Policy Papers

‘Old Corruption’ revived? Lessons from the Past

Mark Knights |

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Executive Summary

  • Old Corruption taught us that neither public office nor a contract for outsourced public services should be obtained by patronage, patrimony or partisanship; but also that such forces are remarkably powerful, enduring and difficult to constrain.
  • Both informal and formal restraints are necessary to attempt to do so. We need i) a vigorous and widespread debate on public ethics, particularly around issues of self-interest and accountability ii) robust, formal institutions with a remit for reform that remain independent from the executive iii) leadership demonstrating integrity.
  • Some of the formal architecture of, and principles underlying, restraint already exist, the legacy of the struggle with Old Corruption; but they need to be protected from erosion and we also need to think about how to meet new challenges.
  • We should view corruption not just as an issue of individual moral failing but as a systemic one in which many of our current institutions are interconnected and ripe for wholesale review.
  • Anti-corruption is a long-term and on-going process but there are short-term measures that could help. One would be to increase the barriers and constraints on the ways in which vested interests influence public life and seek to determine the public interest.
  • Crises and large-scale government spending increase both the opportunities for corruption and (with the consequent tax rises necessary to fund it) the public pressures for reform.

'New Corruption'?

Are we living in an age of ‘New Corruption’ and if so, are there any lessons from our past about what to do about it? ‘Not since the Victorians abolished patronage with open competition has any government so ruthlessly ushered its placemen into every nook and cranny of the public realm’, argues Polly Toynbee [Dido Harding to head the NHS? Her position would be untenable | Polly Toynbee | The Guardian]. She implicitly refers to the mid-nineteenth century waning of ‘Old Corruption’ after an intense period of reform, and the recent revival of old practices.

‘Old Corruption’ – a term coined in the 1830s – was characterised by a ‘system’ of corrupt institutions and practices that diverted public money into the pockets of a political and social elite who distributed offices amongst their friends and family in order to advance their own profit. This article explores how far Old and New Corruption resemble each other; what reforms worked in the past; and what lessons can be learnt from this earlier history.

Appointment to Public Office

Under Old Corruption appointment to public office was by purchase, patronage, and patrimony (power flowing personally from a leader). Although venality (the sale of office), was not a part of the formal revenues of the state, as in France or Spain, the purchase of office was reasonably widespread in Britain, at least for jobs that paid salaries or gave access to lucrative fees. Indeed, there were a number of scandals surrounding venality, such as in 1725 when the Lord Chancellor, the earl of Macclesfield, was found to have been selling offices in the Court of Chancery. Successfully impeached by Parliament, Macclesfield’s defence had argued that custom legitimised such sales, that the offices were his ‘property’, and that the public had no legitimate interest in how he disposed of them so long as a competent person was appointed. It was not until 1809 that the sale of office was formally ended by act of Parliament, and, even then, army commissions continued to be sold until 1871.

But it was patronage and patrimony that were the more prevalent challenges. Gaining a ‘place’, as a public office was often called, frequently relied on social networks, kinship (nepotism) and influence from within the government. The system favoured connection rather than merit. The power of patrimony is perhaps best illustrated by the influence of Robert Walpole, the prime minister between 1721 and 1742, who was often seen as one of the architects of Old Corruption. Walpole was notorious for trying to infuse his influence over administrative officials and MPs. A 1740 satire depicted the Prime Minister as a colossus ‘stretched over ye Doors of all ye Publick Offices’ whose arse his clients had to kiss if they wanted preferment. In the image, one would-be official rolls through Walpole’s legs a hoop which has the words ‘Corruption’, ‘Venality’, ‘Prostitution’, ‘Dependance’, ‘Wealth’, etched on it.

A satire of a Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, as the ‘Idol’ whose arse had to be kissed by would-be office-holders © The Trustees of the British Museum


Patronage and patrimony proved remarkably stubborn, in part because they were such an ubiquitous part of pre-modern society, regarded by many as social and cultural norms rather than ‘corruption’. Patronage was thus openly defended by William Windham, who had held office as Secretary for War during the wars with revolutionary and Napoleonic France. He published a speech in 1809 in which he explicitly denied that patronage was corrupt. Patronage, he claimed, was driven from below, by the demand of the people wanting the jobs, and he abhorred attacks on all social and political influence. Even a reformist such as Lord Grey, who helped achieve the 1832 Reform act, was notorious for appointing his relatives to office. Reformers wanted to curtail this system of patronage and patrimony. Charles Trevelyan helped write the Northcote-Trevelyan Report in 1854, a document often seen as the blueprint for the modern civil service, in which he attacked patronage as ‘the great abuse and scandal of the present age.’ He wanted to instil ‘confidence that all appointments to the public service were made solely with a view to the public good, without any personal or interested motive whatever’.


A satire of Lord Grey, outlining the long ‘tail’ of his relatives for whom he had secured public office. © The Trustees of the British Museum


There are signs that we could be slipping back into a Walpolean era where patronage, patrimony and partisanship prevail. The charge is that appointments to public office have become highly politicised, so that the governing party is acting in a self-interested way by unfairly favouring its own, sometimes to the extent of not even opening jobs to public competition. The most notorious example is Dido Harding, appointed as Chair of the ‘troubled’ NHS Test and Trace without competition: she is a sitting Conservative Peer, wife of a Conservative MP, John Penrose (who has also served as the United Kingdom Anti-Corruption Champion at the Cabinet Office since 2017!) and friend of former Prime Minister David Cameron. But there are many others. Peter Riddell, the out-going independent commissioner for public appointments, has expressed concern about the way in which the system is being politicised. He wrote last November that 

some at the centre of government want not only to have the final say but to tilt the competition system in their favour to appoint their allies.  [Peter_Riddell_to_Lord_Evans.docx.pdf (publishing.service.gov.uk)].

Riddell notes that although ‘the real power to make appointments has always lain with ministers’ and is therefore ‘inherently political’, the scale of politicisation has recently increased, with an increase in No 10’s ‘close engagement’. We need, says Riddell, political pluralism on public boards, not partisanship. The appointments system is being distorted: Downing Street leaks which candidates the PM prefers, even before a competition starts; the independence of interview panels is undermined and appointment board are packed; and there has been a proliferation of ‘unregulated appointments’ - the tsars, reviewers, envoys, taskforce leads and so on, who draw a public salary but can be appointed at the discretion of ministers. [Pre-Valedictory speech to the UCL Constitution Unit on Public Appointments - Commissioner for Public Appointments (independent.gov.uk)]


Parliament in Need of Reform

One of the charges against Old Corruption was that it rested on an electoral system that poorly represented the people, was dominated by money and personal interests, and was packed with ‘placemen’ - MPs who held an office or place thanks to the patronage of the government or Crown and who therefore were no longer truly representing their constituents.

Electoral law was one of the few areas in which corruption was defined by law, which from the 1690s, restricted the ways in which money could be used to influence voters. Yet the laws were repeatedly ignored by all parties and spending on elections grew to eye-watering sums. For example, £225,000 (about £10.5m in today’s terms) was spent by three candidates on the Yorkshire election in 1807.

Money also dominated because of the number of corrupt boroughs that could be bought up by wealthy electoral patrons who could then determine, or at least heavily influence, the outcome of the polls. But it was not just private wealth that seemed to infect the electoral system. The influence of the Treasury was also felt in many constituencies, where money was put at the disposal of government-favoured candidates. This unbalancing influence of the Crown/executive was said to be on the increase for much of the eighteenth century. In 1780 the Commons passed a resolution that it must be reduced and from the late eighteenth century cries of reform grew louder, even if how to reform Parliament was seldom agreed on.

John Bull confronts the ‘Genius of Elections’ which has powers of corruption, patronage and money to influence voters. © The Trustees of the British Museum


There are now new concerns that money has unduly influenced public votes, such as Brexit and general elections (national campaign spending is unlimited); that the power of the executive distorts the independence of MPs; that personal interests have too great a sway; and that Parliament is not truly representative of the people.

The Contractor State and Crony Contracts

Old Corruption also involved contracts as well as jobs. The pre-modern state outsourced many of its services to private contractors, particularly in relation to the armed forces, to the extent that some have called it a ‘Contractor State’.

The ‘state’ as a public entity lacked the infrastructure and resources to wage war on the scale that became routine in the eighteenth century. Large armies and navies fought wars on a global stage, at vast cost: between 1680 and 1780 the army and navy trebled in size and operated in Europe, the West Indies, North America and the East Indies. In order to fund it Britain created a national debt which then ballooned in size, reaching 260% of GDP by the early nineteenth century [Covid-19 and the UK national debt in historical context | History and Policy]. Much of this increased liquidity went into paying for the logistics of war.

The state therefore relied on a mass of private contractors to supply, clothe and feed the armed forces. The contracts were awarded in similar ways to appointments: through patronage, patrimony and friendship or crony networks (the word crony was coined in the late seventeenth century as ‘friendship’ became increasingly instrumentalised). Contracts were a way not only of supplying the services of the state but also offering political rewards to loyal followers

Whilst many contractors were small businessmen, others became very wealthy through excessive profits. Christopher Atkinson, for example, was a grain merchant and MP who supplied wheat, malt, flour and oats to the navy between 1761 and 1781, when he found himself the subject of public scandal. He had charged not only the market price (on which he made a profit) but also a commission, thereby in effect creating a double profit. Exposed in the press by his business rivals and even some of his associates, Atkinson was prosecuted in 1783, fined and ordered to stand in the pillory, where an angry crowd had to be restrained by four hundred constables. Later able to obtain a royal pardon, he had nevertheless become wealthy enough to ‘buy’ the parliamentary seat of Okehampton for over £100,000 (about £7.5m in today’s money). Corrupt contracting infected a corrupt electoral system.

The navy contractor Christopher Atkinkson in the pillory in 1785 for defrauding the public. © The Trustees of the British Museum


The Company State and Outsourced Services

The state also outsourced its imperial ambitions. Trading companies, such as the East India Company, were given royal and then parliamentary-sponsored commercial monopolies to pursue commercial gain, in return for payments to the Treasury and a stimulus to national wealth. The East India Company acquired ‘state-like’ powers, to the extent that we can talk of ‘the Company State’. In the seventeenth century it had powers to negotiate treaties, make war and punish its members; from the mid-eighteenth century it acquired, through war, rights to raise taxes in Bengal and it increasingly became a territorial power in India. The expansion of empire in the east was thus a semi-privatised affair.

The East India Company was a corporation that had private investors, and its ‘servants’ were allowed to engage in private trade, but the Company also had a public role and increasingly became an arm of the imperial state. The boundary between public and private was thus a blurred one that produced numerous scandals about the abuse of the public for private gain. The East India Company merchants were notorious for their rapacity in the later eighteenth century so that London had to impose ‘covenants’ preventing them from accepting ‘gifts’, ‘presents’ and other monetary rewards from willing or unwilling Indians. In 1789 the Company banned them from engaging in private trade if they also acted as its ‘civil servants’ (the term ‘civil servant’ comes from this Indian context).

A satire of the ‘nabob’ (an anglicisation of the Indian word for prince), the rapacious Sir Thomas Rumbold, here neutralising his prosecution by showering money into a pot held by a government minister, Henry Dundas © The Trustees of the British Museum


The East India Company was not unique and many pre-modern institutions were a hybrid of the public and the private. Prisons, for example, were often privately run (prisoners had to pay for their own upkeep and to reward their jailors) but delivered a public service. This duality created public scandals such at Coldbath Fields prison, nicknamed the English ‘Bastille’, where a greedy and ruthless governor, Thomas Aris, raked money off his prisoners whilst keeping them in squalid conditions.

So contracting under Old Corruption involved hybrid public-private institutions which inherently blurred the boundaries between public and private interests and in which contracts were often awarded to cronies for partisan reasons and to those who had patrons or friends in the right places.

There are again similarities between Old and New Corruption. The National Audit Office found that, during the first Covid wave, when PPE was urgently needed, over £10 billion worth of contracts had been given out without competitive tendering, many to friends and associates of ministers, and many without transparency [Covid spending: Watchdog finds MPs' contacts were given priority - BBC News]. There are numerous allegations that the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, has personally favoured allies and party donors, and acted unlawfully by failing to be transparent about contracts. The High Court also ruled that Michael Gove broke the law by showing favouritism – ‘apparent bias’ – in awarding a covid-related PR contract to Public First, which was run by friends of Dominic Cummings, without competition. Allegations of cronyism have surrounded the activities of former Prime Minister David Cameron, who acted as a lobbyist for Greensill Capital and tried (albeit unsuccessfully) to use his political contacts to leverage covid-related funds. Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary, over-ruled officials in his department to fast-track a lucrative planning development for Richard Desmond who he had sat next to at a fund-raising dinner and then donated £12,000 to the Conservative Party [The Robert Jenrick and Richard Desmond scandal shows the corruption at the heart of British politics (inews.co.uk)].The broader picture might include the many private companies (G4S, Serco, Mitie and others) which win contracts to deliver public services and have very close ties to government ministers and to the Tory party.

So New Corruption, like Old Corruption, seems to revolve around the awarding of politicised, crony contracts and favours without proper transparency.

Reform Processes and Public Ethics

New Corruption is not, of course, simply a revival of all the aspects of Old Corruption. Allegations of ‘Old Corruption’ did not distinguish much between politicians and public officials, in part because the ‘bureaucracy’ was still relatively small and norms of depoliticization had still to be established (norms which are now being challenged). Office is not sold (though peerages seem obtainable in ways that the premodern period might recognise). Sinecures (offices which required little or no work or which could be conducted by a deputy) are no longer given for political loyalty (though there may be question-marks over some board posts obtained by ex-ministers). Arbitrary fees are not routinely demanded by public servants for the performance of their jobs (though the service charges made by some private contractors verge on this – the cost of children’s homes has increased 40% since 2013 enabling the top 20 private providers to make an annual profit of £250m) The Guardian view on children’s homes: no place for profit | Editorial | The Guardian.) New challenges have also arisen since Old Corruption waned – offshore tax havens and money laundering, for example, in both of which the UK seems to specialise.

But if history never repeats itself exactly, what are the lessons from Britain’s past?

The first might be to look at who or what bore down on Old Corruption. Anti-corruption involved a medley of different forces, not all of which still have much weight. Evangelical Protestantism, for example, which motivated many to seek purity in government, now has little influence. The Republican or ‘Country’ tradition, drawing on classical antiquity and civic humanism, is also a much-reduced force, though one with still some adherents. This tradition was instinctively suspicious of public expenditure without rigorous scrutiny, and of ‘placemen’ slavishly following the executive’s every wish at the expense of the public interest. It cultivated an ethos of public service; scepticism about the virtue of the market; and independence from executive influence. Radical politics is also diminished. In the early nineteenth century Radicals emerged as potent critics, relentlessly ridiculing and attacking what they saw as a corrupt elite with its noses in the trough.

John Bull tries to pull down ‘The Tree of Corruption’ in which government influence and power flourish © The Trustees of the British Museum


What does still survive, though somewhat restricted by ‘culture wars’ and slanted press ownership, is free speech and a free press. The press was a constant thorn in the side of Old Corruption and it often scored minor but important victories. For example, the publisher and satirist William Hone adapted prayers and nursery rhymes to mock and jeer at corruption in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. Thrice-prosecuted but thrice-acquitted in 1817, Hone emerged a victorious champion of free speech who had been bold enough to encourage laughing at corrupt ministers as a means of reforming them.

Satirist William Hone, and his illustrator George Cruickshank, championed the printing press as the ‘thing’ that could ‘poison the vermin’ who plundered the wealth of the nation. © The Trustees of the British Museum


The press was important in eroding Old Corruption by championing the right to criticise government officials. Under a court ruling of 1705 criticism of a government official constituted seditious libel, irrespective of whether the criticism was true; but by the early nineteenth century this became an increasingly untenable position, both at home and in the empire. The press also provided the public with information about nefarious practices and conducted a public exercise in ethics. In exposing corruption, even if for very partisan reasons, the pamphlet and periodical press provided a mass of information about actions and behaviours that it condemned as corrupt, sparking debates about what was or was not legitimate behaviour. This constituted an extended exercise in moral deliberation. It also helped show that abuse of public office was not a ‘victimless crime’ and that plundering the public took many different forms.

If the press was an informal institution of accountability, there were also more formal ones, such as committees or commissions for public accounts. These had an uncertain history. In the 1640s, when the civil wars forced Parliament to extract large sums from the public, parliamentary committees were established to audit how that money was spent. This system was emasculated with the return of the monarchy in 1660 but revived in the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries when the development of political parties (Whigs and Tories), coupled with heightened ‘Country’ sensibilities, sharpened the appetite to hold mushrooming public expenditure to account and to investigate abuses of it. But precisely because they became partisan tools, commissions for public accounts were abandoned in 1714, when one party, the Whigs, rose to oligarchical power. It was not until the imminent loss of the American colonies in 1780, after a disastrous and expensive war, that the commission was revived.

Importantly, the new commission of public accounts had two essential attributes: independence (combined with backing) from government, and a remit to suggest reforms as well as simply audit the figures. (Modern accountancy firms seem to be neither independent nor interested in reform). In a series of reports over the 1780s, the commissioners for public accounts set out a series of key principles underlying a ‘modern’ conception of probity in public office. A 1782 report, for example, stated that

The Officer is a Trustee for the Public; as such he is bound to husband the Public Money committed to his charge with as much Frugality as if it were his own; what he saves or what he gains, he saves and gains not for himself but for the Public. He ought not to be permitted, by any Management or Contrivance, to carve out for himself an Interest in the Execution of a public Trust.

The quotation embodies two important conceptual shifts that had taken place since the mid-seventeenth century. The first was the idea that a public office was a ‘fiduciary’ trust, that is to say, one with legal duties and obligations. A trustee had to act in an accountable way – and the courts enforced this. The second was that a public trustee had a duty not to act in a self-interested way.

Indeed, the notion of a ‘conflict of interest’ took hold during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It influenced legislation that covered MPs as well as administrative officials, from the so-called ‘self-denying’ Parliamentary Ordinance of 1645, which prevented MPs from simultaneously holding military office, to the 1782 act which banned government contractors from sitting in Parliament. The notion of conflict of interest also underpinned parliamentary convention, established by the early nineteenth century, that MPs with a self-interest in any issue should not vote on it. On 22 June 1858 it was formally resolved that:

it is contrary to the usage and derogatory to the dignity of this House that any of its Members should bring forward, promote or advocate in this House any proceeding or measure in which he may have acted or been concerned for or in consideration of any pecuniary fee or reward.

Of course, the conceptual, practical and cultural shifts underlying notions of accountability, trust, disinterestedness, openness were not achieved quickly. Anti-corruption is a protracted and to some extent on-going process. It took several hundred years for change to happen and, even then, the process remained incomplete and patchy. Nor was it, as the 65-year abandonment of a commission of public accounts illustrates, an inevitable march of progress. Perhaps we are in another one of those moments of reverse. If so, history suggests that crisis (in the past, war; in the present, covid and climate change) and very large government expenditure nearly always – as in the 1640s, as in the 1690s, as in the 1780s, as in the early nineteenth century – both opens up opportunities for corruption and heightens pressures of scrutiny, accountability, fiscal prudence and openness in ways that produced reform. The reckoning for recent years is probably inevitable, sooner or later.



The history of Britain’s long and scandal-ridden struggle against ‘Old Corruption’ is instructive. It suggests that:

  • We learned the hard way that neither public office nor a contract for public services should be obtained by patronage, patrimony or partisanship; but such forces are remarkably powerful, enduring and difficult to constrain.
  • An important informal restraint is a public debate on ethical values (selflessness, integrity, trust, public-mindedness, accountability, openness) led in part by an independent and vigorous press, and in part by formal institutions with a remit for reform that remain independent from the executive.
  • Having lost restraining cultures derived from religious belief and from a republican heritage, we have to compensate by inculcating a new form of ethical deliberation.
  • We should seek a genuinely open public debate, with laws constraining foreign press barons who avoid paying UK taxes, and we should resist attempts by a hyper-sensitive government to stifle criticism by packing public bodies with what the pre-modern period would have called flattering placemen. 
  • A public debate on ethics will involve widespread discussion about what constitutes a conflict of interest and what to do about one. A starting point might be that it is insufficient merely to declare an interest, as though transparency is in itself a sufficient force, vital though it is. Vested interests also have to be prevented from perverting the public good through active barriers and restraints.
  • Britain has preferred in the past and present to have informal restraint that relied on the good character of officials; but that leaves it vulnerable to abuse. A balance has to be struck between trust and distrust. That balance is in constant need of recalibration.
  • Reform happens from top-down as well as bottom-up. Leadership (one of the Nolan principles for standards of public life) matters.
  • Corruption is in part about individuals abusing their office, but it is also about systemic problems in which institutions such as Parliament, the financial system, public bodies and companies delivering outsourced services play intertwining roles. They need to be reviewed as a piece.

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Further Reading

John Brewer, The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State 1688-1783 (Harvard, 1988),

Philip Harling, The Waning of Old Corruption. The Politics of Economical reform in Britain, 1779-1846 (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1996)

Mark Knights, Trust and Distrust: Corruption in Office in Britain and its Empire 1600-1850 (Oxford University Press, November 2021). Trust and Distrust - Mark Knights - Oxford University Press (oup.com)

‘Standards Matter’, Committee on Standards in Public Life Report, 3 June 2021 [Standards Matter 2: summary of academic roundtable by Dr Jane Martin CBE - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)]

Rebecca Dobson Phillips, ‘British Standards Landscape: A Mapping Exercise’, Committee of Standards in Public Life Report, Standards_Landscape_Final_Version__1_.pdf (publishing.service.gov.uk)

‘Corruption Now and Then’ – a blog reflecting on historical and current corruption scandals CORRUPTION, NOW AND THEN. A blog by Professor Mark Knights, reflecting on historical and current corruption scandals, University of Warwick

The Seven (Nolan) Principles of Public Life Nolan Principles [The Seven Principles of Public Life - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)]

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