Sunday, 2 May 2010

Keith Flett on Old and New Corruption


Old Corruption – and the New
From LSHG Newsletter, 38 (April 2010)

A parliamentary system that had lost much legitimacy and where representative democracy was more of an idea than an actuality. Wars, debts due to war and massive greed of many of those in power. Just in case you feel this sounds rather familiar we are talking about the pre-1832 parliamentary system. The system was termed Old Corruption not least by a generation of radicals such as William Cobbett who ridiculed it and campaigned against it. Some parliamentary constituencies were so corrupt they were termed ‘Rotten Boroughs’. As Britain moved to an industrial society, population centres moved, and many old parliamentary seats were left with few if any real voters. They still returned MPs, though. In a sense, that was only an outcrop of Old Corruption, though. The core of it was a systematic working of Parliament and Government for the benefit of officials and MPs. Contracts were designed to deliver money to certain individuals, and Government jobs were often little more than sinecures. Radicals used the phrases Old Corruption, The System and The Thing interchangeably. They were complaining about an entire parasitic political system.
A recent historian of Old Corruption Philip Harling argued that it took ‘tax money out of the pockets of Britons and transferred it to a narrow band of well connected insiders through a wide variety of nefarious means’. These means included church patronage, Government contracts and policies that served the interests of City financiers. At the peak of the Napoleonic Wars, Government spending on ‘defence’ reached 30% of national income. Parliament survived, and how it did so remains a matter of historical debate. The 1832 Reform Act played an important but by no means the only role in the process. Its precise form, much argued over, was just radical enough to head off a very real threat of revolution. A range of other reforms ran into the 1840s, by which time the Chartists were agitating for a democratic place in the system rather than scrapping it. The ruling class did not, of course, do this unbidden. Above all else, it was the fury of working class opposition to Old Corruption that led to the changes. That opposition was sustained over four decades from the first years of the nineteenth century to the attempt at insurrection in South Wales in 1839 and beyond. The basic idea of working class politics was that the system of war, greed and corrupt politicians could only be contained and changed by a massive extension of popular democracy. That was what Peterloo in Manchester in 1819 was about, when campaigners for the vote were cut down by troops. The following years were a little quieter, but by 1830 the demands for democracy were back.
However, the ruling class also had other strategies to hand, in particular what Harling refers to as ‘practical improvement’. Successive Governments did indeed work to remove most of the instances of Old Corruption on the basis that it was not the system that was at fault but individual abuses of it. Without question, the argument that not revolution or root and branch reform but tackling of abuse was what was needed took some edge off the arguments of radicals.
The lessons for today may seem obvious. Firstly, the battle for the vote, hard fought and won, was designed to curb and control Old Corruption. Voting today, in historical terms, is a recognition of the struggles of those that went before us. Secondly, while the system may be in many fundamental aspects the same, two hundred years have elapsed. We need a new fight against The Thing of the twenty-first century.
Keith Flett

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