Politics Explained

A brief history of government financial scandals

As the row over Boris Johnson’s flat refurbishment continues to grow, Sean O’Grady takes a look back at some recent examples of financial scandals

Tuesday 27 April 2021 21:30
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<p>A closer parallel with the Downing Street flat row today is the £373,000 lent to Peter Mandelson by Geoffrey Robinson</p>

A closer parallel with the Downing Street flat row today is the £373,000 lent to Peter Mandelson by Geoffrey Robinson

I

t may be difficult to believe, given what we know about human nature, and in particular the avaricious nature of political mankind, but before 1974 there was no parliamentary register of interests and, beyond a voluntary obligation to “declare an interest” during parliamentary proceedings, MPs and peers could do as they wished as far as their financial affairs were concerned. Some external activities, such as board membership, would be in the public domain, but others quite easily concealed. Honourable members were expected and trusted to be honourable, and the House of Commons was expected to govern itself, with no “independent” scrutiny or authority constitutionally appropriate, derived from the principle of parliamentary sovereignty.

Arguably, as William Hague reflects, these days emails, texts and other electronic communications make such activities trickier than in the era of a nod and a wink; but there has never been a golden age of political propriety. Even in the Edwardian era there were ministers engaged in insider trading (in the then “tech stock” Marconi), and David Lloyd George famously funded himself and his party through a fairly blatant sale of honours.

Heaven knows what they got up to. Some financial scandals emerged from time to time, but unless the legislators of the past were uniquely virtuous, it is likely that the forces of greed were at work in the past just as in the present. The difference now is that there are many more rules to evade.

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