Socialism and corruption
Conservative responses to nationalisation and Poplarism, 1900–40
in The many lives of corruption
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The chapter is concerned with the politicisation of ‘corruption’ during the early twentieth century. It contends that corruption remained a contested concept long into the twentieth century, when – much as before – it was deployed to support a variety of political arguments and objectives. It does so through a focus on Conservative objections to nationalisation and so-called ‘Poplarism’, a term used to stigmatise the efforts of high-spending left-wing local councils in the 1920s to provide generous levels of outdoor relief and unemployment compensation. The Conservative critique of nationalisation rested on the argument that public ownership was anathema to good government. Shorn of commercial imperatives, socialist politicians sitting on the boards of nationalised industries would grant privileges to trade union officials and bribe working-class electors with promises of material benefits. Infused by similar anti-democratic assumptions, Conservatives opposed Poplarism on the grounds that it was corrupt and even, some suggested, analogous ‘to the open and extensive bribery which prevailed in elections in the good old days’. The Poplarist credo of generous outdoor relief was felt to be demoralising and inimical to the spirit of self-help, constituting a flagrant violation of orthodox Poor Law principles. Whereas in previous centuries condemnations of corrupt practices were often bound up with radical demands for a more representative polity, they now, at the start of the twentieth century, registered a profound unease with the realities and ramifications of universal suffrage.

The many lives of corruption

The reform of public life in modern Britain, 1750–1950

Editors: Ian Cawood and Tom Crook

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