Thoughts on economics and liberty

A note on the history of political corruption in England

Came across this during a piece of research I was conducting. Very valuable historical note.



An extract from ACTING TOGETHER AGAINST CORRUPTION – Tales From History – a TI Australia perspective Peter G Willis, June 2001, Jakarta. (from Transparency International website:


An elected national parliament lies at the heart of any integrity system, based on democratic accountability. Its task is simply stated: to express the sovereign will of the people through their chosen representatives, who, on their behalf, hold the Executive Government accountable on a day-to-day basis.

If the national assembly is seen as a collection of rogues who have bought, bribed, cajoled and rigged themselves into positions of power, a parliament forfeits whatever respect it might otherwise have enjoyed, and effectively disables itself from promoting good governance and minimizing corruption–even if it wants to do so.

Clean elections and clean Parliamentarians do not guarantee honest and clean government, nor do they eliminate all corruption. They can only reduce its extent, significance and pervasiveness.

Eighty years ago, in a case on a corrupt politician accused of selling access to Ministers, an Australian High Court judge wrote: 'according to [history textbooks], bribery of members was often exercised, and especially by King William III, out of secret service funds.' Put most simply, bribery of members of the United Kingdom Parliament was not the aberration of single reign. Out and out corruption was the main means of securing election to Parliament and of forming Government and of keeping in Government for over a hundred years [from 1660 – 1790 CE]. For fifty years longer, election to Parliament remained a haphazard and gerrymandered affair, culminating in a great battle to create full democratic elections and the Reform Act of 1832.

'Ministers and magnates imposed some sort of pattern by 'influencing' the elections … A member toed the line because of one, or a combination of devices' – the conferral on the member or a friend or relation (or, at least, the promise of) a range of perks, contracts, pensions and paid inducements which would make our head spin. Not only were governments bought, but elections too: Thus Lord North, Prime Minister could write to King George III accounting for the election of 1782: 'the whole expense is £103,765/ 15s/ 9d, … a sum larger, but not very considerably larger than has been paid on other such occasions of similar nature…' This was an enormous sum-not spent on official Electoral Commission machinery, but in paying candidates and the controllers of the seats.


Periodically over a century [from 1729 to 1832], titanic battles were fought, little by little to overcome these deeply embedded features.

Persistently, the reforms were piecemeal, inconsistent, full of loopholes and fiercely resisted. They came in bursts after long lulls, not in a continuous stream.

[Reform] often required some overwhelming scandal or crisis to galvanize opinion or provide the impetus for the final battle, bringing the doubters and the 'middle' across to the side of the reformers.

The first great wave of systematic reforming legislation [in 1782 to 1785], was catalyzed by a famous denunciation of patronage by the Executive power and corruption in the public service and government. This debate was led by two famous parliamentarians of great ability and bravery. The leading speech was privately published in pamphlet form and was immediately and widely distributed (there was no official public record of proceedings in those days), building widespread support among voters and the non-voting general public alike.

This provided an impetus to break down the century-long procedures and habits. Yet the battle for 'Economical Reform' took several generations to work its way through the English political system. Accompanying the campaign was a high profile prosecution for corruption of a public official by the House of Commons. This was the impeachment of the Governor-General of Bengal (Warren Hastings), excruciatingly drawn-out in the Upper Chamber of Parliament between 1788 and 1795. Although ending in exhausted acquittal, this impeachment too played its part in warning those who were corrupt that there had been a change in sentiment and standards.

Irony abounds and reminds us that there is no inexorable law of progress, however much it all appears a neat process in hindsight: the initial period of reform was interspersed by an election at which the Prime Minister was assured by the King's parliamentary agent that a favourable majority would be obtained through bribery of the voters.

“eighteenth century English Government was based on an elaborate web of what the polite call 'patronage', but which we can call corruption.” At that time, the Secretaries and Under-secretaries of State, the senior government servants of the day like so many other characters in constitutional history, were at some stage in the metamorphosis from personal servant to state official. It was only the gradual removal of the Crown from daily political battle which led in equal measure to the removal of the body of the public service from partisan politics. Thus a step towards the 'neutrality' of the public service which we take as a bulwark of our version of democracy.

Two barriers to the creation of our modern public service remained. They are telling.

the recruitment of the public service remained locked in the patronage system. In summary, said the prime designer of the modern meritocratic public service in the UK, the public service was staffed with 'sickly youths whose parents and friends … endeavour to obtain for them employment in the service of the Government … where they may obtain an honourable livelihood [that is, a good salary] with little labour and no risk …'

With the support of one leading reforming Minister, a group of officials, zealots at the heart of Whitehall, waged a 15-year campaign to change the whole Civil Service. Eventually Parliament commissioned a Report, which established the prime features of the 'Westminster' model of the public service or civil service: entrance based on merit (competitive examinations) rather than patronage and connection, and a series of rules and expectations, to create and govern a body of advisers with 'sufficient independence, character, ability and experience to be able to advise, assist, and to some extent influence, those who are from time to time set over them'.

As the foremost modern Whitehall-watcher puts it: 'Once achieved, the principle of the great reform – that recruitment to the Civil Service should be determined by merit and not by connection – acquired the status of a self-evident truth '.

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