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The UK’s current ‘Chumocracy’ would have been all too familiar to our early modern forebears.

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The ‘Chumocracy’ of the UK government, as it has been dubbed by the media, has been criticised for apparently awarding Coronavirus-related contracts to friends, neighbours and business associates. Many of us have been left wondering if we too ought to befriend a cabinet minister, reminded of the adage that ‘it's not what you know but who you know’. 

Strong parallels can be drawn to English trade and politics during the ‘early modern’ period. This world of the Reformation and Enlightenment - the Tudors and Stuarts - is more familiar than it might superficially appear. In her study of the middling sorts in eighteenth-century Colchester, Shani D’Cruz highlighted how there were some people you called ‘friend’, not because they were but because you wanted them to be. Invoking a friendship with influential social brokers who had access to forms power was important in a world where you carried out trade and politics based on personal connection and trust.

The Craig Muldrew has described this world as a ‘network of credit’ rooted in bonds of kinship and honour. Everyone was in some kind of debt and things were owed and expected in an ongoing balancing of accounts. Personal reputation meant money, and people quite literally traded on the family name. Research on London’s livery companies has shown the influence of familial ties in forming the social networks which constituted the political life of the company as well as their trade. Sheilagh Ogilive’s research on Europe’s guilds has demonstrated the importance of social capital on both trade relations and guild politics. In business and in the politics of business the prominence of personal ties in the conduct of affairs was not just accepted but actively encouraged. Trust was the gold standard.

Of course, many early modern relationships and exchanges existed outside networks of social capital, just as today many of our connections and exchanges are still predicated upon trust and personal networks. Many people reading this will recognise the world I have just described as one they occupy themselves. In many workplaces personal relationships and reputation make the world go round. In recent decades, economist such as Joseph Stiglitz have lauded the power of social capital; though Stiglitz believes that social relationships should be embedded within the economic system, rather than the other way around. In 2012 Daniel Aldrich argued that social capital and social networks were critical foundations of communities.

Private and public life in the England of c.1500-1800 were ostensibly less separate from one another than they are today. We could argue that a division, along with a semblance of meritocracy, has been a part of British life from at least the nineteenth century. However, the impression we have of the handling of Coronavirus contracts in 2020-1 has cast this into doubt. Government ministers awarding contracts to supply material and services to people within their social circle has been picked up across the media and by the Good Law Project. There is increasing scrutiny of adherence to proper process. The British Medical Journal reported in November 2020 the government faced legal action after awarding £250m in PPE contracts to a jewellery company. In early 2021 the High Court found that Health Secretary Matt Hancock had not issued the details of contracts in a timely way with only 608 of 708 relevant government contracts published.

Obviously, much of what we know is from media reporting, and how far this reflects reality is hard to say. The irony is that large portions of the British media from Lord Beaverbrook to Rupert Murdoch have been personal fiefdoms of powerful individuals.

England’s economic and political systems have been functioning on personal connections since at least the early modern period, and there are ample examples from recent history. Former Prime Minister David Cameron has also been criticised for his lobbying. The Labour Party have drawn comparisons to the government of John Major which became mired in allegations of sleaze and corruption in the 1990s. The elevation of peers to the House of Lords draws perennial criticism as an apparent method of rewarding political and financial support.

In a time of crisis personal connections come to the fore as we naturally reach out to those around us, relying on personal ties as part of an ingrained, pre-modern element of our culture. Use of personal networks still occurs but expectations of how this appears to the world have changed. Arguably, it is not the ‘Chumocracy’ itself that surprises us, but to have it so out in the open. No doubt there will be a retreat and these things will be done once again in a smaller, quieter way. However, a look to history shows the enduring power of personal networks in trade and politics, and the continuing need for trust between us all.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.
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