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 (publishing.service.gov.uk)]. 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 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k27w9VRE1gI.

For a warning, from the former director of Transparency International, about the dangers of corruption in Britain see https://www.qmul.ac.uk/mei/news-and-opinion/items/corruption-in-modern-britain-the-warning-lights-are-flashing-red--professor-robert-barrington-.html

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

January 23, 2020

Impeachment: a political weapon that went out of fashion in England just as it was adopted in the US

Writing about web page https://theconversation.com/impeachment-a-political-weapon-that-went-out-of-fashion-in-england-just-as-it-was-adopted-in-the-us-130400

In this piece , published in The Conversation, I explore the history of impeachment, paralleling the prosecutions of the duke of Buckingham in 1626 and Donald Trump.


April 15, 2019

Parliament and Conflicts of Interest

Parliament, in the era of ‘Old Corruption’, was tougher on conflicts of interest than it is today.

Despite some claims that ‘conflict of interest’ is an inherently modern concept [https://www.oecd.org/site/adboecdanti-corruptioninitiative/39368062.pdf], it goes back a long way. Indeed, Parliament, even in its unreformed state and when ‘old corruption’ prevailed, was paradoxically stricter about conflict of interest than it is today: MPs with financial interests in legislation were not allowed to vote, withdrew themselves from debates and in 1782 were banned from sitting in Parliament if they had an interest in a financial contract from the government. So might history help us here, if the parliamentary precedents and legislation were enforced?

As long ago as 1604 an MP was told to leave a debate on a bill in which he had a personal interest and this was probably not the first time this had happened, since the Commons resolved that this was ‘agreeable with former Order and Precedent in like cases’. Withdrawal from debate in such instances was confirmed in 1623 and 1626, and extended to cover the committee stage. In 1664 a vote of an MP with a conflict of interest was disallowed and challenging such a vote after it had taken place, or withdrawing before a vote, became the practice of the House. This was confirmed in 1797 when the prime minister, William Pitt, proposed compensation for those who had suffered from losses on money loaned to the government in what was known as the ‘Loyalty Loan’, raised to fight war against revolutionary France. 14 MPs who had an interest in the outcome voted for the compensation, leading to a challenge to the Speaker to rule on whether an MP could vote on an issue in which he was personally interested. Speaker Addington declared that it was the practice of the House that they could not and added:

when any measure is submitted to the House, the substance of which is to confer a pecuniary advantage, or diminish a loss, which is the same thing, I am satisfied it is not consistent with that mode of proceeding which the House has adopted on occasions of delicacy and importance, that any member should vote on a measure by which he intends to derive any benefit in case that measure should be carried into law.

The result was that the votes of the 14 MPs were disallowed. The same principle was applied in 1800 and again in 1811 (when in the light of a rehearsal of the earlier rulings the MPs refrained from voting). The 1811 instance clarified that that interest had to be ‘a direct pecuniary interest’. Even so, attempts to secure legislation on the matter proved elusive. In 1825 an attempt by a radical MP, Joseph Hume, to push for a formal motion ‘that no Member shall vote for or against any Question in which he has a direct pecuniary interest’ was defeated, but only because the House seemed reluctant to formalise a convention that ‘gentlemen’ understood. Hume summed up the debate by stating that he was glad that the principle that MPs with a conflict of interest could not vote was so generally recognised. This was again confirmed in 1830 and 1895. So it seems clear that MPs with personal financial interests in legislation should not speak in debate or vote on it. Why this is no longer upheld seems something of a mystery.

So, whilst it is really good to have a register of interests, might it not also be used to allow votes to be challenged and even voided when a conflict of interest is proven, as required by a good deal of parliamentary precedent? In 2016 72 (Tory) MPs who were registered as landlords voted down a Labour bill requiring landlords to make their homes fit for human habitation: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/tories-vote-down-law-requiring-landlords-make-their-homes-fit-for-human-habitation-a6809691.html

Would not the application of parliamentary precedent have prevented this?

victualling committee detail

The image, BM Satires 6021© The Trustees of the British Museum, is a detail from a James Gillray depiction of the Committee appointed in 1782 to investigate victualling contracts during the war with America. They examined Christopher Atkinson, a corn factor and M.P. for Heydon, employed by the Board to purchase malt on commission, who was accused of cheating by overcharging and false accounting. The conflict of interest is apparent in Atkinson being an MP and hence potentially voting on his own investigation: the chair of the committee's speech bubble reads 'This is certainly the first instance of an accused Man sitting as Judge on his own Cause & requires particular attention'. Atkison was subsequently expelled the House but was able to return in 1796 after being exonerated - he successfully claimed that the fraud allegations against him had been malicious. He was nevertheless described as ‘a man whose sole object in this world is gain’: https://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1790-1820/member/atkinson-christopher-1739-1819

Moreover, the unreformed House of Commons – some fifty years before the Great Reform Act! – also passed legislation in 1782 disqualifying MPs from being able to sit in Parliament if they held an interest in any public contract. The act was an attempt to prevent the corruption of Parliament by private interests – something that had become an urgent matter in the light of the loss the year before of the war against the American colonies, a defeat that forced a fundamental review of the moral, economic and political state of the nation. It was generally acknowledged that excessive profits were being made in a corrupt way by contractors who were supplying war materials and money for the purpose of carrying on the American War. The law had something of a loophole in it, allowing exemptions for private companies of more than 10 people entering into a contract for the public benefit. It is worth remembering that this was passed when the number of private stock companies was tiny and restricted, after the first crash of the stock market in 1720. In other words, the exemption was not aimed at allowing a blanket evasion of the terms of the act. The act was superceded by the 1957 House of Commons Disqualification Bill, which removed the bar on MPs being government contractors or having a financial stake in contractors. Although there is still a requirement for MPs to declare their interets, is transparency sufficient?

Standards were reviewed even in the era of ‘Old Corruption’. There is of course a Parliamentary Commmissioner for Standards now - might the two dimensions of parliamentary practice identified in this blog be ripe for review in the twenty first century?

June 02, 2018

The History of Anti–corruption

The Long History of Anti-Corruption

There is a tendency amongst some to assume that anti-corruption strategies and campaigns are a recent phenomenon. This is partly based on the idea that it was only in 1996 that the President of the World Bank declared that ‘we need to deal with the cancer of corruption’ and that a series of NGO conventions against corruption were devised only in the late twentieth century.

Yet a new collection of essays – Anticorruption in History: From Antiquity to the Modern Era edited by Ronald Kroeze, André Vitoria and Guy Geltner (Oxford University Press, 2018) – shows that anti-corruption has a very long history, stretching back at least to classical antiquity.

The volume arose out of the ANTICORRP project, which sought to investigate anti-corruption through an interdisciplinary perspective. The essays are valuable because historians have been relatively slow to explore the topic, and policy makers and social scientists have (until very recently) tended to be relatively uninterested in historical data. So the possibility now exists of a more fruitful dialogue.

The essays in the volume suggest that debates about corruption were very active before ‘modernity’; that corruption was often a politicised allegation; that anti-corruption was closely linked to ideals of good governance; and that contexts of time and space were extremely important in shaping anti-corruption. The volume shows that even the European experience of anti-corruption has been very different, and was contingent on context.

My own contribution explores anti-corruption in seventeenth- and eighteenth- century Britain. It argues that although there were interesting periods when reform measures were concentrated, anti-corruption was more of a process than an event and that we might therefore think about anti-corruption in terms of waves of activity. This means that there was no simple or sudden shift from a corrupt pre-modernity to a non-corrupt modernity, or a ‘new’ focus on anti-corruption in the latter. The British experience also suggests that anti-corruption took different forms at different times to meet challenging circumstances in evolving political, religious, administrative, legal, economic, social and cultural spheres.

My chapter also seeks to identify a series of factors – some micro, some meso, others macro – which both facilitated and hindered anti-corruption. I suggest that anti-corruption was restrained by inadequate safeguards for whistle-blowers; that scandal could focus on individual misbehaviour rather than structural reform; that social and cultural norms changed slowly; that paradoxically war both opened up opportunities for corruption and created pressures and crises that led to anti-corruption; and that legislation and rules alone had only limited effect. The chapter ends by considering some of the ways in which British national identity was nevertheless increasingly constructed in terms of standards of integrity and honesty.

Other essays in the volume consider the differing experiences of France, Italy, Spain, Denmark, Holland, Germany, Sweden and the Ottoman Empire. This comparative framework (and some of the essays are explicitly comparative) across time and space will become increasingly important in showing different traditions and contextualised solutions to apparently similar problems. Collectively, they raise interesting questions about how far universal measures fit all contexts.


© Trustees of the British Museum

September 24, 2017

Laughing at corruption and the trials of William Hone

Throughout history one of the responses to corruption has been to satirise it and its perpetrators. Satirists in classical antiquity, such as Horace and Juvenal, had sought either to mock or snarl at corruption. Graphic satirists did so in Britain in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a tradition continued by cartoonists today. But those being satirised – governments or interest groups – have often reacted badly in the past and present to such treatment and sought to close it down.

Two hundred years ago, in December 1817, the radical publisher William Hone laughed at the government for its corruption and so it tried to stop his mouth. He was subjected to three trials in as many days, but, as I explore in a recent chapter in a collection of essays about satire and laughter, Hone emerged victorious from his gruelling ordeals. Hone’s trials raised fundamental issues not only about how far the press had a right to expose and mock governmental corruption but also how far satirists saw themselves as part of a tradition in which free-born Britons had a duty and right to engage in such activity.

Hone was prosecuted for three mocking parodies, which emulated religious texts - the creed, the litany and the catechism - to ‘instruct’ audiences in the vice of corruption rather than in the pious virtue of integrity. The Sinecurists’ Creed attacked those who held ‘a place of profit’ for which their only duty was to perform loyal duties to the government; and The Late John Wilkes’s Catechism had a central character, Lickspittle, who is instructed how to become ‘the Child of Corruption’. A third piece offered a satrircal Political Litany. The government alleged that religious texts should never be used to mock in this way, since to do so in turn mocked religion, and that Hone was therefore guilty of blasphemy. Hone’s defence was that religious parody had been used since the sixteenth-century Reformation -even by the great reformers such as Luther - and he produced print after print, of text and image, to prove his point. Hone was acquitted in all three trials, a victory both for the freedom of the press and the capacity of satire to puncture corruption. Indeed, Hone went on to produce more radical, popular attacks on what he saw as the systematic corruption of both the government’ s ministers and the system of politics operating in his day. Perhaps the most famous was The Political House that Jack Built (1819) which parodied a nursery rhyme to lash the ‘vermin’ who infested politics.

For Hone, and many others, satire was a particularly appropriate genre to use against corruption. Satire was a way of reforming vice by exposing, ridiculing and shaming it. And it could be used against individuals who engaged in corruption as well as the vice of corruption itself. Satire also uncovered the hypocrisy that often lay under secretive corruption that hid under a thin veneer of legitimacy. Satire drew some of its comic effect from the incongruous juxtaposition of the corrupt inner man and his outward profession of integrity. But besides being entertainment, satire could also unleash powerful emotions of contempt, disgust and anger. This meant that it was a genre that could be prone, at least in the eyes of those being attacked, of excess. If satire was necessary to correct vice, it could, critics argued, also be abused: ridicule could inspire undeserved contempt and even corrupt the people with false notions undermining of authority. Hone’s trials, which are being re-enacted in an eighteenth-century setting as part of the Warwick Words History Festival in November (click here for ticket details), explored such issues as they put parody in the dock.

an1613073593_l.jpg slop leftL Lilburne 1646; Right, Hone, 1821

The trials also showed that Hone’s ‘age of reform’ had not only to be fiercely fought for at the time but also stood on the shoulders of at least two centuries of literary and political culture. Hone brought armfuls of old pamphlets and prints into court, dating back to the 1600s and 1700s as well as the 1800s, in order to show the importance of parody as a means to reform religion and to attack political corruption. His particular hero was the mid-seventeenth century radical John Lilburne, whose output he assiduously collected. Lilburne, like Hone, saw citizens as being subject to corrupt authorities; and Hone modelled his heroic self-defence on Lilburne’s own 1646 trial. Hone later wrote that when he read Lillburne's own account of his trial he felt ‘all Lilburne’s indignant feelings, admired his undaunted spirit, rejoiced at his acquittal … This book aroused within me new feelings and a desire of acquainting myself with Constitutional Law.’ For Hone, the turmoil and corruption of the 1810s found echoes in earlier reformation and revolution. Britain’s nineteenth-century struggle for reform thus had very long roots that Hone’s trials help us to appreciate.

November 10, 2016

Report for Transparency International

Old Corruption – what can Britain’s past tell us today?

In a report published today, for Transparency International, I show how Britain’s history has shaped what we understand by the term ‘corruption’ as well what measures we see as being effective or necessary to curb it. ‘Corruption’ and ‘anti-corruption’ have not been (nor are they now) universal, timeless, context-less phenomena but should be seen as conditioned by the past.

Taking an overview of Britain between the sixteenth-century Reformation and nineteenth-century Reform, I argue that our modern notion of corruption (centred on bribery and probity in office-holding) has evolved over time. In the process, alternative ways of thinking about corruption have been largely displaced.

For example, I show how the idea of ‘the abuse of entrusted power’, TI’s definition of corruption, emerged as a concept in the mid-seventeenth century and then strengthened over the next two hundred years, fundamentally shaping how we view public office. But the report also highlights how ideas about religious corruption have faded and some things that were once thought to be corrupting – the pursuit of self-interest, for example - are now often seen as helping to combat corruption (the pursuit of self-interest in a free market is seen by many as an essential component of anti-corruption).

What does the past tell us about how to curb corruption? The report highlights the transformations possible if non-partisan commissions systematically examine the administration of governmental departments and public finance; the additional weight when popular and elite pressures coincide; and how campaigns for strong ethics underpinned a reform agenda by ensuring that its rationale is embraced rather than being seen as a mere set of abstract rules.

My report also highlights the paradox inherent in state-building, arguing that the growth of the state is both part of the problem, because it facilitates corrupt access to enlarged resources and power, but also the solution, since it offers the best means to curb, restrain and punish corrupt behaviour.

Two caveats are made. The first is that corruption is a highly resistant problem and that hence reform can take a long time – there is no easy, quick solution. Britain’s own struggle with corruption occurred over many centuries and we would do well to remember our nation’s past scandals. The second is that those mobilising the rallying cry of “corruption” often do so for self-serving or even corrupt ends, so that we have to be careful how we view those pressing for change as well as those resisting it.

The report ends with a short case study of Samuel Pepys, the seventeenth-century diarist, offering readers two different ways of seeing him, as corrupt or not. The reader is asked to ‘judge’ Pepys. Deciding what we think about Pepys helps us explore issues today about how we define corruption and where we set the boundaries between private and public interests.

The report is based on research, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which will appear as a book published by Oxford University Press.

tree crop

James Gillray, The Tree of Corruption with John Bull hard at work(1795)

May 11, 2016

Scandal or reform?

The impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, the concurrent Mensalao affair over payment of public funds to Congress members on key votes (which has convicted 25 politicians, bankers and businessmen), and the investigations into kickbacks by the state oil company Petrobas have put corruption firmly at the centre of political struggles in Brasil. My blog of 23 Feb 2015 explored a parallel set of circumstances in late seventeenth century England, when in 1695 Parliament investigated money flowing from the East India Company to influence politicians and there were similarly polarised positions. Here, however, I want to step back from the Brasilian case and explore a related paradox: allegations of corruption are inherently political but reform of corruption is probably best advanced when taken out of the political arena, except in so far as reforms have political support behind them to make them stick.

Britain’s own history of anti-corruption shows that accusations were often politically motivated or rapidly acquired took on highly politicised dimensions. Indeed nearly every impeachment in Britain, from that of Francis Bacon in 1621 (when impeachment was revived specifically to prosecute corruption) through to the final impeachment of Lord Melville in 1805/6 (again on corruption charges) was politicised. Impeachment, by its very nature, was a trial by Parliament and hence placed the pursuit of justice in a court that was inherently political. Indeed, arguably that was the point: impeachments were pieces of state theatre, in which public humiliation and retribution were on offer as much as an investigation of the facts. Impeachments attracted big crowds (we have some of the tickets for admission to these spectacles) and a lot of public attention. They can be important in stimulating public debate about what constitutes corruption and they may also hold prominent individuals to account. But impeachments, as the ultimate sanction against corrupt officials, were also not a very effective way of dealing with systemic abuse. They tended to reduce systemic issues to personal attacks; they dealt with scandal rather than reform. Hence once the individual miscreant had been dealt with, the system as a whole continued tended to continue more or less unreformed. Impeachments tended to suggest that the bad apple was the problem, not the barrel.

Ticket for the trial of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, lettered "Impeachment Trial. / The Speaker's Box. / No. I."; signed and sealed by Charles Abbot; verso lettered "Lady's Ticket. / Through the Speaker's House." and signed "From Mr. Colman".

A ticket for the impeachment of Melville in 1806

Systemic reform came about either through a trauma of the state such as civil war or the loss of a war (neither of which make great policy recommendations) or when non-political bodies that nevertheless had political support were given a remit to reform. The best example is the commission of public accounts set up in the 1780s after the loss of the American colonies had shocked Britain into a political, moral and administrative review of the nature of the state. The first commission (instituted after a gap of 65 years) was set up by Lord North in 1780 and produced a series of reports; in 1785 William Pitt’s administration created a new department for auditing public accounts. Many of these administrative reformers have been forgotten by history – some of them, such as Thomas Anguish who wrote most of the reports in the early 1780s, don’t even merit an entry in the otherwise all-encompassing Oxford Dictionary of National Biography – yet their reports on a range of governmental departments, suggesting ways to improve efficiency and remove corruption, were very influential and mostly implemented by Parliament, even if not immediately. Sometimes it is the non-politicised, thorough examination of practices that does more to tackle practices condemned by the more showy and spectacular state trials. Finally it is interesting that the 1780 commissioners did not mention anti-corruption as their aim: their objectives were ‘the reduction of the expense to the public for the management of the revenue’ and ‘the introduction of a more simple, regular and accordant system into the internal frame of the office’. Avoiding the language of corruption was one way of de-politicising their objectives, since it reduced the need to find fault or lay blame.

February 13, 2016

Misconduct in Public Office

Misconduct in Public Office

The Law Commission has launched a review of the law relating to misconduct in public office, with a view to drafting new legislation. Currently the offence is not defined by statute but rests on common law. As such the history of court cases relating to misconduct in office has had a large part in shaping the offence. Click here for the Law Commission's own very useful historical account of the crime.

Modern case law defines the crime as occurring when 1) a public officer acting as such 2) wilfully neglects to perform his duty and/or wilfully misconducts himself 3) to such a degree as to amount to an abuse of the public's trust in the office holder 4) without reasonable excuse or justification.

The most well-known statement of the offence, however, was made in 1783 by Lord Chief Justice Mansfield in the case of Charles Bembridge, an official working for the paymaster general of the army, who knowingly failed to disclose money owed by his boss. Mansfield argued that Bembridge

was a trustee of the public and the Paymaster, for making every charge and every allowance he knew of ...if the defendant knew of the omission...and if he concealed it, his motive must have been corrupt. That he did know was fully proved and he was guilty, therefore, not of an omission or neglect but of a gross deceit. The object could only have been to defraud the public ... a man accepting an office of trust, concerning the public, especially if attended with profit, is answerable criminally to the King for misbehaviour in his office; this is true by whomever and in whatever way the officer is appointed.

This blog sets out more of the context of this interesting landmark case.

Bembridge was an accountant accused of concealing £48,000 owed to the state by the Paymaster General Henry Fox, Lord Holland, which did not appear in the final account that Holland's estate (he had died in 1774) was submitting. In the eighteenth century, some senior officers were allowed to keep public money in their hands in order to make payments. Bembridge's defence was that because the office of paymaster of the armed forces was a relatively new post, there was no law governing its proper organisation and that therefore he had not broken the law. In so far as there was legislation governing the matter, a law as recent as 1783 said that the paymaster's account books were ‘his absolute property’.Given this semi-private nature of the post, it was suggested, Bembridge could not have been expected 'to turn a spy' on those who employed him; if he had done, 'all mankind must have hooted and hissed him'. Bembridge had ‘wilfully assisted in this concealment’ but not personally gained by it - the more guilty party was probably John Powell, Bembrige's immediate boss, who committed suicide before the matter could be fully investigated. In any case, it could not be right, Bembridge's counsel argued, that every man who had anything to do with public money was liable to indictment ‘if he swerves from his office, in any one article’; if so, there was a danger that it would ‘take in every man, for every little pecadillo’. It was not law ‘that every man, in every public office, that has relation even to the public money, in every breach of duty commits an offence indictable; there are other ways of punishing that man’.

The prosecution put the case very differently. The Solicitor General, arguing for the crown, said that Bembridge's defence was tyring to argue that ‘it is the excuse of a man in a public office, that he connives at public crimes because his friend commits them’. He also insisted that if Bembridge was acquitted, 'not only this man must go unpunished but all the people in all the offices, in this kingdom, of the same sort, may do the like with impunity’. He laid it down that '‘if this is a public office, it appears to me to be a principle that it has public duties belonging to it’.

Judge Mansfield agreed. Whilst agreeing that 'it certainly very much imports the public that the crime should be defined’ - and several hundred years later that is what the Law Commission is proposing - he decided that public offices were publicly accountable, and that where there was a fraud in something concernign the public, then the offence was indictable. He was backed up by Judge Willes who reflected the mood of retrenchment (a campaign for 'economical reform') that had been sweeping the country since the end of the war with America. This was, Willes proclaimed, now ‘an age of reformation, when public economy and frugality alone can save this impoverished state; there is no honest man who would wish to screen an officer of public trust who has betrayed his duty by endeavouring to defraud his king and country'. An example thus needed to be made of a public official who had acted 'corruptly'.

Bembridge was condemned to be imprisoned for six months and fined £2650, the sum he received for making up the accounts. Some said that for an intended fraud of £48000, 'so trifling a confinement, in which he could enjoy all the luxuries of life, was no punishment at all’. The trial exposed the weak teeth of the state in tackling corruption.

The trial nevertheless has another twist. One of the witnesses for the defence was none other than Edmund Burke,who was the grand prosecutor just a few years later of Warren Hastings, the allegedly corrupt governor of India (see previous blog). Here then was a champion of anti-corruption apparently defending a corrupt official. Why? The answer appears to have been that Burke, who had himself become Paymaster of the army, had been attempting to initiate reforms designed to save public money. But he needed expert advice from insiders in order to do so. Bembridge had been helping Burke to reform the pay office, which which had ‘been rather like a private office of account than a public administration’ and so Burke prasied Bembridge’s ‘disinterestedness’. Burke had even re-instated Bembridge after he had been dismissed for his corruption. Nor was that the end of the matter. When Burke's reinstatement of Bembridge was debated in Parliament (on three separate occasions), Burke found himself under attack from those who said that to re-emply a man 'accused of a crime amounting to public robbery, implied a contempt of public opinion, and was a daring insult'. Burke defended his actions and ' lost all control over his temper’, earning himself a censure from the House. Burke once more defended Bembridge as a man 'of religious integrity'. But he had to agree to the trial as the price of the parliamentary onslaught and one MP insisted that it should be 'an established principle that no person under prosecution should, during that prosecution, hold any office of trust’.

Bembridge's trial was thus in part the result of a parliamentary, even partisan, piece of manouvering but also the result of popular pressure expressed through MPs' anger. Burke was even caricatured as a corrupt minister with two dogs, labelled 'Pay Office Clerks', and depicted with money strapped to their backs.

detail of loaves and fishes burke bembridge

The anti-corruption reformer Burke was thus himself portrayed as corrupt or at least self-interested; but he had argued that he needed the help of a corrupt official in order to fight corruption and save the public money. Sometimes anti-corruption was/is a far from straight-forward matter with black and white villains and heroes. And was some of Burke's animus against Hastings a reflection of this earlier incident, an attempt to vindicate his own anti-corruption credentials and to capitalise, as he had seen others do, on the sense of public scandal that corruption issues could arouse?

Of course, the notion of public office as a trust, which was central to Mansfield's judgement had a longer history; and Bembridge's case was not the first one for misconduct. But those matters will have to wait for another blog....

June 07, 2015

Showing Corruption the Red Card

On the back of the Fifa corruption scandal, David Cameron has urged that we tackle corruption more widely.

Whilst his intentions seem entirely laudable, Britain’s own history suggests the way to achieving this may not be straightforward and that an essential part of the process is a debate, at times an uncomfortable one, about what constitutes corruption.

During the course of its evolution as a major European and imperial state with a leading economy, Britain experienced a protracted debate about what corruption was, what caused it, and how to tackle it. That debate lasted at least three hundred years and arguably longer.

The Fifa scandal has highlighted many interesting issues, but two in particular have historical parallels. The first is that corruption can infect non-governmental institutions just as much as the state. This suggests that the definition of corruption currently used by the World Bank and others – that corruption is the abuse of public office for private gain – is too narrow. A more useful one is ‘the abuse of entrusted power for private gain’, the definition used by anti-corruption lobbying organisation Transparency International. Clearly Fifa officials were not public officials in the sense of occupying an office of state; but they were public officials in the sense that they had entrusted power, from local footballing associations and even, in a wider sense, from football fans. This circumstance was the norm in pre-modern Britain, when the officered state was incredibly small and many institutions of power were semi-private. The Bank of England, for example, was not originally a state institution but a set of private investors who loaned money to the state. Thinking about corruption in terms of the abuse or breach of trust might be a useful one in the modern world too, since it is a concept that spans the state, financial institutions, communities and even individuals.

The second issue raised forcibly by the Fifa scandal is how behaviour can seem corrupt to some but not to others, and Britain’s own history is full of examples of this double vision. One justification of Fifa’s activities has been that the organisation has still promoted the public good: significant investment has been made in the footballing infrastructure of developing countries. We do not need to believe that every delegate to Fifa was receiving back-handers to explain why Blatter was able to garner so many votes for his albeit-temporary re-election. Yet to those of in the West, Fifa’s activities appear highly self-interested and to have breached anti-corruption laws. Blatter himself, from this perspective, is represented as monstrous.

The ambiguity about whether behaviour is corrupt and the resulting double-sidedness of those in public office leads to the same individual being seen very differently by different groups. We might remember figures from our own history, with whom we apparently have a good deal of sympathy, who seemed sure about the propriety of their own actions despite the condemnation of others. Take, for example, the diarist Samuel Pepys, about whom I wrote an article last year. As an administrator of the navy in the 1660s Pepys was in a good position to take back-handers for lucrative navy contractors and his income in that decade increased by a staggering 600-fold, clearly not just the result of official pay. Yet although Pepys condemned corruption in others, he did not see himself as corrupt. He called those who paid him sweeteners his ‘friends’ who were repaying ‘favours’ he had done them; and he clung to the notion that the key thing was whether his activity advanced the king’s service. If it did, then it did not really matter too much if he himself gained along the way.

pepys National Portrait Gallery image of Samuel Pepys

Pepys was nevertheless attacked in print for his corruption. A pamphlet, published whilst Pepys was incarcerated in the Tower of London because of his alleged complicity in the ‘popish’ policies of the future James II, listed at length the luxury items that he was said to have taken or been given. Here, then, is another parallel issue between pre-modern Britain and the Fifa scandal: who is responsible for exposing and then cleaning up corrupt behaviour? Should it be the press, the agencies of the law, Parliamentary or international representative bodies, or the mass of the citizenry?

The press in Britain’s history of ‘anti-corruption’ was an important tool; but it was seldom successful on its own and in any case many thought that the press was itself a corrupting factor (the spectacle of newspaper groups convicted of phone-hacking venomously attacking the corruption at Fifa has been an interesting one). The justice system was also significant, bringing many to book; but the law did not always reflect public opinion about what was corrupt behaviour. Warren Hastings, the governor of India who many regarded as corrupt, was nevertheless acquitted in 1795 after one of the longest corruption trials in British history. Parliament itself was hardly in a position to crusade against corruption when, prior to the reform acts of the nineteenth century, the process of electing MPs was itself highly corrupt. In turn, one MP in the first decade of the nineteenth century blamed the corruption of Parliament on the electorate: if voters were not so grasping, MPs would not have to offer them so many blandishments. In other words, in that MP’s mind, the people were themselves corrupt and there were plenty of those who saw corruption not as a judicial or administrative issue, but as a moral or even a religious one affecting the mass of the people. The culture of greed and the desire to ‘make a fortune’ (itself a phrase invented in the late sixteenth/early seventeenth century) were, some claimed, the result of the decline of piety and the replacement of Christian selflessness with the self-interested values of the market. Deciding on what authority might remedy corruption therefore involved far-reaching questions about how far the law reflected public attitudes to what constituted corruption; about how far institutions such as the press and Parliament were suitable tools for reform; and about how far any rule changes might be effectual if they were not accompanied by a more general cultural and social re-examination of individual behaviour and values.

All this has made for lively debate in Britain for a very long time. This was something which stirred national debate, advanced through the press but also through popular pressure in the form of mass-petitions, protest meetings and even riots. Fear of serious unrest was one of the key factors pushing through the Reform Act of 1832. The current PM calls corruption ‘the enemy of democracy’; yet active debate about corruption was one of the factors that actually helped the democratising process and helped to refine the values of accountability that we now invoke. The debate about corruption in the past was a lively, messy but also reasonably inclusive and popular one, not just one for politicians in Parliament, an institution which until the nineteenth century was itself plagued with accusations of being corrupt and itself in need of reform (a call that has some resonance with popular perceptions today). If the Prime Minister is serious about the need for tackling corruption today, perhaps we need some such national conversation again. But it might not be pretty.

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

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