The many lives of corruption begins the task of piecing together the bigger picture of how corruption has undermined public life in modern Britain. It offers a uniquely expansive perspective, which stretches from the Old Corruption and ‘unreformed’ politics of the eighteenth century through to the mass democracy and welfare state of the twentieth. Conceptually, as an object of thought, as much as practicably, and as an object of reform, corruption has proved tenaciously problematic and protean. This volume engages with both of these crucial aspects, arguing that it is only by grasping them together that we can fully understand how corruption has shaped the making of a democratic-capitalist state in Britain and given rise to new ideals of public service. It examines the factors that have facilitated and frustrated anticorruption reforms, as well as the various ways ‘corruption’ has been conceived by historical agents. It does so across a range of different sites – electoral, political and administrative, domestic and colonial – presenting new research on neglected areas of reform, while revisiting well-known scandals and corrupt practices. The many lives of corruption is essential reading for all scholars interested in understanding how the pursuit of purity in British public life has evolved over the past two and a half centuries – and why corruption remains such a pressing issue today.
Corruption and the reform of public life in modern Britain
Ian Cawood and Tom Crook
This introductory chapter sets out the aims of the volume and how it develops and challenges an existing body of work on the history of corruption and public life in modern Britain. Broadly speaking, it proceeds in two parts and is designed to help readers new to the subject negotiate what has become a complex field of study and historiography. The first part introduces readers to the concept of corruption and provides a brief survey of how the term has been used in British public life from the early modern period through to the modern period covered by the book. Critiquing recent literature on this subject, it argues that although ‘corruption’ underwent a process of conceptual and regulatory refinement after roughly 1800, it remained highly politicised, reflecting the persistence of different ways of understanding the public good. The second part introduces readers to the key elements of British public life traversed in the chapters that follow and is more straightforwardly historical. These elements are the central administrative state; the civic realm of elections and municipal government; and, finally, the party-political domain of ministers, MPs and parliament.
This final chapter summarises the key contributions that emerge from the volume as a whole and develops their significance in terms of how they might be used to rethink the bigger picture of how corruption has informed – and undermined – the making of a democratic state in modern Britain. In particular, it cautions against dominant social-scientific approaches and argues for the essentially political nature of corruption, both as an analytical category and as a problem of governance. It then turns to how the volume opens up new ways of engaging the historic peculiarities of the British case, arguing that existing social-scientific accounts fail to accord enough importance to the British Empire. Once we put the British Empire back into the picture, it suggests, we end up with a decidedly more complex, and above all critical, sense of Britain’s status as a historic pioneer of clean government. It ends by once more affirming the essentially political nature of corruption.