February 23, 2015

Cash for Access: The East has haunted British politicians before.

The allegations that two senior MPs, Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw, were willing to accept payment in order to facilitate favoured ‘access’ for a Chinese Hong Kong company sound very familiar. A similar scandal in 2012 involved other politicians appearing to offer payments for access to the Prime Minister and Lord Chancellor. The Conservative government of John Major was also rocked by accusations that cash could be paid for questions to be asked in Parliament.

But there is an even older history of such scandals. At the end of the seventeenth century the Speaker, Sir John Trevor, was expelled from the House of Commons for having received 1000 guineas for promoting the passage of a bill wanted by the City of London. But this was only the tip of an iceberg. Far larger sums were found, the same year, to have been paid by the East India Company to MPs, including Trevor again, in order to secure the charter which gave it a monopoly to trade in the Far East.

LeedsThe Duke of Leeds (public domain image)

Sir Thomas Cooke, the master of the East India Company, was grilled to explain the £90,000 that had been spent by the company for ‘special services’ when the bill was passing through parliament. A merchant-turned-company advocate, Sir Basil Firebrace, revealed that payments had also been made to Charles Bates, almost certainly intended for the Duke of Leeds, who at the time enjoyed one of the most privileged political positions as Lord President of the Council. Bates admitted that he had left the money at Leeds’ house, but claimed, somewhat implausibly, that this was only so that it could be counted properly by one of the duke’s servants, John Robart, who then conveniently absconded before he could make any further revelations! Despite an important witness disappearing, corruption was at the heart of the three articles drawn up against the Duke in order to prosecute him in Parliament, a process known as impeachment.

The 1695 scandal claimed the scalps of two high profile politicians and enabled a shift of government, from Tories to Whigs. It's too early, of course, to rush to judgement about the current revelations. But some might think it time to consider bringing back impeachments for future cases where the wrong-doing is clear. The last impeachment was held in 1805, again on a corruption charge, against the earl of Melville. An impeachment was again attempted in 1848, against Palmerston for his foreign policy (and money was alleged to have changed hands), but it failed to secure enough votes and the process has not been tried since then. A Select Committee in 1967 recommended that impeachments should be abolished; but they have never formally been removed from the statute book. They were perhaps abandoned because they could easily become partisan affairs: in 1695 Leeds believed that the campaign against him had been a long time in the planning, waged by Charles Montagu, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and one of the leaders of a group of Whigs intent on removing prominent Tories such as Leeds from political influence. Political they might have been; but they were also ritual cleansings of the parliamentary stable, moments of drama that served as reminders about the value of integrity.

February 15, 2015

Black–listing rich exploiters of the system

Recent scandals about tax evasion have focused attention on whether the rich are unfairly benefiting from the ‘system’ without paying their way. The perception, damaging to the political process, is that politicians and their super-rich friends exploit, rather than fully contribute to, the state.

Such sentiments are far from being new. In the early nineteenth century radical journalists attacked a ‘system’ of corruption that they saw as pervasive and which enabled the rich to exploit the state, thereby pushing up the taxes of those lower down the social scale. Such arguments were, as now, sharpened by severe financial pressures, in this case the result of the huge outlay on the Napoleonic wars.

In 1807 the list of the rich who were exploiting the state to draw money from it became an election issue. This image shows a ‘genius of elections’ with ‘wings of corruption’ reading to John Bull a list of MPs who had been returned to Westminster and the bribery used by the government to get them there. John Bull sits resolutely on his box of property, refusing to part with any more of it. One of the monster’s legs is labelled ‘Red Books and Sinecures’, suggesting that the notion of a red book came from the parliamentary investigations which had revealed public expenditure.

genius of elections

In 1816 ‘a commoner’ published the Extraordinary Red Book. Rather like a print-out of HSCB tax evaders it named and shamed those who held ‘Places, Pensions, Sinecures’ from the state, amounting to ‘a system of corruption’, with critical notes about ‘the expenditure of public money’ and tart comments about the national debt. Those listed included ministers, peers, MPs, the royal Court and other member of the elite. In the words of the preface ‘we have been ground down, and oppressed, year after year, to answer the purposes of men … born only to the idol of self-interest’. In this satire from the same year, John Bull is shown full of rage about the way in which public money was being paid to the rich.

Another best-selling list of the rich who had their noses in the trough was published in 2 volumes, 1820-3, called The Black Book, or Corruption Unmasked! Being an Account of Persons, Places, and Sinecures. So successful was this that further editions were published in 1831, 1832 and 1825, years in which agitation for reform was at its height. The compiler of the Black Book was John Wade, who went on to edit the

‘Junius Letters’, which had been sent to a newspaper in the late 1760s and early 1770s launching devastating attacks on the prime minister, the duke of Grafton, who was mercilessly satirised for both his corruption and his incompetence.

The idea of a black list nevertheless had a longer history. Although the Oxford English Dictionary gives the first use of ‘black list’ as 1624, twenty years earlier, in 1604, the playwright Thomas Middleton published The Black Booke, so named ‘because it doubly damned the Devil’, in which he attacked those who ‘corrupt with the mud of mischiefs the pure & cleare streames of a Kingdome’. Black-listing is thus intrinsically linked to Britain’s long history of attacks on corruption.

red book john bull

February 09, 2015

Sweeping out corruption with a clean broom

In India, in New Delhi, the Common People’s Party (or Aam Aadmi Party), uses anti-corruption as a rallying cry and the broom as a symbol of opposition to corruption. ‘Vote for the broom’ has become an electoral slogan.


[image from International Business Times]

You can read more about the AAP here

The notion that corruption is ‘filth’ that needs sweeping away is a long-standing and pervasive one that was shared by Britain when it was confronting corruption. Several visual satires of the eighteenth century, when there were anti-corruption campaigns, used the image of the broom. In this image from 1830 John Bull, the personification of the true Briton, sweeps his way towards reform of the parliamentary system.

bull sweeping 1830

A number of the satires play with the story of the fifth labour of Hercules, which was to cleanse the Augean stables, where a thousand cattle had lived for 30 years without being mucked out!

The Hercules myth also shone a light on the anti-corruption heroes fighting against the odds – Samuel Whitbread (of brewing fame) and Sir Francis Burdett in England – a role that Arvind Kejriwal apparently seeks to play in India.

The image of the cleansing broom was made more common by the prominent support given by Lord Chancellor Henry Brougham (whose surname provided scope for visual puns on his name) to the cause of reform. In this image Brougham is shown beating the monster of corruption.

whitbread sweeping

burdett sweeping

The broom was one of many metaphors used to describe corruption – later blogs will explore these visual and verbal symbols of the anti-corruption movement.

brougham sweeping

January 10, 2015

Satire, Corruption, and Religious Parody

Hone Printing Press from House that Jack BuiltThe extent to which free speech includes a right to offend religious sensibilities is now being much debated in the light of the murder of French satirists at Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

Similar issues were raised in 1817 by the prosecution of the British radical publisher and writer William Hone for parodying Christian worship in his satires against what he saw as widespread corruption in the period after the end of the Napoleonic wars.

Hone published three parodies of the creed, litany and catechism, using satire in order to press the case for the reform of corruption. The Sincecurist’s Creed, for example, parodied the code of religious belief to mock those who seemed to be paid by the state for work they did not do and yet voted religiously with the government:

WHOSOEVER will be a Sinecurist: before all things it is necessary that he hold a place of profit.
Which place except every Sinecurist do receive the salary for, and do no service: without doubt it is no Sinecure.
And a Sinecurist's duty is this: that he divide with the Ministry, and be with the Ministry in a Majority

Hone admitted having ‘an irresistible propensity to humour’. But the government clearly did not share his sense, since it charged him with blasphemy for each of the three tracts. At the heart of the government’s position was the principle that Scripture should be ‘never used for secular purposes’. Hone, defending himself throughout the three extremely gruelling trials, saw himself as a martyr for free speech. He argued that ‘if there was ridicule, those who rendered themselves ridiculous’ could not complain of libel; and that there was a long history of religious texts being used for parody (indeed, he accumulated a very large collection of such texts, stretching back to the Protestant reformation of the sixteenth century). He included visual parody in his catalogue. He also suggested that there were two types of parody: ‘one in which a man might convey ludicrous or ridiculous ideas relative to some other subject; the other, where it was meant to ridicule the thing parodied. The latter was not the case here, and therefore he had not brought religion into contempt’. He also suggested that the government was extremely hypocritical, since one of its own cabinet ministers, George Canning, had recently parodied a religious text for political purposes. Hone produced text after text in court to prove his points and was found not-guilty in each of the three trials.

Hone continued to use satire to attack corruption, though his next most important – and best-selling - publication parodied a nursery rhyme rather than Scripture to make its point. The House that Jack Built (1819) lampooned the government for building a corrupt House; but it also featured a picture of the printing press as ‘THE THING’ which could ‘poison the vermin’ who plundered the wealth of the nation.

Hone, ironically, became more religious in his later years and, aware of the offence it caused, did not use religious satire again. But the very long lists of religious parodies that he produced in court stood to highlight how important religious parody was to the Protestant tradition. Luther himself parodied the Psalms, as had eminent reformers in England. As Hone put it, parody ‘had been followed by the most venerable and respected characters this country ever produced’.

October 05, 2014

What would the first Tories have made of it?

A report published on 4 October 2014 by the union Unite [http://www.unitetheunion.org/news/tories-in-15-billion-nhs-sell-off-scandal/] has found that, since 2012, £1.5 billion of NHS funds has been contracted to private companies linked to 24 Tory MPs who voted for the Health and Care Act. Such contracts are legal; but is this very close relationship between elected representatives and private interests a form of corruption?marlborough as knave of hearts

At the very least there is an irony here. The first Tory party, created in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, was highly critical of party politicians (their rivals, the Whigs) who sought to hoover up state assets by giving themselves lucrative contracts. At that period, of course, there was no national health service; but large amounts of government funds were spent on war with Louis XIV’s France and the same issue of contracts was at stake.

In December 1711, just over a year after the Tories had won a landslide electoral victory, a prosecution was launched by them against the duke of Marlborough, the military hero whose services to the country had been recognised with the gift from the nation of Blenheim Palace. To be sure, there was politics involved – Marlborough had been a Tory but had moved closer to the Whigs, and the Tories sought revenge. Marlborough's wife, the redoubtable Sarah, was also close to the Whigs. But in any case, the point at issue was a contract that the duke had to supply the army with bread, from which he made a 6% profit. Between 1702 and 1711, he received £62,000 (roughly the equivalent of about £5m in today’s money). Here, then, was public money being diverted into a contract from which Marlborough personally gained (and he had several crony friends who had also procured lucrative contracts to provide the army with clothing and supplies). The first Tory party was outraged. Jonathan Swift, by then a Tory partisan, satirised Marlborough’s avarice in his poem The Fable of Midas – the mythical king whose touch turned everything to gold – and in pamphlets Swift alleged that Marlborough, like other Whigs, was intent on profiteering from the war. Indeed, the object of the Tory attack included the whole new financial system – including the Bank of England that had been a Whig creation in 1694 – which Tories saw as a device to transfer wealth into the hands of their political enemies. ‘Corruption’ was a Tory rallying cry in the early eighteenth century, both in the reign of Queen Anne and then during the premiership of Robert Walpole, who was another of those prosecuted alongside Marlborough for his share in the contracts scandal and was expelled from the House of Commons for his ‘notorious corruption’.

The first Tories, then, saw it as their patriotic duty to oppose the corrupt and self-interested transfer of state funds into the hands of cronies by means of dubious contracts. What would they have made of today’s Tory party?

The text of the 1711 report into Marlborough’s contracts can be read at http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=tFMyAQAAMAAJ&pg=PT547&lpg=PT547&dq=1711+marlborough+contracts&source=bl&ots=7a69mwUvNu&sig=Gbfji9vU6ZhTNE0pLway3QPNALc&hl=en&sa=X&ei=-noxVNjcKcLO7gbJ44CwBg&ved=0CDoQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q=1711%20marlborough%20contracts&f=false

Image: A playing card satirising the duke of Marlborough as a money-making ‘rogue’

October 02, 2014

GSK's Fine for Corruption

On 19 Sept 2014 the British pharmaceutical giant GSK was fined almost £300m by a Chinese court for bribery of non-government personnel (ie doctors) to use its products. This is the largest fine levied on a company in China. The head of the company’s China operations, Mark Reilly, was given a three year suspended prison sentence. The Chinese authorities alleged that bribery was ‘a core part of the activities of the company. To boost their share prices and sales, the company performed illegal actions’ [ http://www.theguardian.com/business/2013/jul/15/glaxosmithkline-china-bribery-allegations ]

Hastings offering presents cartoon.

The story of British companies being accused of bribery in Asia is nevertheless not a new one. In the eighteenth century members of the East India Company were also accused of corruption. Merchants returning to Britain having made a quick fortune in India were known as ‘nabobs’, an anglicisation of ‘nawab’, meaning prince. In 1787 one of the nabobs, Warren Hastings, who was called ‘the Captain of Iniquity’ by leading prosecutor Edmund Burke, was indicted by the British Parliament for bribery and corruption. The trial lasted seven years.

The charges against Hastings were, like the ones against GSK, designed to show that corruption was a core part of the East India Company’s activities. He was accused of accepting bribes or ‘presents’ from Indian princes; of handing out corrupt contracts (including for opium, which was sold to China); and of selling offices. In many ways Hastings personified a wider problem of endemic corruption in the East India Company. Like GSK, the Company’s share price was affected by its fortunes in Asia, and Hastings did all he could to promote the Company’s as well as his own interests.

Yet in 1795, in contrast to the recent verdict in China, Hastings was found ‘not guilty’ of the charges against him. In the eighteenth century, the dividing line between a ‘present’ and a bribe was an ambiguous one – this problem was all too apparent in Britain but was magnified in an India context because of a culture of gift-giving. Fostering a good economic network by cultivating social interactions was part of the merchants’ lives, creating muddy lines between personal interests and the interests of the company.

The eighteenth century East India men thought that a present was not necessarily a bribe that distorted how they behaved. George Vansittart, for example, wrote that ‘some presents I have certainly received but you will never hear of my bargaining for them or being influenced by them’ and he thought the same could be said of Hastings: ‘I would not say that Mr Hastings never has received presents but I think I can safely answer for his never having placed his private interest in competition with the publick advantage’. Another nabob was even more defiant: Richard Barwell protested in 1775: ‘I do not pretend …to say I never received a present, but I am certain I can defy any person to charge such to me as a crime’. This old notion of the defensibility of presents – that gifts did not necessarily corrupt - may still persist today.

One other thought is provoked by the GSK affair. The prosecution for bribery was, as GSK’s statement makes clear, ‘of non-government personnel’ (though how far Chinese doctors were non-governmental remains unclear). A common definition of bribery, used by the World Bank and others, is ‘the abuse of public office for private gain’. Here, however, the abuse seems to have been by a commercial company, and the Chinese state has gone after the corrupter rather than corrupted. In other words, the case challenges the economists’ definition of what corruption is and who should be prosecuted for it.

Image caption: Hastings was also accused of offering ‘presents’ to the royal court in order to secure favour during his prosecution for corruption.

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

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