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January 11, 2007

Dead Meat and Cabinet Connivance - Corruption and the Body Politic: Jeremy Black compares the corruption of the Walpole years with the corruption of the Blair years

Posted by Jeremy Black

Leading historian Professor Jeremy Black compares the corruption of the Walpole years with the corruption of the Blair years. There are many similarities, but - argues Prof. Black - there is one outstanding difference. The Walpole years were a flowering in a long tradition of corruption. The Blair years have been marked by innovation in corruption.

In Mr Blair goes to Pentonville, I argued that, although he would avoid prison, Tony Blair would probably be regarded as corrupt by historians.

Corruption since has become a more urgent theme, most particularly with the alleged sale of peerages. The procurement may be indirect of course, for example transferring money to a trade union that then gives it to Labour as part of its political donation, but it is still a sale. Other issues that have overlapped include the funding of political parties, MPs' pay claims and expenses, the BAE-Saudi affair, and links between developers and government. The net impression is of an upsurge of corruption.

So what? Is corruption not an integral part of governance, indeed society? Indeed, can Blair be ennobled, or at least rescued, in reputation by comparison with great figures of the past who were also corrupt, such as Robert Walpole or David Lloyd George, each of whom made money and became Earls.

The comparison with Walpole is particularly interesting. In each case, they played a major (although far from a sole) role in reshaping the inchoate and often internally contradictory set of beliefs and practices that pass for party ideologies as they were put under great pressure by the exigencies and compromises of government. Each man faced criticism for so doing from within their parties, not least over allegations that they borrowed policies and practices from elsewhere: from Stuart and Continental authoritarianism in the case of Walpole and from the Conservatives for Blair. Furthermore, an inability to rely on all elements of their party led to charges of cronyism and government by patronage and manipulation.

Walpole would have appreciated the grant of peerages to donors to the Prime Ministerial "blind trust" and the acceptance of 1 million from a lobbyist trying to influence government policy. There were also more systematic comparisons. A blurred boundary between private and public income and expenditure could be seen in both periods. Furthermore, the longevity of each ministry permitted a thorough deployment of government patronage.

There was also, however, a major contrast. Walpole was much criticised by contemporaries, including literary figures and journalists, who alleged that he governed through corruption and that his attitudes were debasing public life and society. However, he scarcely originated the system of ministerial patronage. Any such argument would insult the intelligence of predecessors, such as Harley and Sunderland, whose capacity for intrigue and for manipulating the patronage structure was substantial.

Blair did not invent such activities as the profitable disposal of peerages, but, in contrast to Walpole, his practices, real or alleged, violated the longstanding reformation of government toward a more ostensibly utilitarian and diligent practice seen from the mid-nineteenth century. Probity was a crucial aspect of this break with "old politics".

Again, so what? Blair is "dead meat", his period in office restricted to months, and his reputation already tattered. The significance is not so much a case of Blair as of his Cabinet colleagues who will manage his legacy. It is rather unimpressive to see Gordon Brown trying to row away from the honours for sale issue when he has been a leading member of a ministry that benefited from the practice, not least in financing the last general election.

Furthermore, this is only one aspect of a wider corruption seen for example in the widespread use of national bodies to provide posts for party sympathisers. Of late attention has been devoted to the National Heritage Lottery Board but this is not new. New Labour, for example, proved adept from the outset of the Blair government in planting its supporters in the NHS. The comparison with Walpole is instructive, but, again, the modern practice of government is supposed to be different: merit is not usually understood as a function of party identity.

If this is an aspect of corruption, there is also a wider characteristic, namely assuming that one is the natural party of government and that therefore government is designed to serve one's ends. This characteristic can only be counteracted through a change in government. Dropping the pilot will not suffice. Cabinet members have connived with or accepted too many reprehensible aspects of recent governance. David Blunkett and Peter Mandelson may no longer be in the Cabinet, but it is difficult to have much confidence in those who would not say enough to Tony Blair. They all deserve to go together. Alas, it will not happen.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter and author of Britain Since the Seventies (2004), George III (2006) and The Slave Trade (2007).


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