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April 08, 2023

Corrupt Lives? 3: John Poulson

Those accused of corruption often try to justify their actions in a way that gives them some legitimacy, even if their claims are repudiated by others. Their justifications raise fundamental questions about the motives that lead people to acts of corruption and whether these are solely rooted in self-interest, or might be based on grounds of promoting the public good. Who is more corrupt: those who increase public costs by inefficiency, incompetence, and bureaucratic obstructionism, or those who ride roughshod over bureaucratic norms in order to get things done that benefit the public? And what, in this entrepreneurial context, is the distinction between a gift and a bribe? These are some of the ethical questions raised by the case of John Poulson. This blog will first set briefly set out what he was accused of, and the consequences of the allegations, before focusing on the fascinating justifications Poulson made for his behaviour.

The early 1970s witnessed a string of corruption investigations into the network of councillors, civil servants and politicians linked to John Poulson, an architect and businessman with one of the largest practices in the world. Poulson had systematically built up close relationships with officials who then either brought him work or smoothed his path to bidding for contracts. He flourished in the post-war period when the country needed new hospitals, schools, libraries, swimming pools, civic buildings and homes.

Pontefract library

Pontefract library, built by Poulson in the 1970s, still in use (wiki image, creative commons licence).

He built these at a lower cost, and more quickly, than other practices. In the three years between 1959 and 1962 his companies grossed nearly £1m; and at its height he employed 750 people. But revelations that emerged in court and in inquiries led to twenty-one convictions for corruption, including nine councillors, four officials from nationalised industries, three civil servants and three MPs were criticised in a House of Commons select committee report. One of them, Reggie Maudling, the serving Home Secretary who had been a leadership contender for the Tories, was forced to resign his office (though not his seat at Westminster). They were mostly accused of accepting bribes from Poulson whom the judge described as ‘an incalculably evil man’.

There are many striking aspects of the Poulson case: it was the first corruption scandal to be the subject of intensive TV interest; it involved people from both the left and right of the political spectrum; it linked domestic and post-colonial fields; it exposed differences in the law governing local and national politics; and it focused a spotlight on the potential of PR firms to use shady practices in commerce and politics. But the focus here will be on the ways in which Poulson sought to explain his behaviour. I have previously written an article about this in relation to pre-modern corruption cases and many of the arguments used earlier can be found in this much more recent example too, showing how enduring certain mentalities and ideas seem to be across time; but Poulson also extended these in interesting ways that reflected the context of post-war Britain. Indeed, his autobiography, published after his release from his seven-year prison sentence, is one long exercise in self-justification – though the book opens with a denial of this. ‘I seek no self-justification on my own account, but there are those who are more familiar with wrong-doing than ever I was.’ From the start, then, he represents himself as someone who had things done to him by other people, people who he trusted and let him down.

poulson autobiog cover

The front cover of Poulson's autobiography

One curious aspect of his case is that he was a devout Methodist whose religious convictions may ironically have increased, rather than curbed, his tendency to his ‘excessive … generosity’. He relates how he read the Bible to his invalid mother who one day took his hand and told him ‘with deep sincerity “John, always remember that the Lord loveth a cheerful giver”. It was to be a maxim I practised and firmly believed in throughout my life’. Religion extolled ‘Christian generosity’. ‘The Good Samaritan in me has much to answer for’, he thought. Other aspects of his upbringing reinforced this notion from a more secular point of view. His grandfather, a local politician who had a ‘formative influence’ on him, ‘was open-handed and generous to an extreme, and in a way which was far more acceptable in his day than it was to be in mine’. Poulson was, this suggests, caught out by moving ethical goalposts; and underlying both religious and familial pressures was an outmoded notion of friendship. His grandfather had set friendship ‘on its highest plane, one from which any sincere demand had to be met wherever possible’.

Poulson claimed that he too prized friendship, and the generosity that underpinned it, above all else. His shower of gifts – money, cars, loans, houses, holidays, and clothes (amounting to £334,722 over eight years) – was, he suggested, entirely innocent. He had ‘no thought of advantage’ when he gave them. ‘I merely followed my grandfather’s dictum by giving where it would bring maximum pleasure and by letting others share what I had and they lacked’ (except that often they didn’t lack for much!). ‘It never entered my head that personal generosity could come under censure.’ The prosecution alleged that Poulson had ‘exceeded all bounds of normal generosity in making gifts, loans and payments to a number of officials and civil servants’; but that was, Poulson thought, because he had a different sense of ‘normal generosity’, not that he was corrupt. ‘Of course, if generosity is a crime, I was guilty of it’; but that was his only true crime. ‘Such gifts by a businessman to any politician or public official can be made to look sinister (as I well know) even when motivated merely by friendship and received without the slightest intention of corruption’. Poulson was ‘a man who has paid the price for misdeeds which I swear were committed largely in innocence of their criminality’.

Poulson also argued that he had acted in the public good. The country, after the ravages of war, desperately needed the buildings he constructed – there was a need for speed and efficiency. But these were impeded by other architects and vested interests, who were wedded to old, inefficient ways of working and were upset by his success and by an official bureaucracy that was ‘like a blanket of fog’. This meant using unconventional means and innovation in providing an ‘all-in-one’ service that catered for all aspects of a job and high-pressure sales techniques. He believed that his ‘search for better, quicker, cheaper and more time-saving methods of building would help Britain as well as myself. This was why I championed industrialised building techniques when others in Britain were clinging to traditional construction in brick and stone’.

Patients and school-pupils, as well as the public purse, thus benefited from his unorthodox methods, he claimed. ‘Hospitals, I maintained, could be built for less, and in a shorter time, than contemporary designers believed possible. But a thicket of dead wood had to be pruned away first’. Sick people needed hospitals but ‘the officials who order these things, drawing their salaries from the public purse, are all too often incapable of decision …[or] of processing their designs either efficiently or economically’. Similarly, he ‘deeply believed’ in the need for better educational facilities (he ‘was convinced that if only the British people were better educated, everything else would follow naturally: a better life for all’) but, he said, the same could not be said of officials: ‘I am today bitterly aware that many of these people are guilty of far greater inefficiency and wastage than those who, like me, have paid the price for so called “crimes”. I am not saying that there was corruption in their field’ but inefficiency was everywhere and it was also costly to the public – ‘my complaint is that too many are Jacks-in-office, with little or no understanding of how best to serve the community’. Similarly, his overseas firm, Construction Promotion, was designed ‘to help put a better face on the world’ and to deliver development at the lowest price: ‘we in Britain were meant to be helping these countries to get on their feet, yet we were asking them to pay through the soles of their boots for the privilege’. His mistake was ‘to try to do too much too fast’ for his vision of Britain and the world.

Poulson had an almost religious, or deeply egotistical, sense of mission and zeal against bureaucratic inefficiency and expense that was hurting the public. ‘I wanted to be a Messiah. I felt I could lead everybody, through efficiency and honesty, towards the promised land’. His sins were ‘primarily those of seeing only virtue in doing what has to be done in order to gain one’s objective. Such unorthodoxy, I have learned at bitter cost, has no place in a hypocritical society which demands scapegoats for its sins’. ‘I not only succeeded where others did not – an inexcusable fault – but I took short-cuts to the power and position which, for more than ten years, my organisation occupied in the world. Against me were ranged the biggest guns of my own profession’ including the Royal Institute of British Architects (to which he belonged, though he never formally qualified as an architect). He was frustrated by ‘the lethargic dreamland of our contemporary planners and authorities’ and sought ways round the obstacles. He was accused of many things in his life ‘but never of wasting public money to such an extent’ as the officials nominally serving the public. He worked with others, like T Dan Smith in Newcastle, who shared his drive to replace ’the shaming ghettoes of Victorian industrial life with clear, modern blocks and fine open landscapes.’ Taking officials on holidays thus got things done: ‘More could be accomplished, I found, sitting in a deck-chair, relaxed by sea and sunshine, than in any busy office’, though these holidays were later held against him as bribes. Such ‘refreshment’ was necessary ‘to win friends and influence those people’ who kept his organisation on the massive projects they were carrying out, and were ‘essential to produce a climate in which we could work most efficiently and effectively.’

T dan smith

T Dan Smith(Wiki image, creative commons licence)

Poulson’s ‘corruption’ was thus, in his eyes, no more than an entrepreneurial, innovative drive for efficiency and economy coming up hard against sclerotic forms of private and public service that hindered rather than promoted the public good. But his views ‘led me to make enemies among senior officials in many of our nationalised fields’ – enemies who were out to get him and bring him down. ‘I had to face the fact that “somebody up there” did not like me.’ Yet Poulson saw himself as on the side of the people: he had never embezzled any money from a client, public or private, so the public had never been hurt.

In any case, local planning departments were corrupt and everyone was profiting from kickbacks from the building boom: ‘it was an everyday method by which all manner of professionals up and down the country were making their personal fortunes’. Indeed, ‘there are well-worn double standards employed in official circles. It is only foolish enthusiast like me who go to the wall for the sins of others and the stupidity of oversight’. The court trying him had been anxious ‘to find a scapegoat for the sins of the many.’

This sense of victimhood comes across strongly in the autobiography. His ‘crime’ was over-trusting people, like Smith, who betrayed the trust by giving out ‘bribes and persuaders’. Poulson claims he was personally careless about money and so didn’t know what was really going on. Similarly he says that he knew nothing about the civil service code that made his gifts to officials corrupt ones. ‘At the time, I had no idea of the strict regulations applied to these matters’ as set out in the ‘Estacode’. ‘Why, one wonders, are they not made known to every professional body, every business contractor, operating at the direction of local authorities and government offices?’ Reggie Maudling was another who had abused this trust. ‘In hindsight, I have to face the fact that I was again being taken for a ride, and this time by a master operator’ but, he concluded, ‘that I and my trust were so frequently betrayed was not, I still believe, a failing in me’. Indeed, Poulson thought the establishment came down on him so hard in order to protect Maudling and the precarious Tory government – a not entirely fanciful point of view. Poulson’s trial was, from his point of view, ‘a farce; they were out to get me … I was their scapegoat’. Indeed, he saw himself as a ‘political prisoner’.

As a result, even after his conviction Poulson did not think he was really doing wrong by his ‘open-handed attitude’: ‘It was only the recondite rules of his service which argued that, in official eyes, they were corrupt and improper.’ The rules around what constituted corruption made, he says, ‘diaphanous distinctions’ between licit and illicit behaviour; ‘I still cannot claim an accurate knowledge of where the line runs’. He himself had never taken a bribe and he thought badly of, and dealt harshly with, any employee who did. He was guilty only of stupidity and ‘most unselfish and sincere acts of Christian charity’. This echoes an exchange during his trial. PROSECUTION: 'Do you think you have the capacity to recognize corruption when it stares you in the face?' POULSON: 'It only takes place when there are two parties. I do not believe there has been in this case. We are talking about something which I do not comprehend.'

What do we make of Poulson’s case?

It is possible, as sociologists Steven Chibnall and Peter Saunders do, to see Poulson and his network as operating in an alternative sub-culture with its own set of ethical rules that differed to that of the wider world, something that became visible only when the law intervened and challenged ‘their privately normalized behaviour’. Sub-groups can indeed operate ‘situational morality’ and there was certainly group-think in Poulson’s network. It is also important that corruption has to be understood not just in relation to the formal categorisation by law but also to ‘less rigorous, privately-normalized classificatory schema’.

private eye diagramme

Private Eye's diagram of Poulson's corrupt network [Private Eye Guide to the Poulson Case (1974)]

Chibnall and Saunders identified a number of key strands to Poulson’s justifications: first, if everybody was doing it, it cannot be wrong; second, that public service was not incompatible with private gain; third, that he and Smith saw their behaviour as ‘foolish, naive, or indiscreet, rather than as illegal and corrupt’; and fourth, that business involved forms of institutionalised friendship that some could see as corrupt but which were necessary to get things done. Poulson and Smith thus had a different concept of morality to those prosecuting them. Whereas the latter saw the gifts as bribes, Poulson commented ‘As far as I was concerned, a gift was a gift.’ The Poulson affair thus highlighted the ‘the existence of two distinct realities, two separate conceptual machineries, which, in the course of routine events, remain “worlds apart”’.

There is a great deal of truth in this analysis. However, there were differences between how Smith and Poulson operated (Smith was much more knowing and worldly-wise, but also probably more animated than Poulson by a desire to improve conditions for working people) that may suggest tensions within the sub-group. Nor was the mentality of the sub-group totally divorced from the establishment: one member of the commission reviewing their cases, Audrey Ward-Jackson (a senior civil servant with a background in planning and local government), wondered aloud whether in some parts of the country it had become impossible for businessmen to get things done ‘unless they grease someone’s palm?’

Moreover, Poulson’s public interest defence is important. His morality was not entirely separate from the world because he saw himself as acting to improve the world. He saw himself as not guilty of corruption not because he didn’t understand what corruption was but because he believed that the methods he deployed were a) innocent generosity and b) much less costly to the public and delivered greater benefits to the community than the officials and professionals who he saw as leeching off the state and pursuing their vested interests. He had an alternative view of what constituted corruption rather than lacking one entirely. This was more than the idea, put forward by Samuel Huntington and others, that corruption can oil the machine, particularly at times of transition; it was a counter-claim about what corruption was, based on shared agreement against private interests pillaging the public purse but differing about who the robbers were and how to achieve efficiency that worked for the public good.

Poulson’s position shows that ‘corruption’ has to be seen as a deeply complex problem, since the public good argument makes it the stuff of politics rather than, or as much as, morality. When Poulson said he was a political prisoner it was not just because he was the fall-guy for a government worried about one of its ministerial stars but may also have been because the architect/businessman had a politically charged notion of how to achieve the common good, an approach that rode roughshod over vested interests in its pursuit of capitalistic efficiency and/or lifting places out of poverty by stretching the normal processes of local and national government until they delivered progress. Poulson and his friends (from both the left and right) offered different ways of thinking about serving the public interest

The Poulson scandal led to the establishment in 1974 of a Royal Commission on Standards of Conduct in Public Life, which reported in 1976. But it was a missed opportunity. With a staff of just three, it gathered no detailed evidence; argued against the need for new legislation on misconduct in public office; endorsed the view that standards were generally high; did not think it was necessary to set up a permanent body to review standards in public life; and its remit precluded consideration of the practices of private enterprise (something two of its members lamented in addenda to the report). A register of interests for MPs was established in 1974 but until 1995 there was no requirement to disclose the amounts of remuneration; and it was not until the Nolan committee (set up in the wake of yet another scandal) in 1994 that a much more wide-ranging set of recommendations were offered and a clearly stated set of ethical principles that still apply today.

Further reading: John Poulson, The Price: The Autobiography of John Poulson, Architect (1981); Peter Jones From Virtue to Venality: Corruption in the City(2013), chapter 4; Jones, ‘Re-thinking Corruption in Post-1950 Urban Britain: the Poulson Affair, 1972–1976’, Urban History, 39:3 (2012), 510-528; Raymond Fitzwalter and David Taylor, Web of Corruption: The Story of J.G.L. Poulson and T. Dan Smith(1981); Steven Chibnall and Peter Saunders, ‘Worlds Apart: Notes on the Social Reality of Corruption’, British Journal of Sociology 28:2 (I977) – I am grateful to Mark Philp for this reference; Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, ‘Corruption In Britain’, Political Studies, 25 (1977): 274-284; Private Eye: A Guide to the Poulson Case, special issue (1974).

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.

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

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