One of the more unexpected moments of COP26 was the UK Prime Minister reassuring a global audience that “the UK is not remotely a corrupt country.” Scandals about Members of Parliament lobbying and taking lucrative second jobs had called into question Britain’s standing as one of the least corrupt countries in the world. But how had that standing been acquired – and can it be easily lost?
In his new book published this week Professor Mark Knights of the University of Warwick’s Department of History presents a history of corruption in Britain and its empire between 1600 and 1850, and explores its reform processes.
In Trust and Distrust: Corruption in Office in Britain and its Empire, 1600-1850
Professor Knights reveals a colourful history of scandals, dramatic trials, illicitly gained wealth and a campaigning press intent on exposing misconduct despite governmental attempts to stifle it.
The book is the first overview of corruption in office over this long period, a time when Britain evolved from a personal monarchy to a Parliamentary form of government. Professor Knights’ work is also the first analysis to integrate the colonial with the domestic story - imperial scandals such as the Warren Hastings affair, which led to a seven year trial in Parliament for a Governor General of India, were not remote outrages but issues which reverberated in the homeland and helped shape attitudes to corruption in office.
Professor Knights said: “I wanted to pay attention to a neglected period of Britain's long struggle to define, and then address, corruption and the abuse of office.
“This is historically interesting, since both 'corruption' and 'office' evolved rather than having fixed meanings, and the task necessitates bringing together the domestic and imperial stories.
“I also aim to show that understanding the restraints on reform may be as important as the factors pushing in its favour, how the past can be instructive about the moral dilemmas involved in holding an office or exercising power, and how our historical cultural context shaped the evolution of British anti-corruption mentalities and processes.”
While the book is a historical analysis Professor Knights hopes that his work will help inform debates in political science and policy-making.
Professor Knights added: “All history is in some sense a commentary on the present and issues of trust in officials, of integrity in office, of problematic outsourced state services, of the distribution of government contracts, of social norms that can blur the boundaries of legitimate behaviour, and of standards in public life are ones that still resonate today.”
Professor Knights sets out how Britain's struggle with corruption in office was a protracted process lasting several centuries, during which ideas about who office-holders were accountable to, and in whose interests they should act, changed fundamentally. He also highlights the vital role played by public discussion and scrutiny from an increasingly assertive British press in changing attitudes.
He finds that the law often lagged behind public definitions of corruption and that rules alone were not enough to change behaviour; that there had to be a balance of trust and distrust in officials - enough trust to empower them to do their jobs, enough distrust to hold them to account; that anti-corruption was a contested and politicised process; that the dividing line between public and private interests proved difficult to draw; that social institutions such as friendship, gift-giving and patronage blurred the boundaries between legitimate and illegitimate behaviour; and that Britain's historical context shaped the development of its anti-corruption mechanisms.