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Patronage was abolished in 1854. Why does it seem to be back now?

(9 Posts)
MaizieD Thu 29-Apr-21 19:05:09

A history lesson, courtesy of historian, Robert Saunders on twitter.


When Gladstone reformed the civil service in 1854, abolishing ministerial patronage, critics called it "an immense stride" towards democracy. They were right: which is why scandals like Greensill, and the return of patronage, are so dangerous.

Before 1854, ministers routinely appointed their friends, business contacts & financial patrons to positions in govt, that came with salaries, access & influence on policy. The Head of the Civil Service, Trevelyan, warned of "a stream of corruption" gushing through public life

•Gladstone abolished the patronage system, laying the basis for a career civil service recruited by exams. He called this a "parliamentary reform", not just an administrative change, because it weakened corrupt influences, opened govt to talent and made it harder to buy access.

By taking civil service appointments out of the gift of ministers, Gladstone's reforms reduced the scope to buy political power. Even a new reform bill, a colleague lamented, would not "diminish the power of the Crown, or add to the power of the people so much as this measure"

. Contemporaries recognised its importance. John Stuart Mill called the dismantling of patronage in the civil service "one of those great public improvements which form an era in history", preventing a dominant political clique from hoovering up the "profits" of government.

That doesn't mean that the model of a career civil service, recruited by competitive exams, need be frozen in time. Exams can be a dubious test of "merit", which comes in many different forms. Outside appointments can inject new thinking into govt & protect it from group-think

.But as the Greensill affair reminds us, the return of ministerial patronage comes at a cost. Allowing ministers to pack Whitehall with their own appointees, in some cases to their own financial benefit, is not good for democracy & weakens the defences against corrupt influences

The principles Gladstone espoused in 1854 - that civil service appointments should be based on merit; that bureaucracies should be beholden to the public, not to ministerial patrons; & that patronage is a high-road to corruption - were sound. We should uphold them today.


(And the Good Law Project has won yet another victory against the government...)

keepingquiet Thu 29-Apr-21 22:41:05

We have certainly gone back in time regarding how strong the establishment in this country have now become. They have entrenched their power in cabinet government, the press, the media and big business. The judiciary is ignored and the electorate treated like stupid children.

nanna8 Fri 30-Apr-21 00:30:16

The establishment in the UK have always wielded enormous power, one way or another. If not obviously, certainly behind the scenes. The whole place is set up like that.

vampirequeen Fri 30-Apr-21 07:32:53

I don't think it ever totally disappeared but they were more subtle about it. This government has taken it to the extreme and flaunts it.

keepingquiet Fri 30-Apr-21 08:09:51

maybe so but even Tory ministers would resign or be sacked when they were found out. Now they don't feel any shame and as you say, flaunt it. It disgusts me, and it appals me that ordinary people think it's ok. It really isn't.

Daisymae Fri 30-Apr-21 08:13:11

I think that currently it's so blatant, basically not only getting away with it but the electorate don't even care. There are no repercussions. As long as I'm alright Jack they can do what the want.

MaizieD Fri 30-Apr-21 12:08:03


I think that currently it's so blatant, basically not only getting away with it but the electorate don't even care. There are no repercussions. As long as I'm alright Jack they can do what the want.

Sad to say, I think this is exemplified by responses to the Johnson popularity thread currently running.

I don't intend this to be a thread about a thread but it seems to me that, despite all the screaming about 'democracy' over the past few years, many people don't really understand what makes 'democracy' democratic. It's not just about who or what gets the most votes on the day, though some seekers after power would like the population to take that very simplistic view and not look any deeper.

ayse Fri 30-Apr-21 12:21:36

What a very interesting article on patronage. I hadn’t thought about it in historical terms before as constitutional history hasn’t been on my agenda. Something for me to investigate.

In this country corruption appears to be growing and I find it very disturbing as it is so insidious. All part of the political move to the right, IMO.

varian Fri 30-Apr-21 19:01:27

April 28, 2021 - A decision not to grant the Prime Minister’s Adviser on Ministerial Interests the autonomy to launch investigations into allegations of misconduct represents a major missed opportunity to strengthen the rules for holding senior politicians to account.

Lord Geidt was today appointed to the role which has been vacant since the resignation of Sir Alex Allan in November last year.

Sir Alex quit after the Prime Minister decided that his Home Secretary had not breached the ministerial code, despite an investigation by Sir Alex concluding that she had.

Transparency International UK has identified 30 potential breaches of parliamentary and ministerial rules in 2020 alone. Many of these were not investigated.

Transparency International UK has previously called for changes to the rules designed to ensure high standards are maintained in public life, including making compliance with the Ministerial Code a legal requirement and granting the Adviser on Ministerial Interests the autonomy to launch independent investigations into potential breaches of the rules. Currently, investigations can only be requested by the Prime Minister. They are then referred to the Independent Advisor on Ministers’ Interests, who then reports back to the PM. It is up to the PM if any action is taken.