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From the NS archive: The truth about corruption

10 March 1917: The long history of public life and the lure of money.

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There is nothing new about corruption in the upper levels of government. In this piece from 1917, the author took exception to the suggestion that he was living in an unusually venal age. Rather, “man is by nature a purchasable animal, and nothing but a code of disinterestedness as binding as a religion can preserve him from temptations to self-seeking at the public expense”. He went on to look at instances – and the nuances – of corruption from Demosthenes in ancient Greece via Charles II’s sale of titles to Rasputin who “seems also to have aspired to become the salesman of Russia’s honour”. In the modern age, state funds could be seen as a till into which politicians could dip their hands. But, for example, was the granting of an old age pension a way of buying public affection and therefore votes a form of corruption – “the purchase of votes with public money” as a critical voice put it – or legitimate politics? The modern world might not be pure “but to say that democracy breeds corruption is nonsense”.  


Corruption, says the writer of Musings Without Method in the current number of Blackwood’s Magazine, “has ever been the besetting sin of democracy”. This is one of those statements which express a prejudice rather than a fact. We often hear the same charge made against republics. The truth of the matter is, of course, that corruption is a besetting sin, not specially of democracy or of republics, but of human nature. Human nature presents us with an extraordinary motley of the Sons of God and the sons of Belial whether under a republic or an empire or a limited monarchy. It would be absurd to pretend that a race of absolutely disinterested persons has ever existed under any form of government that has yet been discovered. And certainly nothing in history leads one to believe that men have become less disinterested with the growth of democratic institutions.

Corruption, we grant, is a very vague word and exceedingly difficult to define. Thus, for instance, it used to be a common thing for country electors to have to vote as their landlords bade them. Electors more happily circumstanced and able to vote as they pleased had the liberty to sell their votes for money, and, it is to be feared, frequently did so. It is probable that the landlords in question regarded the second sort of electors as hopelessly corrupt and the former as sturdy patriots who were merely doing their duty. Corruption takes place, from this point of view, only when money, as people say, “changes hands”. On the other hand, it is obvious that, while the one elector may have voted for a bribe, the other, too, received a price for his vote in the greater security of his livelihood. There is no more of the spirit of disinterestedness in the elector who is driven to the poll like a frightened sheep than in the elector who frankly sells his vote to the highest bidder. Both of them are, in the last analysis, corrupt.

Neither kind of elector, however, is tolerable in a modern democracy, and so we find both the corruption of the intimidated and the corruption of the purchasable discouraged by the most severe penalties. As a result, we fancy that in modern England – that is, in England during the most democratic period that it has known – there is less corruption at election times than at any time in the past. Those who take pleasure in accusing democracy of corruption ought, one imagines, to have been given pause by the recent revelations about Rasputin. Rasputin was neither a democrat nor the citizen of a democratic country. On the contrary, he was the citizen of the most autocratically-governed country among the Great Powers of Europe. Yet this did not save him from a hideousness of corruption such as has never been surpassed in any democracy known to history. He seems to have been the salesman of honours in the Russian Empire. He seems also to have aspired to become the salesman of Russia’s honour. It is not denied that he took bribes from Germany. To sell promotion for money is demoralising enough; to be ready to sell one’s country for money is the uttermost infamy of which a citizen is capable.

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The example of Rasputin is sufficient to show that, in order to abolish corruption, something more than the abolition of democracy is necessary. And the example of Turkey under Abdul Hamid points the same moral. Corruption has never held the same sway in any modern democracy as in Russia and Turkey. Similarly, Charles II was one of the corruptest of English monarchs, accepting even the money of the French king; and yet democracy was not rampant in England in those days.

History, however, is full of examples of men under all forms of governments who loved money more than they loved the public good. Man is by nature a purchasable animal, and nothing but a code of disinterestedness as binding as a religion can preserve him from temptations to self-seeking at the public expense. Some of the greatest names in history are associated in one’s memory with charges of corruption. Even so high-souled a patriot as Demosthenes was found guilty of having accepted money for changing his policy in regard to the admission of Harpalus, Alexander’s runaway treasurer, into Athens.

Having opposed the reception of Harpalus on the ground that it might be made a cause of war, he is said afterwards to have been greatly taken with a golden cup of Persian manufacture which was among the stolen goods the fugitive had brought with him. Weighing the cup in his hand, and surprised to find it so heavy, he asked Harpalus what weight it “came to”? “It shall,” said Harpalus, with a smile, “come to you with twenty talents”. Demosthenes fell to the bribe. When the question of Harpalus was next raised in the Assembly, he appeared with his throat bandaged and pretended, when called on to speak, that he had lost his voice. It has been doubted whether Demosthenes was guilty of the crime of which he was convicted. If he was, his error stands in curious contrast to the fine disinterestedness and astonishing moral energy of the rest of his life.

One would single him out, for instance, as naturally a far more disinterested man than Bacon. Bacon, in comparison with Demosthenes, was a time-server, a courtier. He was no champion of a lost cause. He was a worldling, with a desire (no doubt) to reform the world but also to take advantage of the world. His corruption, however, it seems likely enough, was not corruption of the worst sort. It was conventional corruption, like the acceptance of a Christmas present from a commercial traveller. He lived in a time when judges took tips like modern waiters. It is a dangerous practice, especially when the judges accept their tips, as Bacon sometimes did, before the case is decided. Bacon denied strenuously that he had ever perverted justice for a bribe. The worst he could say of himself was that he might “be frail, and partake of the abuse of the times”. And, indeed, one of his accusers denounced him for having taken his money while his suit was going on and then having decided against him.

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The judge who accepts a bribe on false pretences in this manner is to be commended for his cunning, but is he so very much more honest than the judge who is at least faithful to the litigant who bribes him? He is something of a thief in both cases. At the same time, it is better in the public interest that he should be a thief in the Baconian school than in the fashion of those judges whose verdicts are for sale.

On the whole, Robespierre and Marat – Robespierre whose incorruptibility has been made a sneer and a reproach, and Marat who was content to live on bread and water – do not lose anything by comparison with men so little inclined to democracy, in our sense of the word, as Bacon and the Duke of Marlborough. Nor, whatever the faults of recent English Parliaments, does any of them fail to look a parliament of angels in contrast to the House of Commons in the days when under Sir Robert Walpole every man had his price and got it. The critics of democracy, however, apparently do not venture to affirm that the bribing of judges and Members of Parliament is as common in democratic England as it was in an England in which kings liked to fancy themselves ruling by divine right.

“Political corruption,” says the writer in Blackwood’s rather vaguely, “takes many forms. By far the simplest and least dangerous method is to rob the till.” He does not go on, as he surely ought to have done in the interests of public integrity, to give specific instances of the till having been robbed in recent times, “simple” though he declares the process to be. Surely, if it were so simple, at least one instance – we mean an instance involving a leading politician – would have come to light in this wicked world.

Modern corruption, it seems, ultimately resolves itself into little more than Old Age Pensions and the bestowal of titles on large contributors to party funds. “The purchase of votes with public money” is denounced. “Pensions”, we are told in explanation, “have been granted with a lavish hand, or promised with a deceptive tongue.” To describe a measure of simple justice of this kind as corruption seems to us to destroy the meaning of words. If the introduction of Old Age Pensions incidentally helps to make the party responsible for it popular, that, we fear, is an evil inseparable from the passage of any measure which a large section of the public wants. Certainly the recognition of the right of the aged poor to five shillings a week at the age of 70 seems to us the least corrupting in its effects of any distribution of the public wealth we have known.

Pericles has been accused of corruption because he obtained a grant of “festival-money” to the aged poor to enable them to buy seats in the theatre. But the fame of Pericles has survived the charge. The system of doles of corn and money at Rome, on the other hand, had an indisputably corrupting influence. It meant that large numbers of people, instead of adding to the common stock by their labour were encouraged to live in idleness by the hundred thousand. We doubt, however, whether a single human being in the prime of manhood has worked an hour the less or a foot-pound the less because he has seen before him the prospect of a five-shilling pension at the age of 70.

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As for the pretence that the sale of honours is one of the peculiar sins of democracy, no one with any knowledge of history could maintain such a thing. The object of James I in instituting the order of baronets was, frankly, to raise money by the sale of honours. Each baronet had to pay £1,095 for his title – a sum supposed to cover the pay of 30 soldiers during three years while engaged in the subjection of Ulster. In Charles I’s reign, we are told, blank patents for baronetcies were put on the market at £350 or £400.

We are not concerned at present with the rights or wrongs of the sale of honours, we merely wish to protest against the suggestion that in the old days kings and their favourites were on all occasions disinterested servants of the commonwealth while the modern world is by comparison a market-place of shame run by greedy hucksters in their own interest. Kings, as well as parties, are but human, and have bribed men with honours to serve them rather than the State.

The world, to say truth, is a corrupt spot – a tainted orange, or pear, or whatever shape it is. Public spirit burns with but an intermittent flame in most of us. The love of money, the love of power, and other forms of egoism are notorious seducers of men in all climates and under all constitutions. But to say that democracy breeds corruption is nonsense. One might as well say that it breeds adultery or bad language, or any other vice of human nature. 

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)