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The old corruption: the recent scandal over MPs' expenses would not have raised an eyebrow in the 18th century when bribery was rife and rigged elections common. Trevor Fisher looks into that system and the slow path to reform.


The current controversy over parliamentary expenses raised questions about MPs' corruptibility, with one political journal asking: 'Is this the most corrupt parliament ever?' It is an unhistorical question. Compared with the 18th century, the current parliament would hardly qualify as corrupt at all.

Exploiting power for financial gain was accepted practice in the 18th century. The concept of disinterested professionalism was weak and the idea of the public interest virtually non-existent. Parliament, court circles and the embryonic civil service saw the gaining of public office as a means to private wealth.

The two parties, the Tories and the Whigs, existed as loose parliamentary formations and at local level as little more than election labels. MPs were the lynchpin of the parliamentary system established after the conflicts of the 17th century, but parliamentary contests were not about the manifestoes of the candidates; for all parties concerned, it was about the pursuit of crude, immediate gain.

The system of public hustings for elections highlighted the role played by money. Under the Septennial Act of 1716, elections had to be held every seven years at least. The phrase 'septennial ale' refers to the beer that was given out in order to sway voters and which they came to regard as a right, seeing their votes as something to be sold. Voting was by show of hands and therefore open to intimidation as well as corruption. A tenant farmer could lose his farm if his landowner saw him voting for the wrong candidate.

While many historical accounts refer to elections as marred by bribery and violence, this was not the only corruption. Less visible forms of manipulation involved closed elections where the candidates had been chosen by local magnates in 'rotten boroughs' where there were very few voters. The gentry had enormous influence, but were often reluctant to intervene directly in contests. The Duke of Newcastle (prime minister 1754-56 and 1757-62) had a secret political fund, but spent only a fraction of it on open bribery. It was easier to fix elections than to fix the electorate.

The artist William Hogarth highlighted corruption in his famous series of paintings entitled An Election 1753-54, based on events in Oxfordshire, but he was unusual in denouncing such practices. For most contemporaries, the rotten borough and the riotous election were taken for granted. Relatively few people were involved in the abuses, since there were few contests and the electorate was minuscule. On the eve of the 1832 Reform Bill, only four per cent of males had the vote and the number of contested elections was tiny.

Yet the election of MPs was important because the role of Parliament was crucial to 18th-century government. Unlike in most of Europe, the British monarchy did not have absolute power because Parliament denied the king the money to attain it. The monarch lacked the funds to bribe a parliamentary majority or run a state bureaucracy.

The way the system worked can be seen most clearly in the army, the prime instrument of absolute rule on the Continent. The British sought to avoid this by denying the monarch a professional salaried army through the purchase system. Officers bought their positions, milked their jobs for personal gain and were independent of royal control. George I tried to abolish purchase when he arrived from Hanover in 1714; Parliament would not let him.

The bureaucrats, like army officers, were also motivated by profit. In the absence of a salaried civil service, administration became notoriously the province of men who were able, greedy and light-fingered. Henry Fox, paymaster of the army in the early days of George III, used the funds passing through his hands to make lucrative personal loans before returning the money to the public accounts.

The system of peculation, or embezzlement, was not justified by greed but by the broader issues of the constitution after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The mixed constitution--of the king in Parliament was seen as the guarantor of British liberties through checks and balances. The 18th-century jurist, Sir William Blackstone, commented that 'all the parts form a mutual check upon each other. In the legislature, the people are a check upon the nobility, and the nobility a check upon the people... While the King is a check upon both ... executive power is again checked and kept within due bounds by the two Houses ...'

The British prided themselves on the blocks to royal power. As As a Briggs observed: 'There was no powerful bureaucracy: there was no English droit administratif, no raison d'etat to override the common law or to intimidate judges and jurymen ... there was a permanent and stalwart parliamentary buffer against despotism'.

The monarchy may have been starved of money but the machinery of government had to be paid for and what we see as corruption was then viewed as payment. It was nevertheless recognised that there was a line to be drawn between acceptable and unacceptable rewards from public office. Yet, while naked greed was beyond the pale, it was far from clear where the boundaries were. When William Brummell (d. 1794), prime minister Lord North's secretary and the father of Beau, made his will, he carefully granted 100 [pounds sterling] each to three of his office colleagues 'for the trouble they will respectively have in settling my office accounts after my decease', and 1,000 [pounds sterling] to one William Francis Johnston who had been an extra clerk in the secretary of state's office. This may be suggestive but there was never a hint of scandal over the official who had entered office as a secretary and ended up a landed magnate. In the climate of the 18th century, few questions were asked.

The great achievement of the Victorians was to end peculation as a mechanism of government. Progress was slow: the Whigs' 1832 Reform Act, for example, left the electoral system largely as it had been in the mid- 18th century. The Whigs had doubled the electorate, to eight per cent of the adult male population, but did not abolish the rotten borough, open hustings and the need for private means to become an MP.

Only in the second half of the 19th century did a different ethic emerge. Gladstone's government passed the 1872 Reform Act, which introduced the secret ballot and, with it, did away with open hustings and thus with most elctoral bribery, violence and intimidation. In 1883 the Corrupt Practices Act limited the expenses and payment of election workers. The law now prevented rich men from buying votes and flooding constituencies with their paid supporters.

Similar changes took place in other areas of public administration. The growth of a disinterested, salaried professional civil service meant that paying large sums to men like Brummell to run the government's administration passed into history. The final step towards professionalism and an end to the rich being able to buy positions of power and profit from them came with the abolition of purchase in the army, put through Parliament by Gladstone's war minister Edward Cardwell as part of his army reforms in 1871 despite intense opposition. But the opposition was not just from self-interested officers. In the Lords debate, both the Whig Earl Grey and the Tory Earl Carnaervon argued that an incompetent military was better than despotism. It was the last blast of an 18thcentury philosophy.

Perfection has never been possible in politics and MPs may sail close to the wind. But the lingering outrage over their expenses is overstated. The days when a prime minister's secretary could start poor and end up with broad acres and a mansion in the Home Counties are over. If Lord North could survey the current scene, he would be amazed that the Daily Telegraph revelations caused such mayhem.

Trevor Fisher is is the author of Oscar and Bosie: A Fatal Passion (Sutton, 2002). For further articles on this subject visit
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Title Annotation:Today's History
Author:Fisher, Trevor
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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