The problem of corruption: learning from the past

Thursday, 07 February 2019

Corruption 1

Oxford Brookes University hosted a major international conference on corruption, past and present last month (24-25 January 2019).

Convened by Dr Tom Crook (Oxford Brookes) and Dr Ian Cawood (Newman University, Birmingham), the conference heard from historians writing about the battle against corruption in nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain. 

A final panel of experts reflected on present challenges and what might be learned from the past.

The panel included Robert Barrington, (Executive Director of Transparency International, UK); Rosemary Carter (Ofqual); Anneliese Dodds (Oxford East MP); Andrew Feinstein (Founding Director of Corruption Watch); and Oonagh Gay (Senior Researcher in the Parliament and Constitution Centre).

The papers covered a wide range of areas in British public life where corruption had been a problem in the past: from the Church of England, the upper civil service and local police forces, to general elections and the administration of the British Empire.

Yet, as the panelists concluded, although significant progress had been made over the course of centuries, corruption remained a significant problem. They assessed that it was not just that corruption continued to be practised by unscrupulous officials, ministers, MPs and businessmen, but that the very suspicion that those who hold public office were corrupt served to undermine public trust in democratic governance, which itself was hugely damaging.

Among the key findings highlighted by the panelists were: 

  • electoral corruption was widespread before roughly 1880, but improved significantly with the introduction of new laws and mechanisms of electoral oversight.

  • personal probity and discipline of those in public office is a crucial guard against corruption, beyond the existence of rules and codes of conduct.

  • corruption flourishes in an environment where public and private interests are allowed to mix, without due administrative and public oversight.

  • significant anti-corruption reform has been stimulated by high poverty and inequality, and as a reaction to political crises.

  • Brexit might be one such crisis, but that it also carries considerable perils, not least because it might prompt Britain to lower its standards of corporate transparency and public tendering and procurement.

Co-organiser Dr Tom Crook said: “As the conference highlighted, the remarkable thing is just how persistent the problem of corruption has proved, despite all the efforts to stamp it out. The pursuit of purity in public life has been going on for over two hundred years and though some progress has been made, corruption is still with us. This conference has helped us to understand why. Ultimately, we might see corruption as a product of the antagonistic, conflicting demands of democracy on the one hand, and capitalism on the other.”

Robert Barrington spoke about the usefulness of putting his own anti-corruption efforts in a long-term historical perspective and how this helps us to understand how progressive change can and does happen.

Oonagh Gay reflected on her experience of offering advice to parliamentarians on matters of ethical conduct and how there had been a shift from a more relaxed, gentlemanly culture of probity, to one that is more disciplined and rule-bound. 

Rosemary Carter spoke strongly in favour of the integrity of present civil servants in Whitehall, but suggested that those who were in office for shorter periods of time, such as ministers and special advisers, were liable not to share the same exacting standards of conduct. 

Andrew Feinstein talked about  his long standing experience battling corruption in the global arms trade, which began when he served in Nelson Mandela’s first ANC government, and how it remains an incredibly obscure and shadowy industry. Finally, Anneliese Dodds shared her experiences as an MEP and more recently as an MP, suggesting that that the battle against corruption has suffered, because the problem cut across government departments, and often failed to attract the sort of media scrutiny it deserved.

The conference was supported by the British Academy, the History and Policy Unit, King College, London and the Economic History Society.