Original Text: William D. Rubinstein, Emeritus Professor of History, University of Aberystwyth and Adjunct Professor, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia
‘Old Corruption’ referred to the system of highly paid government offices, pensions, sinecure positions, and income streams secured by members of the British aristocracy and upper classes during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The phenomenon was an all-pervasive feature of British upper class life in this period. The term was famously used by William Cobbett (1763- 1835), the radical reformer and enemy of the British aristocracy (Rubinstein 1983, Harling 1995). Probably the most important characteristic of ‘Old Corruption’ was that it was a parasitical but entirely legal system. Despite its name, it was not comparable to what is traditionally regarded as ‘corruption’ today: illegal or at the very least unethical abuses of office such as bribery, embezzlement, fraud.
‘Old Corruption’ consisted of the appointment of an aristocrat, his relatives, or a political ally to an official position with a high income attached. Normally the income attached to this position was extraordinarily high, and manifestly in excess of what a legitimate, non-aristocratic holder of the position would be paid. Hundreds of examples of ‘Old Corruption’ in the early nineteenth century were collected in John Wade's Black Book, or Corruption Unmasked, originally published in 1816 and in subsequent editions. For example, in 1832 Lord Bathurst, an aristocrat of the time, received £32,700 annually (over £3.5 million in today's money, at a time when there was no income tax) as the holder of the offices of Clerk of the Crown Court of Chancery, Secretary at War, Commissary of the Affairs of India, Teller of the Exchequer, and from an office entitled Clerk of Dispensations and Faculties. Furthermore, according to Wade, two of Bathurst’s relatives received £6400 per year (over £700,000 today) from three other offices they held. If any of these posts actually required work to fulfil their duties, this was done by clerks who were paid a tiny fraction of what Lord Bathurst received. According to Cobbett, Wade, and other critics of the British aristocracy of the time, there were literally hundreds of similar positions with similarly grandiose titles, enormous incomes, and few duties which were held by aristocrats and fortunate placemen.
Many positions held under ‘Old Corruption’ were hereditary, being inherited upon the death of their holder by his chief heir. In addition, many positions were ludicrous and absurd in nature. The Black Book, for example, noted the case of Lord Auckland, who received £1400 per year (over £150,000 today) as ‘Vendue-Master at Demerara’ (in British Guiana) ‘where he had never been,’ and £1900 per year (over £200,000 today) as ‘Auditor at Greenwich Hospital,’ ‘for doing nothing.’ In 1830, when many of these offices had been abolished or reformed, it was found that Lord Henry Seymour received £1251 per year (over £130,000 today) as ‘Craner and Wharfinger of Dublin Harbour.’ The Duke of St. Albans received £2000 per year (over £200,000 today) as ‘Hereditary Grand Falconer and Hereditary Registrar of the Court of Chancery’ – offices which required no work on the part of the Duke, since the legitimate activities of the Court Registrar were done by poorly paid clerks.
Although ‘Old Corruption’ involved the granting of underserved high incomes to the aristocracy and its associates, it did not entail the granting of other modes of power or authority, or any legal privileges such as continental aristocrats often enjoyed at this time. The granting of special privileges not held by ordinary Englishmen would have been regarded as unconstitutional even by those who benefitted financially under ‘Old Corruption’. Britain's aristocracy can be distinguished from continental aristocracies in having no legal privileges of any kind, apart from the right (in most but not all cases) to sit in the House of Lords. They obeyed the same laws as did labourers and shopkeepers and, in particular, were not exempted from the payment of any taxes – unlike, say, the pre-1789 French aristocracy. It should also be noted that there were few traces of the absurd features of ‘Old Corruption’ in the vital aspects of British national life. For instance, although it initially helped the career of a British naval officer to be related to an aristocrat or to have him as a patron, promotion to the top was based on merit and seniority, and the British Admiralty sought out naval officers like Nelson who were extremely talented as well as well-connected. Britain could simply not tolerate incompetence in a sphere vital to its national existence.
The scope of ‘Old Corruption’ was gradually reduced and ultimately ended by successive reforming British governments, including Tory governments, from the late eighteenth century through the ‘Age of Reform’ in the 1830s and 1840s. Much of the pressure for reform came from middle-class activists and politicians who regarded the astronomical salaries of ‘Old Corruption’ as a colossal waste of the taxpayer's money. Aristocrats eventually acquiesced in the ending of ‘Old Corruption’, in part because it was increasingly indefensible and in part because, with the Industrial Revolution, they became wealthier through ‘legitimate’ sources of income: from their rent rolls, exploiting mineral deposits like coal on their lands, and from investments in railways and other businesses. By the 1850s ‘Old Corruption’ in its previous sense had ended, and was not replaced by any form of overt corruption. Indeed, late Victorian British politicians and, in particular, the British civil service were renowned for their honesty and probity, and, apparently, few if any financial scandals involving them have ever come to light.
‘Old Corruption’ severely contradicted Max Weber's theories of modernity and bureaucracy, which saw modern bureaucracies as based on the accord of effort and duty, promotion through merit or seniority, and the actual performance of significant and clearly stated duties by the holders of an office (Weber 1947). Weber's distinction between income, status, and power as separate modes of social standing was also violated by ‘Old Corruption’, with status, income, and power being often transmissible into one another. Aristocratic status, for instance, entitled one to hold an office with an undeservedly high income – just as, at the time, it was possible to ‘buy’ a seat in the unreformed House of Commons.
Analyses of corruption have traditionally focused on illegal abuses such as bribery and misuse of public funds. However, in recent years increasing academic attention has been paid to the notion of ‘legal corruption’, as developed by Kaufmann and Vicente (2011). Legal corruption involves the ‘abuse of office for private gain’ that is central to traditional notions of corruption, but where the ‘abuse’ is able to take place legally due to its perpetrators possessing political and legal control. While ‘Old Corruption’ was closely bound up with a titled aristocracy that no longer exists in modern European nations, in essence it may be still be regarded as an early form of ‘legal corruption’. It is thus interesting to note that conceptions of ‘corruption’ have come full circle, and that the concept of ‘legal corruption’ has roots in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British political discourse.
- Rubinstein, W. 1983. ‘The end of “Old Corruption” in Britain 1780-1860’, Past and Present, 101(1): 55-86
- Harling, P. 1995. ‘Rethinking "Old Corruption"’, Past and Present, 147: 127-158
- Wade, J. 1820. The Black Book, or Corruption Unmasked! London: Effingham Wilson
- Weber, M. 1947. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Oxford
- Kaufmann, D. and Vicente, P. C. 2011. ‘Legal corruption’, Economics and Politics, 23(2): 195-219