The Waning of 'Old Corruption': The Politics of Economical Reform in Britain, 1779-1846

The Waning of 'Old Corruption': The Politics of Economical Reform in Britain, 1779-1846

The Waning of 'Old Corruption': The Politics of Economical Reform in Britain, 1779-1846

The Waning of 'Old Corruption': The Politics of Economical Reform in Britain, 1779-1846

Synopsis

Most historians of Britain now take for granted that a narrow and mostly landed elite managed to retain its social supremacy throughout much of the nineteenth century. But as yet, there is no throrough explanation for the persistence of the old elite's political authority in an age when that authority was seriously questioned by many Britons. In this original study, Philip Harling furnishes an important part of this explanation. He argues that the mostly Pittite governing elite helped to allay the suspicions of parasitism at the root of the familiar critique of 'Old Corruption' by responding to intense pressure to sanitize government.

Excerpt

The critique of Old Corruption arose from discontent with the wartime opportunities for feeding off the public spoil that the 'fiscal-military' state ostensibly furnished to ministers and their cronies. It became especially formidable during the unprecedentedly expensive and seemingly endless wars with France between 1793 and 1815. The revival of this critique during the French Wars was remarkable for its explicit condemnation of the policies and personality of William Pitt the younger, for he had been instrumental in briefly shielding the state's élite stewards from charges of insatiable greed in the 1780s. In order fully to appreciate the political significance of the revival of charges of Old Corruption during the French Wars, it will thus first be necessary to explore the relevant background in the 1780s.

The main features of what Cobbett would later call Old Corruption were already clearly established during the American Revolutionary War. The cost and seeming ineffectuality of the war effort revived traditional, 'country' criticisms of the British state as a corrupt instrument of prodigality and privilege, and brought them together in a reform movement. Many country gentlemen equated military failure and the mounting burden of debt and taxes with ministerial greed and 'extravagance', and formed an Association movement to curb them. Metropolitan radicals saw the effort to coerce the American rebels, and the sheer expense of that effort, as proof of a ministerial conspiracy to suppress the liberties of the subject. Both groups linked the unacceptable burden of taxes with what they considered the corrupt structure of politics that bestowed the taxpayers' money on the well-connected, and they often demanded some sort of parliamentary reform as the only effective means of doing away with both.

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