Sleaze and the Victorian businessman

Some seven men form an Association (If possible all Peers and Baronets) They start off with a public declaration To what extent they mean to pay their debts That's called their Capital ...
W.S. Gilbert Utopia Limited, 1893.

Unprecedented disenchantment with the present government owes something to the identification of Conservatives with business sleaze, both inside and outside Parliament. Recommendations from Lord Nolan's Committee on Standards in Public Life are intended to clean up the House of Commons and suspect governmental practices. MPs should reveal what they are paid by outside interests, restrictions should be placed on ex-ministers' paid employments, and greater transparency given to public appointments to quangos.

Beyond Lord Nolan's remit have been closely related items of public concern; company directors awarding themselves huge salary increases while sacking large numbers of staff, expropriation of staff pension funds and top executives' massive golden handshakes - contrasting starkly with the treatment of the shopfloor. Such practices have a long tradition in Britain. That abuses of leadership and confidence in business may have been more common a century ago is not to excuse them. Rather, the historical perspectives allow us a cooler assessment of contemporary laxity.

As Gilbert noted, the coming of general limited liability in the nineteenth century, created new opportunities to defraud creditors. Victorian Britain provided a remarkably liberal business environment compared with other European countries ('In Germany what is not expressly permitted is forbidden; in Britain what is not expressly forbidden is permitted'). The other side of that coin - easy access to limited liability status with minimal reporting requirements, protective patent legislation, and the absence of an effective state policy towards monopoly -was considerable double dealing.

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