part by, other MPs. A key figure in the distribution of this largesse was Sir Basil Firebrace, an unscrupulous wine trader who had previously faced several allegations of corruption.

Firebrace was poacher turned gamekeeper, since he had previously been prominent among the East India Company’s critics; but he had been bought off by the wealthy goldsmith Sir Thomas Cooke, another MP, who also acted as the Company’s Governor during the charter renewal process. Firebrace had set about trying to bribe other MPs. Besides Sir John Trevor, he also paid Henry Guy, the secretary to the Treasury; Thomas Coulson, who had been given an extraordinarily favourable contract (and the suspicion was that this was also intended to profit another MP and leading Tory, Sir Edward Seymour); and in the Lords, via an intermediary, no less a person than the Duke of Leeds, the first man called a ‘prime minister’, one of the founders of the early Tory party, and, in 1695, still a man of influence as the Lord President of the Privy Council. The duke, better known by his earlier title of the earl of Danby, had been accused in the 1670s of systematically bribing MPs in order to create a party of supine members who would do the government's bidding. Now, corruption was to be his downfall.


The duke was said to have been offered almost £6000 (in today’s values, a little short of what Geoffrey Cox is said to have earned working for the BVI) to secure the new charter. Leeds at first denied any wrong-doing; and then clumsily tried to return the money to the Company. The House of Commons, dominated by his political enemies, resolved on 29 April 1695 to impeach him on corruption charges. Three days later the Commons passed its resolution against lobbying. Copies of the parliamentary inquiry were sold on the streets so that ‘patriots’ could read ‘how the country may be bought and sold by those which should preserve us’. Leeds tried to vindicate himself with several pamphlets that put his case, but his long political career was ended.

The scandal successfully smeared the Tories with a charge of corruption; but it did not put an end to lobbying scandals which continued throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Perhaps the one with the most obvious contemporary parallels concerned the MP and lawyer, Isaac Butt (later leader of the Home Rule movement in Ireland), who took money from an Indian prince to advocate for the return of territory annexed by the East India Company. Butt denied a breach of privilege, saying that he was the victim of ‘as vile and unprincipled a conspiracy as was ever brought to bear against a Member of this House’ and complained vigorously about the justice of the process being used against him (prompting protracted wrangling about the proper procedure to investigate an MP) [BREACH OF PRIVILEGE. (Hansard, 22 February 1858) (]. Although exonerated from influencing parliamentary proceedings, Butt’s case raised concerns about the role of lawyers acting as advocates at Westminster rather than in the courts. As The Times put it on 8 March 1858 ‘Can we wonder that our wealthy subjects in Asia are filled with a profound conviction that our boasted purity of Parliament is but a farce?’ The result of such pressure was a further Commons resolution on 22 June 1858 ‘That it is contrary to the usage and derogatory to the dignity of this House, that any of its Members should bring forward, promote, or advocate, in this House, any proceeding or measure in which he may have acted or been concerned, for or in consideration of any pecuniary fee or reward.’ Two resolutions, over a hundred a fifty years apart, essentially affirmed the same principle against lobbying Parliament. Over a hundred and fifty years on from the last one, we seem to need it said again by the House (rather than just set out in a Code of Behaviour) and extended to cover lobbying ministers and accepting a second job that creates, or is seen to create, a conflict of interest with the public good.

November 03, 2021

'Unfair' anti–corruption processes, then and now

The ParliamentaryCommittee on Standards has published a report on the conduct of former cabinet minister and Tory MP, Owen Paterson, saying that he had breached Commons lobbying rules by making approaches to two governmental bodies on behalf of two companies which employed him as a paid consultant.

The Committee found that Paterson had breached the 2015 Code of Conduct, which upholds the Nolan Principles on standards in public life, on a number of counts. The Code imposes a duty on MPs to avoid conflicts of interest and not to take any ‘fee, compensation or reward’ in relation to parliamentary business. It also requires MPs to ‘always be open and frank in drawing attention to any relevant interest in any proceeding of the House or its Committees, and in any communications with Ministers, Members, public officials or public office holders. The Report concluded that ‘Mr Paterson is clearly convinced in his own mind that there could be no conflict between his private interest and the public interest in his actions in this case’; but the Committee disagreed with his self-analysis and found that he had shown ‘a failure to uphold the Seven Principles of Public Life.’ It recommended that he be suspended for 30 days, something that could in turn trigger the potential for a by-election if sufficient constituents signed a recall petition.

Paterson has denied any wrongdoing and argued his approaches were within the rules because he was seeking to alert ministers to defects in safety regulations. He has also gone on the counter-attack, suggesting that the process by which the Committee came to its conclusions is unfair and had contributed to his wife’s suicide last year. Paterson has found support from other MPs who argue that another committee should be established to investigate whether ‘the current standards system should give Members of Parliament the same or similar rights as apply to those subject to investigations of alleged misconduct in other workplaces and professions, including the right of representation, examination of witnesses and appeal.’ The Commons has now supported this motion, even though it carries a built-in advantage for Mr Paterson, since although the committee would have four Tories, three Labour and one SNP members, the proposed Tory chair, John Whittingdale, would have the casting vote.

All this has resonances with a case from the early 1780s involving another MP, Sir Thomas Rumbold, whose image graced an earlier blog. To be sure, there are significant differences between the cases and the suggestion here is not that the parallels are exact; but there are also interesting echoes in relation to an MP feeling himself unfairly treated by an inquiry into his conduct and in relation to disputed views about the compatibility of private and public interests. Politics is also involved in both cases.

Rumbold held office in the East India Company, one of the leading trading companies of the eighteenth century which had begun to administer large amounts of territory in India and collect taxes there. On 29 April 1782 the Commons voted to support a ‘secret’, select committee’s resolutions condemning his conduct as Company’s governor of Madras (1778-1781), though Rumbold fumed that the verdict of the ‘secret committee’ had become very public and threatened his reputation. A central allegation was that he had abused his position in order to profit from payments made by Indian landowners for settling their leases. Rumbold then became the subject of a parliamentary bill of ‘pains and penalties’ for his allegedly corrupt administration. The bill was a parliamentary process that avoided the need for a formal trial. The bill asserted that the money Rumbold had sent back from India –many thousands of pounds - should be ‘considered proofs of a corrupt acquisition of his fortune’, a sort of early unexplained wealth order.

Rumbold, who had bought a seat in Parliament to protect himself against such attacks, claimed that all the actions that were condemned as evidence of corruption were in fact intended for the good of the East India Company – they were all ‘wise, honorable and just arrangements for the Company’s interests’. Any deviance from the formal instructions was ‘meritorious disobedience’. Rumbold even published a defence of his actions in which he argued that he had faced mere ‘insinuation’ about his conduct, the result of antipathies that he thought arose from prejudices ‘against every Eastern Governor who has made large acquisitions to his English fortune’. He resented the insinuation of corruption since it was almost impossible to defeat such smears: ‘it’s the insinuated guilt of corruption that criminates … insinuated corruption is never to end’. The prosecution should prove his misconduct, not insinuate. Rumbold also claimed that the process against him was unfair: he had been treated differently to others and the evidence against him was obtained from unreliable, even bribed, informers. And he resented that due process had been denied to him. He said he ‘could not call that justice which inflicted punishment on a man who had not been heard in his defence’. He considered himself ‘a Political victim’ of his enemies.


The image is a detail from a satire showing Rumbold's electoral corruption, a decade before the allegations about his malpractice in India. Comtemporaries believed that his Indian money also helped to blunt the parliamentary attack in 1782-3.

The bill against Rumbold failed, after being repeatedly postponed until the desire to pass it seemed to have ebbed away, albeit not without suggestions from some that he had bribed the chair of the bill’s committee to achieve this. Even those who thought him guilty had reservations about the proof that could be produced and even an opposition leader, Charles James Fox, thought that the House displayed ‘a real tenderness for the person accused which…..must make it impossible to carry on the prosecution with effect’. The failure of the bill prefigured the much better-known failure of the impeachment later the same decade of Warren Hastings, which was another testament to the power of political interests and connections overcoming a legal case of corruption brought within the existing rules. Rumbold appeared to have won. He was not prosecuted in the courts and was wealthy enough from his Indian gains to build a large house, Woodhall Park, in Hertfordshire. Yet the issues raised by Rumbold’s career in India (where he was known as ‘Sir Thomas Pillage’) did not go away. Two years before action was taken against him in the Commons, a Commission for Public Accounts had been established and over the course of the early 1780s it made a series of landmark reports which helped to develop standards of conduct that are now codified in the Nolan principles that Paterson is alleged to have breached. Public officials, the reports declared, held public trusts and should not pursue their self-interest; in the place of ‘multifarious Emoluments’ they ought to have ‘one certain salary’; public money and private money ought to be separated out; and the principle that should underlie all public office was the public good.

[Update: on Thursday 4 November Owen Paterson resigned, asserting his integrity and maintaining his innocence]

My book on corruption in office in the period 1600-1850 will be published on 6 December.

October 01, 2021

The Value of History to Understanding Quality of Governance and Anti–Corruption

What can the historian offer those interested in the study of corruption? In this recently-published chapter I show how a historical approach can offer a productive and useful data set and tools to understand corruption and anti-corruption. Since corruption has existed across time and space, and is multi-faceted, involving politics, economics, law, administration, social and cultural attitudes, it can best be studied in a multi-disciplinary way that includes the study of the past as well as the present.

A historical approach offers ways of thinking about change and continuity, and hence also about how and why reform processes occur and are successful. Historical case studies can test and challenge social science models but also offer different, more qualitative, evidence that can help us to reconstruct the mentalities of those who refused to accept that their behaviour constituted ‘corruption’, as well as the motives of those bringing the prosecution or making allegations. Historical sources, often offering multiple perspectives of different participants, can also enable us to form a more holistic view of corruption scandals and of the important role of public discussion in shaping quality of government.

If history has so far been a little marginal to cross-disciplinary discussions about corruption and good government, the chapter seeks to make the cse that it might usefully be more included in analysis and policy discussions. The chapter contributes to a very wide-ranging volume, pulled together by the excellent team at Sweden's famed Quality of Governance Institute, that seeks to take a multi-disciplinary approach to the problems of good governance and anti-corruption. More details about the volume can be found here.

QoG image

Corruption and State Trials

In a chapter just published I examine prosecutions for corruption in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As well as prosecuting political and religious dissent, later Stuart state trials also targeted corrupt ministers who had been the subject of parliamentary investigations and were subsequently impeached for ‘high crimes and misdemeanours’. Indeed, as Lord Mansfield observed when passing judgement on a corruption case in 1770 and reflecting back on the previous two hundred years, ‘there hardly ever is an impeachment against a minister where the charge is not for receiving money for procuring a grant from the king’. The process of impeachment had been revived in 1621 specifically to deal with corruption allegations against Lord Chancellor Bacon and the device was frequently used over the next fifteen years. It once again became a potent weapon during the Restoration and was repeatedly used until 1725 when a Lord Chancellor was again tried in parliament for corruption.

state trials cover

The chapter investigates these trials in order to show how frequently issues of financial corruption were part of impeachments in the period after the Glorious Revolution and to reflect in turn on what these trials tell us about the nature of corruption more generally in this period. The chapter also analyses the defence arguments employed by the accused, highlighting how appeals to custom and to the letter of the law, as well as attempts to redefine bribes as ‘gifts’ or ‘presents’, were deployed both as a reflection of blurred conceptual boundaries and as a way of neutralising allegations of corruption. Misbehaviour was represented in such defences in terms of norms of friendship, the personal nature of office-holding or cultural factors, and these arguments were symptomatic of those deployed in many other attempts to grapple with early modern corruption. The cases therefore illustrate the difficulties involved in prosecuting this most slippery of crimes, as well as the extent to which its definition was problematic and contested. The chapter also demonstrates that state trials were, by their nature, very frequently politicised, and hence that they were a very blunt way to tackle corruption. For these reasons, impeachments fell into disuse after 1725 until a brief revival once more in the later eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, after which they were permanently abandoned.

Details about the volume can be found here

July 12, 2021

'Old Corruption' Revived?

Writing about web page

Are we living in an age of ‘New Corruption’ and if so, are there any lessons from our past about what to do about it? ‘Not since the Victorians abolished patronage with open competition has any government so ruthlessly ushered its placemen into every nook and cranny of the public realm’, argues Polly Toynbee [Dido Harding to head the NHS? Her position would be untenable | Polly Toynbee | The Guardian]. She implicitly refers to the mid-nineteenth century waning of ‘Old Corruption’ after an intense period of reform, and the recent revival of old practices.

‘Old Corruption’ – a term coined in the 1830s – was characterised by a ‘system’ of corrupt institutions and practices that diverted public money into the pockets of a political and social elite who distributed offices amongst their friends and family in order to advance their own profit. This article for History and Policy explores how far Old and New Corruption resemble each other; what reforms worked in the past; and what lessons can be learnt from this earlier history.

Here is a short summary of some of its conclusions

  • Old Corruption taught us that neither public office nor a contract for outsourced public services should be obtained by patronage, patrimony or partisanship; but also that such forces are remarkably powerful, enduring and difficult to constrain.
  • Both informal and formal restraints are necessary to attempt to do so. We need i) a vigorous and widespread debate on public ethics, particularly around issues of self-interest and accountability ii) robust, formal institutions with a remit for reform that remain independent from the executive iii) leadership demonstrating integrity.
  • Some of the formal architecture of, and principles underlying, restraint already exist, the legacy of the struggle with Old Corruption; but they need to be protected from erosion and we also need to think about how to meet new challenges.
  • We should view corruption not just as an issue of individual moral failing but as a systemic one in which many of our current institutions are interconnected and ripe for wholesale review.
  • Anti-corruption is a long-term and on-going process but there are short-term measures that could help. One would be to increase the barriers and constraints on the ways in which vested interests influence public life and seek to determine the public interest.
  • Crises and large-scale government spending increase both the opportunities for corruption and (with the consequent tax rises necessary to fund it) the public pressures for reform.

Rumbold buying influence

A satire of the ‘nabob’ (an anglicisation of the Indian word for prince), the rapacious Sir Thomas Rumbold, here neutralising his prosecution by showering money into a pot held by a government minister, Henry Dundas. Dundas was himself accused of creating a patronage network of Scottish MPs who would do the government's bidding.© The Trustees of the British Museum

April 14, 2021

Corruption Unmasked!

‘Placemen’ were the bogeymen of seventeenth and eighteenth century ‘patriots’ who feared that the public good was being sacrificed to the unprincipled ambitions of corrupting Crown ministers and their lackeys. ‘Placemen’ were those who were given rewarding posts in government or sinecures as a means of buying their compliance and support, or merely as a way of rewarding those who were politically loyal or boosting the incomes of the social elite. As the resources of the British state grew in the eighteenth century, so did worries that a rich, parasitical elite was ‘placing’ cronies in every lucrative job so that they would unthinkingly do the government’s bidding whilst also siphoning off public money and diverting it into private hands. ‘Placemen’ were corrupt and corrupting, particularly if they sat in Parliament. As the eighteenth century wore on, and especially in the early nineteenth century, placemen and sinecurists were seen – especially by radicals - as part of a corrupt system of governance in need of fundamental overhaul. John Wade, for example, compiled a long list of placemen and sinecurists, together with their salaries and payments, in The Black Book or Corruption Unmasked! It attacked ‘a legalized system of pillage, fraud, and delusion’, of ‘connexion and influence’, which relied on corruption as an essential prop of government. It was a publishing sensation with fifty thousand copies of its first edition in 1828 being sold, and three further editions.


The pre-modern view about the corruption of placemen owed much to anxieties about an evolving imperial state but also to an immersion in ‘classical republicanism’ – the legacy from the classical world that emphasised the danger of the corruption of the constitution and of liberty itself. The corruption that Britons used to worry about most – once anxieties about the corruption of religion began to subside - was the corruption of the constitution by an overmighty executive that abused its patronage power to create undue ‘influence’ and oligarchical patronage. Instead, the public were urged to support those who were truly independent of the executive and hence disinterested, impartial voices who would seek the public good rather than partisan advantage. Voters, a 1658 tract warned, should avoid ‘those who in a selfish ambitious manner, seek and hunt after the imployment [sic], and use unlawful and indirect means to attain thereunto. The unfittest and unworthiest men are commonly the most forward to sue for Place and Offices’. Only the truly independent should be chosen, for ‘Ingaged men commonly have their eyes, ears and tongues in their heads, and at the dispose and command of others; their corrupt and carnal dependences and compliances choak their affections to the Publick-interest’.

Reformers saw placemen as part of an interconnected system of corruption: a corrupted electoral system, oppressive tax system, a system of militarism that required excessive taxation, and a corrupted financial system that made it all possible and benefited the placemen and cronies who staffed the political and social hierarchy.


‘The “System” that “Works so Well”!!’ (1831), BM Sat. 16610. The electoral ‘system’ is seen as corrupt, enabling public money to be poured into the pockets of ‘borough-mongers’ – those who bought their way into the representative system. Some of the coins are labelled 'Places', 'Livings', and 'Civil Offices'. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum.

Is twenty-first century Britain sliding back into an eighteenth-century-type world? Over £10 billion worth of covid-related contracts have been given out without competitive tendering, many to friends and associates of ministers. Dido Harding was appointed as Chair of the NHS Test and Trace without competition: she is a sitting Conservative Peer, wife of a Conservative MP and friend of former Prime Minister David Cameron. Richard Sharp, the new chairman of the BBC, is a Tory party donor and close friend of Rishi Sunak. Peter Riddell, the out-going independent commissioner for public appointments, wrote last November that some at the centre of government want not only to have the final say but to tilt the competition system in their favour to appoint their allies[Peter_Riddell_to_Lord_Evans.docx.pdf (]. Riddell warned that appointment panels were being packed in order to ensure that those ‘allies’ got jobs. The previous blog noted the cronyism apparent in government procurement; and the Cameron-Greensill scandal is another manifestation of it. Patronage, a willingness to do the government’s bidding and a record of total loyalty to the Tory party – these champions of free speech don’t want to hear a whisper of criticism! - seem to be the order of the day.

The system works so well!

November 28, 2020

Crony Contracts

In the pre-modern period appointments to office and awards of government contracts were often based on patronage, ‘friendship’, nepotism and sometimes straightforward exchanges of money. Are we in danger of slipping back into a seventeenth or eighteenth century world? When even a reporter from the Daily Telegraph thinks that the Tory government emits a ‘stench of corruption’, we should take this question seriously [Madeline Grant, BBC Andrew Marr Show, 22 November 202].

Emergencies, such as wars or pandemics, open the coffers of the state. The need to support the state’s efforts in a moment of need justifies very high levels of spending but then seems to foster loose or self-interested handling of public money that destabilise notions of fair profit, the balance between the public and private interest, and practices of accountability. Cronyism and corrupt contracts become far more possible.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Britain was engaged in huge expenditure on war. Civil war in the 1640s raised unprecedented sums of money but also headaches about accountability. The parliamentary forces ranged against the royalists created the first system of parliamentary committees scrutinising public expenditure, though there were frequent allegations that money disappeared into the hands of private individuals profiteering from the crisis and officials who abused their power to advantage themselves or their friends.

The second revolution of the seventeenth century, in 1688, propelled Britain into war with France that lasted, more ‘on’ than ‘off’, for the next 125 years. War became increasingly global in nature, as colonisation meant conflict in Europe spread across the world, and consequently state debt increased in leaps each time tensions flared. Contracts were handed out to supply troops with clothing, food and drink, and to financiers to pay the armed forces overseas. But all this was accompanied by what many contemporaries regarded as large-scale corruption. And over a period of several centuries structures were put in place to properly audit the expenditure; to prevent conflicts of interest; to prevent public money from being siphoned off into private hands; and to hold individuals to account for their behaviour in office. The system creaked each time it was put under strain by largescale emergencies; and often further measures were put it place.

Ironically it was the early Tory party, which emerged in the later Stuart period, that worried about the corrosive effect of large-scale state funding that they saw as disappearing into the pockets of their Whig rivals. The first Tory party was in part formed around hatred of Whig profiteering and cronyism. Thus in 1712, towards the end of a long war with France that had seen the national debt rise to unprecedented levels, the Tories argued that partisan self-interest was undermining the national interest. Money, they argued, was being purloined by Whiggish City financiers who became wealthy on the backs of the taxpayer. The Tories prosecuted one of the leaders of the Whigs, the future Prime Minister Robert Walpole, for a corrupt contract awarded to cronies and with built-in kick-backs. Walpole was also said to have presided over an unaccounted hole in the public finances of £35 million. Walpole was slung into the Tower of London for 'a high breach of trust and notorious corruption'. Indeed, throughout his long tenure as prime minister the Tory rallying cry against him was that he corrupted government and the political system. Anti-corruption was a key part of what it meant to be a Tory.


This Tory satire of 1740 depicts Walpole as an overblown idol whose arse had to be kissed if one wanted to get a public office and who was associated, as the words underline, with ‘Corruption’, ‘Venality’, ‘Folly’, ‘Vanity’ and ‘Pride’. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

So it’s somewhat ironic that the Tories today should be the subject of numerous accusations that they award excessively lucrative contracts to cronies without proper scrutiny and fast-track deals for insiders; that they appoint officials to important posts without any public competition; and that ministers are allowed to breach the codes designed to ensure high standards in public life and may even have broken the law in the way they have disregarded due process.

Emergencies always test the systems of the state to prevent corruption, and historically those systems have needed adjustment if they are found wanting. Indeed, after most periods of emergency in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there was a period of review and reform, and often of significant public anger. We seem to be approaching one such moment again.

For a good discussion about the current dangers of corruption see the Mile End Institute discussion at

For a warning, from the former director of Transparency International, about the dangers of corruption in Britain see

For the National Audit Office report on government procurement during the Covid crisis see Investigation into government procurement during the COVID-19 pandemic - National Audit Office (NAO) Report

Boris Johnson ‘acted illegally’ over jobs for top anti-Covid staff | Politics | The Guardian

The Monster of Corruption, a detail from a satire of 1819

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Images on this site are Trustees of the British Museum. The views expressed on the blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the University.

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