By John Newsinger
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Corruption old and new

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Issue 462

Politics in Britain at the end of the eighteenth century was described as the “Old Corruption”. The state was, at every level, in the hands of the great landowners and their allies. It was used to serve their interests, to protect their wealth and privilege, and they ruthlessly pillaged it to further enrich themselves. Place and position were wholly at their disposal. What made all this possible was the enormous scale of social and economic inequality. This Old Corruption came under sustained assault from a number of directions in the course of the nineteenth century.
It was attacked by the new capitalist class that was emerging and was determined to have the state represent their interests. Allied with this class was a new middle class, educated professionals whose great victory was the creation of a modern civil service where entrance was determined by examination rather than aristocratic sponsorship. But there was no great revolution in nineteenth century Britain to overthrow the monarchy and break the power of the great landowners, stripping them of their estates and mansions. Instead, in Britain there was a coming together of the great landowners and the industrial capitalists. The working-class assault that began with the Chartists was successfully contained.
But while the Old Corruption might have come to an end, Britain remained a country where class privilege still reigned. Nothing demonstrates this better than the fact that Boris De Pfeffel Johnson is the twentieth Old Etonian to hold the office of Prime Minister since the early eighteenth century and that of the 55 prime ministers to hold office since that time only nine were not educated at private schools. And, of course, there was still plenty of routine everyday corruption whether it be the covering up of Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe’s attempt to have his gay lover murdered; the Tory minister of transport, Ernest Marples’ corrupt relationship with the crooked slum landlord and pimp, Peter Rachman; or the knighthood given to Liberal MP Cyril Smith and the peerage given to Labour MP Greville Janner.
Nevertheless, corruption was not central to the functioning of the state. This began to change during the Thatcher period. The defeat of the trade union movement, the first privatisations and the massive redistribution of wealth prepared the way for what can only be described as the “New Corruption”. This could have been driven back, of course, with the election of a Labour government in 1997, but instead New Labour not only consolidated Thatcher’s victories, but actually carried them further forward. Tony Blair subsequently made absolutely clear in his memoirs that he wholeheartedly supported Thatcher’s attacks on the trade unions and, moreover, according to Alistair Campbell’s recollections, when the union leaders offered to work with the government Blair replied that they could “just fuck off”.
Indeed, Blair could never disguise his contempt for the trade union movement. This was a stark contrast with the government’s concern to advance the interests of big business and the rich, a concern best shown by Blair’s deference to Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch had an effective veto over government policy. Blair was even godfather to one of Murdoch’s daughters. One of the guests at the event was Ivanka Trump. The Blair government’s embrace of Thatcherism was complete. As far as the likes of Blair and Brown were concerned this was merely facing up to the real world. The labour movement was a spent, declining force. Power had decisively shifted in society and to have any chance of taking and holding office, Labour had to act in the interests of the big business and the rich. And, of course, Blair really liked rich people and wanted more than anything to be one of them himself. Reactionaries like David Blunkett, who would once have felt obliged to defect to the Tories as they moved rightwards, could now not only comfortably remain Labour Party members but could continue to hold senior government posts.
The Labour Party was transformed with the left either marginalised or actually converted to Blairism. Incredible though it might seem Margaret Hodge was once a Bennite. Indeed, one of Tony Benn’s lieutenants, Chris Mullin, for example, now embraced privatisation, starting with air traffic control and then the privatisation of prisons. It is important to remember that it was under Blair that the process of privatising the NHS and state education began. Under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the state became once again an object of pillage by the rich. The New Corruption came into its own.

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