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Corruption in the city
Author: Peter Jones

From Virtue to Venality examines the problem of corruption in British urban society and politics between 1930 and 1995. It is not a conventional study of the politics of local government since it seeks to place corruption in urban societies in a wider cultural context. It reclaims the study of corruption from political scientists and sociologists for historians but provides theoretical explanations of the causes of corruption testing them against real cases. The legacy of the municipal gospel, public service ideals and ethical principles are analysed to show how public virtues were eroded over time. It argues that the key counterweight against corruption is a strong civil society but that British civil society became detached from the city and urban society allowing corrupt politicians and business men licence to further their own ambitions by corrupt means. Britain’s imperial past deflected political leaders from the evidence before them contributing to their failure to develop reforms. The accounts of corruption in Glasgow – a British Chicago – as well as the major corruption scandals of John Poulson and T. Dan Smith show how Labour controlled towns and cities were especially vulnerable to corrupt dealings. The case of Dame Shirley Porter in the City of Westminster in the late 1980s reveals that Conservative controlled councils were also vulnerable since in London the stakes of the political struggle were especially intense.

The case of Belfast and Glasgow, c. 1920–70
Peter Jones

Historians of municipal corruption have generally focused on particular ‘scandals’ and ‘affairs’. The corruption scandals that afflicted the Metropolitan Board of Works in the 1880s and the Poulson affair of the 1970s have been especially well served. Such scandals have been seen as a product of multiple factors, among them personal greed and lax morals, confused understandings of ‘corruption’ on the part of key players and insufficiently robust cultures of administrative accountability. Yet the attention lavished on high-profile scandals and the actions of individuals, or groups of individuals, has not been without some costs. In particular, it has obscured the existence of more endemic, durable and, in some respects, more mundane and communal forms of civic corruption, born of peculiarly fractious and divided urban societies. This chapter examines two cities where corruption assumed this more diffuse, socially embedded form: Belfast and Glasgow, from roughly the 1920s to the 1960s. Arguably, they were the most corrupt cities in the UK during the mid-twentieth century; but they certainly shed light on how social and political antagonisms – in both cases profoundly etched with sectarianism – as well as poverty and economic dislocation can undermine civic trust and probity and foster forms of corruption rooted in group loyalty and party faction. The chapter examines each city in turn, before discussing their commonalties and differences in the conclusion.

in The many lives of corruption
Abstract only
Peter Jones

Definitions of corruption are provided. The cultural constructions of corruption are introduced and major theoretical approaches are outlined including elite theory; the role of ‘modernisation’; market theory; sociological theories; and cultural theories. Elite theory can penetrate issues including legitimacy, patronage and clientage. Modernisation theory can be illuminated with reference to Britain and also developing countries. Market theory is important in respect of public corruption particularly where free markets and bureaucratic markets meet. Sociological theory reveals the importance for upward social mobility and behaviours such as conspicuous consumption motivate the potentially corrupt. Cultural theory is important for understanding different attitudes towards gifts and hospitality demonstrating the ambivalence of meaning that can be attached to corruption. Business culture and public culture can often be at odds and result in corrupt transactions.

in From virtue to venality
Peter Jones

Public awareness of corruption fluctuates over time and is often dependent on other political and cultural factors. The definition of corruption often widens in scope as societies become more democratic. Thresholds of tolerance of corrupt activity on the part of politicians are raised or lowered according to circumstance. Thus in war time for example ‘profiteering’ is perceived to be unpatriotic and corrupt if government regulations such as rationing are contravened. Laws prohibiting corruption vary from state to state and Britain is a highly regulated state but corruption is often difficult to prosecute. Therefore measuring corruption prosecutions over time can only serve as a proxy measure and like other crimes corruption is often under-reported. It is possible to make some judgements via newspaper reportage and public opinion polls.. In the twentieth century, the development of reform critiques and therefore legislative programmes to control corruption have been slow to develop. This is despite numerous landmark cases and investigations including Tribunals of Inquiry and Royal Commissions. The attitude of British politicians and public servants has often taken comfort from the assumption, imbibed from the imperial legacy, that corruption is more prevalent elsewhere including the USA, Italy and also widely in Africa and Asia.

in From virtue to venality
Peter Jones

In the 1930s local government was respected and its range of responsibilities increased via the Local Government Act 1933. Civil society and civic traditions buttressed the sense of public service ideals for urban political elites. However, by the 1990s local government had fallen into disrepute so much so that the Royal Commission on Standards in Public Life saw fit to articulate the Seven Principles of Public Life – selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. Thus between c. 1930 and c.1990 local government’s reputation had declined and it was no longer regarded by central government as an appropriate instrument for the rebuilding and management of urban Britain. Instances of corruption particularly the cases of John Poulson and T. Dan Smith were especially significant. Further, lack of interest in local government revealed by poor electoral turnout contributed to the problem. The detachment of civil society from urban government and urban society’s problems served to facilitate local government’s decline in status, authority and power.

in From virtue to venality
Peter Jones

In the late nineteenth century Glasgow had been a model of Victorian urban government and the local elite was steeped in Victorian ideals of public service and civic probity. After the expansion of the franchise in 1918 local politics became more open and the Irish Treaty of 1921 undermined the necessity of the Unionist Party in Scotland and Glasgow in particular. By 1933 Labour had become the majority party in Glasgow’s City Council. A new type of politician entered public life that needed to live by politics as much as live for politics. This was achieved by using public office to accept bribes; dispense favours over public building programmes; cultivate patron-client relationships to secure drink licences; control the allocation of vendors’ stalls in local markets. A local press campaign resulted in the establishment of a Tribunal of Inquiry (1933) which exposed wrong doing in respect of the Council’s housing department. Little was done and corruption persisted throughout the post-war years and Glasgow shows that corruption can prevail in a political system where one party ruled for long periods of time without significant political opposition.

in From virtue to venality
Poulson and Smith
Peter Jones

John Poulson’s file for bankruptcy in 1972 exposed a range of corrupt practices involving not only Poulson but also T. Dan Smith the Newcastle politician as well as a range of civil servants, public health officials, railway surveyors and trade union officials. His subsequent trial also resulted in the resignation of the Home Secretary. Poulson’s bribes disguised as gifts and Smith’s public relations companies which employed local councillors were front organisations to conceal payments and retainers thus enabling councillors to vote planning applications without declaring their interests. The consequences were immense resulting in a Royal Commission Report in 1976. Newspaper reports also displayed a new kind of investigative journalism that went beyond sensationalism. Television documentaries and radio phone-ins showed how new forms of technology could expose corruption to wider sections of the population. Both Poulson and Smith served prison sentences and their trials served to discredit local government fundamentally providing impetus for the governments of Margaret Thatcher to launch a major assault on the powers and range of local government.

in From virtue to venality
Abstract only
The fall of the House of Porter
Peter Jones

The corruptions of Dame Shirley Porter, the Tesco heiress, and leader of Westminster City Council regarded by Conservatives as flagship council were not the only instances of corruption in London but they were the most sensational and they were regarded as gerrymandering. Her use of the right to buy scheme to gentrify particular electoral wards within Westminster City Council under the guise of ‘Building Stable Communities’ was judged by the District Auditor, John Magill, to be improper. Porter’s lack of political guile was exposed by Ken Livingstone and the new urban left. However, the Porter case was unusual: corruption in London stemmed from the immobilisme generated by the division of responsibilities between the London Boroughs and The Greater London Council. Prior to the Porter case corruption had embarrassed Labour in Whitechapel, Stepney, Lambeth and Haringey which were all Labour controlled and where local Labour leaders often acted in the style of T. Dan Smith as unaccountable political bosses. Porter’s disgrace caused her to leave the country and she fought a long legal battle without success to avoid the surcharge that was levied upon her.

in From virtue to venality
Abstract only
Peter Jones

The Royal Commission on Standards of Conduct in Public Life chaired by Lord Nolan became a standing committee and commissioned reports on many aspects of public life including local government. The Commission’s attempt to re-invigorate the ideals of public service by teaching codes of behaviour perhaps represented a last ditch attempt to reduce corruption by voluntary self-regulation rather than by legislation. The examination of the presence of corruption in British urban society in particular has revealed a peculiar complacency. Even as Nolan was issuing his first reports there were corruption cases in Glasgow, Birmingham, Paisley, Doncaster and Hull.

in From virtue to venality
Science, technology and culture in Birmingham and the West Midlands, 1760–1820
Author: Peter M. Jones

This book sets out to explain how - in a particular provincial context - the widespread public consumption of science underpinned a very considerable expansion of know-how or technological capability. In other words, it explains how conditions conducive to 'Industrial Enlightenment' came into being. Industrial Enlightenment appears to fit best as a characterisation of what was taking place in eighteenth-century Britain. Diffusing knowledge among savants was not at all the same as embedding it in technological or industrial processes. In the matter of application as opposed to dissemination, Europe's science cultures are revealed as very far from being evenly permeable, or receptive. The book explores whether the religious complexion of Birmingham and the West Midlands, and more especially the strength of protestant Nonconformity, might explain the precocious development of conditions favourable to Industrial Enlightenment across the region. It also focuses on the international ramifications of the knowledge economy, and the very serious dislocation that it suffered at the century's end as a consequence of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Whilst these late-century interruptions to the free flow of knowledge and technical know-how served mainly to thrust English provincial science in an ever more utilitarian direction, they signally retarded developments on the Continent. As a result, overseas visitors arriving in Birmingham and Soho after the signing of the peace treaties of 1814-15 were dismayed to discover that they faced a very considerable knowledge and know-how deficit.