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  • Cited by 4
  • Print publication year: 2003
  • Online publication date: December 2009

3 - Parliament, the state, and ‘Old Corruption’: conceptualizing reform, c. 1790–1832


During and after the Napoleonic Wars, popular radicals such as William Cobbett routinely drew attention to what they called ‘Old Corruption’, or simply ‘Corruption’, or ‘the System’, or ‘the Thing’. They used such words interchangeably to describe a parasitic political system that took an unprecedented amount of tax money out of the pockets of Britons and transferred it to those of a narrow band of well-connected insiders through a wide variety of nefarious means. The latter included the grant of sinecures, reversions, church patronage, lucrative government contracts, an indirect-tax regime that obliged the common people to pay a disproportionate share of the state's fiscal burden, and a series of commercial and financial policies that served the interests of large landowners and City financiers at the expense of the unenfranchised.

This critique of systematic rapacity obviously owed much to the traditional ‘country’ suspicion of placemen, stockjobbers, and the like, and just as much to Thomas Paine's Rights of Man, which devoted so much attention to the maldistributive effects of a ‘government of loaves and fishes’ that thrived on chronic warfare. But the critique of ‘Old Corruption’ in the early nineteenth century was in many respects a critique of something quite new, for it was chiefly propelled by the enormous scale of the British war effort against revolutionary and Napoleonic France.