The revival of 'Old Corruption'

Probably one of the many posts I'll write beginning with 'Twas ever thus.'

The sustained outrage in the press about the expenses of MPs has many echoes in the campaigns against 'Old Corruption' during the long eighteenth century.

'Country' Whig MPs and radicals outside parliament had many solutions for parliamentary corruption, from annual elections to cutting the civil list.

The 'South Sea Bubble' of 1720, the 'credit crunch' [how I hate that phrase] of their times, renewed suspicions about the government's handling of the economy, but Britain's 'saviour' Sir Robert Walpole also had much mud slung at him for his shady deals to keep in power. John Wilkes revived calls against parliamentary corruption in the 1760s, and supporting 'economical reform' became a badge of the Association movement of the 1770s and 1780s.

The most vivid campaign arose in 1809, during the Napoleonic Wars. Huge scandals emerged around major figures, most notably the Duke of York, whose mistress was accused of selling commissions in the army. All the sordid details of tabloid outrage were there: adultery, corruption, military failure. A minor Welsh MP raised the issue, and the Duke of York was impeached, though unsuccessfully. The press lapped the scandal up and spewed it out, despite this being a time when a patriotic attachment to the monarchy was to be expected.

'A Morning Scene in Gloucester' print

Why was corruption such an issue in the later part of the Napoleonic Wars? Shouldn't we have just been revelling in the afterglow of Trafalgar or getting on with fighting on the Peninsula? Well war-weariness was kicking in and there was no immediate end in sight to the war. At the peak of the conflict, the government was spending 30% of national income on the war. [Harling, 1996, p. 136] The press, especially William Cobbett's Political Register, stoked up suspicions among the ordinary public that this money was being spent for corrupt purposes: from paying for emigre French Catholic clergy to hide in Britain, to supporting the Prince of Wales's increasing waistline.

'Never, never till 1809 were found men of such bold, such boldfaced infamy as to avow the corruption, to assert that it was necessary to the support of good government in this country, and that to put an end to corruption would be to endanger the existence of government...'
[Cobbett's Political Register, 19 June 1811, p. 1512]

Suggested reading:
  • Philip Harling, The Waning of Old Corruption: the politics of economical reform in Britain, 1779-1846 (1996)
  • John Brewer, The sinews of power: war, money, and the English state, 1688-1783 (1990)
  • Philip Harling, 'The Duke of York affair (1809) and the complexities of wartime patriotism'. Historical Journal, 39 (1996)


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