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Friday 29 March 2019
Corruption Then & Now – Learning from the Past
By Dr Ian Cawood & Dr Tom Crook

Dr Ian Cawood is Head of History at Newman University Birmingham and is a regularly contributor to the Times Literary Supplement and has been interviewed by the BBC for Midlands Today, Newsnight and Inside Out. He is currently working on a history of corruption in 19th century Britain and has won a British Academy ‘Rising Star’ award for his current project.

Dr Tom Crook is Senior Lecturer in History at Oxford Brookes University and is working on a book entitled In Pursuit of Purity: Corruption and Public Life in Modern Britain.
Whilst constantly metamorphosing and adapting to changes in society, corruption is nothing new. A recent major international conference, hosted by Oxford Brookes University and supported by the British Academy, Kings College London and the Economic History Society, sought to shine a light on corruption in nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain – and what we can learn today in the fight against corruption.


Papers submitted to the conference covered a wide range of areas in British public life where corruption had been a problem in the past: from the Church of England, the upper civil service and local police forces, to general elections and the administration of the British Empire.


The themes which emerged from the conference were:


1. The significance of the period between 1780 and 1830 in which a dominant discourse of mutual benefit among elites was replaced by an emphasis on ‘the common good’, ‘unselfish government’ and ‘Christian virtue’ by critics of the governing classes which gained traction among the wider public and formed a central aspect of the reforms to the Old Constitution after 1832


2. The series of crises of governance, most notably the failures in the Crimean War of 1853-56, which, when reported by the press, were ascribed by critics to the failure to expunge fully the ‘culture of corruption’ and which led to a wave of anti-corruption drives throughout the Victorian period and into the twentieth century.


3. The significance of the ethical training and personal probity of ‘principal agents’ who could act as conduits of good governance and models of public service in particular bodies in particular locations: a form of ‘contagious virtue’. It was noted that such training tended to emerge from the Scottish universities, the nonconformist Churches, European examples, evangelical politicians and Benthamite philosophers.


4. The failure of key elements of the British establishment to accept the need for such ethical training among cultural influencers, such as Church leaders, University tutors and politicians, at Westminster, the provinces and across the Empire. The consequence of this failure was the haphazard and sporadic nature of anti-corruption across the nineteenth century and the persistence of privilege, patronage and patrimony in the British polity and public administration.


5. If virtuous government, created by an institutionalised system of meritocracy was one of the key aims of Victorian liberalism, one must conclude that, in this respect at least, the project failed and Britain at the start of the twentieth remained firmly in the grip of privately educated, Oxbridge graduates who had a very narrow understanding of the social and economic conditions in which the bulk of the British nation subsisted. This has proved an intractable failure of the British political class since that time.


A final panel of experts reflected on present challenges and what might be learned from the past. The panel included Robert Barrington, (Executive Director of Transparency International, UK); Rosemary Carter (Ofqual); Anneliese Dodds (Oxford East MP); Andrew Feinstein (Founding Director of Corruption Watch); and Oonagh Gay (Senior Researcher in the Parliament and Constitution Centre). As the panellists concluded, although significant progress had been made over the course of centuries, corruption remained a significant problem. They assessed that it was not just that corruption continued to be practised by unscrupulous officials, ministers, MPs and businessmen, but that the very suspicion that those who hold public office were corrupt, served to undermine public trust in democratic governance, which itself was hugely damaging.


Robert Barrington spoke about the usefulness of putting his own anti-corruption efforts in a long-term historical perspective and how this helps us to understand how progressive change can and does happen.


Oonagh Gay reflected on her experience of offering advice to parliamentarians on matters of ethical conduct and how there had been a shift from a more relaxed, gentlemanly culture of probity, to one that is more disciplined and rule-bound.


Rosemary Carter spoke strongly in favour of the integrity of present civil servants in Whitehall, but suggested that those who were in office for shorter periods of time, such as ministers and special advisers, were liable not to share the same exacting standards of conduct.


Andrew Feinstein talked about his long standing experience battling corruption in the global arms trade, which began when he served in Nelson Mandela’s first ANC government, and how it remains an incredibly obscure and shadowy industry.


Finally, Anneliese Dodds shared her experiences as an MEP and more recently as an MP, suggesting that that the battle against corruption has suffered because the problem cuts across government departments and often failed to attract the sort of media scrutiny it deserved.


Among the key findings highlighted by the panellists were:


1.Electoral corruption was widespread before roughly 1880, but improved significantly with the introduction of new laws and mechanisms of electoral oversight.


2.Personal probity and discipline of those in public office is a crucial guard against corruption, beyond the existence of rules and codes of conduct.


3.Corruption flourishes in an environment where public and private interests are allowed to mix, without adequate or robust administrative and public oversight.


4.Significant anti-corruption reform has been stimulated by high poverty and inequality, and as a reaction to political crises such as that which resulted in the widening of the franchise in 1832.


The panel concluded that the current issue of Brexit might prove to be a similar crisis, but that it also carries considerable perils, not least because it might prompt Britain to lower its standards of corporate transparency and public tendering and procurement in pursuit of favourable trading relation with other nations where standard of public life are less regulated or insufficiently monitored.


Dr Tom Crook reflected: “As the conference highlighted, the remarkable thing is just how persistent the problem of corruption has proved, despite all the efforts to stamp it out. The pursuit of purity in public life has been going on for over two hundred years and though some progress has been made, corruption is still with us. This conference has helped us to understand why. Ultimately, we might see corruption as a product of the antagonistic, conflicting demands of democracy on the one hand, and capitalism on the other.”

Transparency International has been fighting corruption around the world for a quarter of a century. As we turn 25 we’re asking what does corruption look like in today’s tumultuous world, and importantly how we can best fight it? For this blog series we’ve canvassed opinion from some of the leading voices in the anti-corruption world and will be sharing those here. Views expressed on this blog do not necessarily reflect those of Transparency International and where possible we encourage robust discussion and debate.


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