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Britain’s long struggle with corruption

Corruption has risen to the top of the British political agenda. There have been scandals over crony covid contracts, cash for peerages, and the lobbying and consultancy activity of MPs. The rules governing MPs’ conduct, and the committee set up to oversee them, have been challenged, ripped up, and then restored. According to one poll published in the Independentthree quarters of the public are concerned about government corruption. The Prime Minister, himself under fire for dubious standards, felt it necessary to tell the leaders gathered for the COP26 meeting in November 2021 that the UK is “not remotely a corrupt country.”

But even if we agree with Boris Johnson (and that is something of an open question), then Britain certainly did struggle with corruption in the past. Indeed it has had a long history of corruption and anti-corruption. This has some lessons for today.

It took several hundred years for Britain to move away from a society in which officials felt little responsibility to the public and often regarded their posts as private property from which they could personally profit. It took many experiments with public accounts committees, from the mid-seventeenth century onwards, before a reasonably robust system to scrutinise public expenditure was put in place by the mid-nineteenth century. Similarly, although there was some legislation in 1555 to ban the sale of judicial and revenue posts, it was only in 1809 that the sale of office more generally was banned and, even then, army commissions continued to be sold until 1871. It took many prosecutions of officials to drive home the distinction between their own money and the public’s money. In the early nineteenth century, magistrates such as the notorious Joseph Merceron, who dominated Bethnal Green in the east end of London, were still able to use their positions to run rackets. 

A detail (with anti-semitic overtones) from a satire of 1810 depicting the “Monster of Corruption” whose “hands of extortion” grasp a “bag of bribery” with an “eye to [his own] interest.”

Photograph of Mark Knights’ owned print, ‘A Rough Sketch of the Times’ (1819)’, from The British Museum.

Gradually, uncertainly, unevenly, patchily, and over a long time, however, measures were put in place to define the boundaries between private and public interests, and to define what counted as the abuse of office. An important legal case was heard in 1783, when the accountant Charles Bembridge was prosecuted for concealing false accounts (£48,000—the equivalent of £4 million in today’s money—was missing!). The verdict against him helped to establish both the definition of public office (it included anyone being paid to do the work of the state, even if they were not formally employed by it) and the abuse of office (if an official knowingly concealed a fraud on the public, he was criminally answerable for it). 

The case also underlined that an office was a trust, a concept that originated in the 1640s when parliamentarians distrusted the king and his advisers. The idea of entrusted power had a long legacy. Even today, Transparency International, the leading anti-corruption lobbying organisation, defines corruption as the “abuse of entrusted power for private gain.” A trust carried a legal duty to act disinterestedly, with care and honesty, and to properly account for how money was spent. It was a legal ideal which carried duties of integrity, selflessness, accountability and transparency (today embodied in the Nolan principles). 

The notion of entrusted power was adopted not just in Britain but across its empire. Indeed, one of the important ways in which domestic ideas about probity in office developed was in response to repeated scandals in the imperial sphere. The East India Company, in particular, generated numerous scandals that reverberated back home and helped to shape attitudes. 

The reasons for the slow pace of reform are nevertheless instructive, since some of the same factors persist today. Socio-cultural factors blunted and limited the progress of the notion of office as a public trust. Friendship, patronage, kinship, and a culture of gift-giving all blurred the boundaries between the public and private. Anti-corruption became highly politicised, often more intent on taking out rivals than in reforming the system. 

Governments also had a deep suspicion of informal accountability in the shape of the press and whistle-blowers. Judges determined that almost any criticism of public officials was libellous, even if the allegation was true. And press freedom remained controversial long after it had officially been gained in 1695, not least in the empire, as India and South Africa in the first decades of the nineteenth century highlighted all too clearly. Yet the informal accountability of public discussion and a measured distrust of officials’ claims for secrecy and protection were necessary parts of the anti-corruption mix.

So, Britain has had a long struggle with corruption and the measures put in place to curb it were very hard-won over a protracted period of time. We weaken or abandon them now at our peril.

Featured image: public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Reviewers

    A great post

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