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A satirical cartoon showing the Prince Regent and his mistress eating and drinking while being berated for their decadence.
Lord Brougham as John Bull, calling on the Prince Regent (later George IV) to curb his extravagance. Alamy/World History Archive

A history of British political sleaze – and why we should worry about the Johnson government

At the beginning of the 19th century, aristocratic networks connected to the monarchy and the Tory party had effectively “captured” the institutions of the state and exploited them for their own advantage. Britain was blighted by people in official positions without duties, embezzlement of public funds, jobs for family, clients and friends, rampant over-manning and the failure to pursue the public good.

It caused social and political disruption and left social inequalities unaddressed. It even triggered the occasional military disaster – most notoriously in the loss of the American colonies, but also in successive setbacks during the wars with France between 1793 and 1815.

With accusations that there is “a stench of corruption” surrounding Boris Johnson’s government, it’s worth considering how the problems of aristocratic patronage, nepotism, jobbery and fraud were tackled 200 years ago.

In response to this corruption, an alternative ethos of public service developed in the provincial cities of Britain. This was inspired by evangelical reformers and thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment such as Adam Smith and expressed itself in a sober, dutiful, literate, moral and professional culture. Early Victorian middle class campaigners and public servants such as the pioneering factory inspector, Leonard Horner, were a prime example. Karl Marx believed Horner did more for the working classes than any other figure in 19th century Britain.

Pioneering journalists exposed and denounced the depredations of the elite in publications such as the Poor Man’s Guardian, The Black Book (or Corruption Unmasked!) and the _Edinburgh Review_. Politicians such at Henry Brougham castigated the extravagance of the Prince Regent and the cathedral authorities of the Church of England. Brougham called for the reform of the law and of charitable endowments, which were being abused to benefit the wealthy.

The fear of revolution, constantly illustrated by the upheavals in France, and the mishandling of crises such as the 1819 St Peter’s Field meeting in Manchester, eventually forced the aristocracy to acknowledge this new political culture. The Whigs, led by Lord Grey, and the Tories, led by Robert Peel, began to attempt to meet some of the more pressing demands for constitutional, municipal, legal and ecclesiastical reform. Over time, they also began to accept that aristocratic patronage should be restricted (if not completely removed).

In the 1880s, it was discovered that business and financial interests were distorting the operation of local government and central administration. This led to a further campaign for reform of the standards of public life, which produced anti-bribery legislation. Together, these waves of anti-corruption agitation meant that, by the beginning of the 20th century, even the suspicion of corrupt behaviour could end a political career.

Cash for questions and the Nolan principles

This is not to say that corruption was checked altogether within the British state. Exploitation and self-enrichment remained at the heart of the imperial project. Individuals such as John Poulson, the architect who bribed his way into winning contracts from nationalised industries in the 1970s, demonstrated the forms that corrupt public behaviour could take in Britain long into the 20th century.

These cases were exposed, however. Prosecutions were brought and, more importantly, those involved saw their political careers finished. We might therefore regard the period from the end of the second world war to the early 1980s as a period of relatively high ethical standards in the civic life of the United Kingdom.

Later, the cash for questions scandal and wider concerns about Conservative party sleaze seriously undermined public confidence in the administration of John Major’s government in the 1990s. This helped bring about a colossal electoral victory for the Labour party in 1997.

It was also against the backdrop of the 1990s sleaze scandal that Lord Nolan drew up the principles for standards in public life that now form the backbone of ethical codes within government.

Cash for curtains and no principles?

Thanks to the example of prime ministers such as Robert Peel and William Gladstone, the British premier has been traditionally restrained from exercising absolute power by the ethos of public service. Recent events, however, have exposed the fact that the purely advisory role of most constitutional watchdogs provides a prime minister with too much room for manoeuvre.

The premier can overlook proven breaches of the ministerial code by their cabinet colleagues, oversee the issuing of government contracts to political associates, illegally prorogue parliament, and receive moneys and gifts (including some astonishingly expensive soft furnishings) from anonymous donors. Johnson is safe in his position so long as he retains the support of the cabinet (whom he appointed) and the Commons (where he holds a significant and highly personal majority).

Boris Johnson wearing scrubs holding a box of PCR tests.
Questions are swirling about how COVID contracts have been awarded. Alamy

Can Britain prevent a permanent retreat from the standards of impartial administration and incorrupt government? Compared to the situation in the 1820s, or even in the 1990s, there are grounds for serious concern. With a largely quiescent press, dominated by a small group of international billionaires, and a public distracted by polarising debates on Brexit and COVID, the principles of public institutions are again being challenged by the dominant political caste, but with far less public outcry.

The public-service ethos among civil servants has been undermined by the “new public management” approach, which uses performance-appraisal techniques to stifle dissent. That the Greensill lobbying scandal involved the recruitment of senior civil servants to private firms while still in public office is a breathtaking indication of how far the founding principles of impartiality among bureaucrats has been eroded.

As Britain leaves the European Union, which has provided the framework for anti-corruption legislation for the past 48 years, it is paramount that we reflect on the long, difficult struggle to introduce “clean” politics that took place both in Britain and across Europe in the 19th century. There is a danger of returning to a form of British politics that produced military disaster, mass impoverishment and entrenched inequality.

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