15 MAY 1936, Page 5


TO comment at this stage on the evidence given before the tribunal presided over by Mr. Justice Porter would be manifestly improper ; but the enquiry is in itself as interesting as the Budget leakage which the tribunal is investigating. For the Government has had to admit, distasteful as it is, that its most important financial measure, the Budget, has been made the subject of speculation which has thrown suspicion on men who should be above suspicion. It would be even more unpleasant for the Government if the suspicion should prove to be justified ; but what is interesting at the moment is that the standards of political honesty have been set so high that even financial operations of relatively small intrinsic value are enough to prompt a public enquiry whose results could cause considerable damage to the Government. A public conscience so sensitive must seem a fantastic affair to the Governments of some other States. In France it needed revelations of wholesale bribery and corrup- tion, evasions of justice, murder and almost civil war before an enquiry was made into the activities of Stavisky ; in Austria, past and present members of the Government can be shown to have been implicated in the now bankrupt Phcrnix Insurance Company scandal, and the Government is appar- ently intact. The sums with which the Budget tri- bunal is concerned amount to no more than 180,000 or £40,000, but they are enough to rouse the country to indignation—whether as the result of standards of political integrity so high that even the smallest lapse is a shock to the public conscience ; or because the prominence assumed by these particular trans- actions obscures other alleged abuses on which attention might with some profit be turned.

It would be rash to assume that the contrast between the Government's attitude- to the Budget leakage and, let us say, the French Government's attitude to the Stavisky affair is simply a contrast between British virtue and foreign vice. The foreigner, whose political morals we often deride, might maliciously say that we only flaunt our Morality to hide the abuses that go on behind it. For instance, one who believed all that was written and said on our standards of political morality, in text-books, in the Press, in public speeches, would be somewhat surprised by what was said, on the same subject, by those who experience the benefits of local government in such a district as South Wales. He would find what he heard a little difficult to reconcile with the apparent scrupulousness that is shown in national polities. Accustomed to regard the bribe, the rake-off, nepotism, as methods employed Only in the politics of other countries, he would be surprised to find them taken almost for granted in South Wales, and, it seems, in some other local govern- ment areas. He would hear frequent and persistent allegations of teachers who had mortgaged their salaries to secure appointments ; of councils lavishly distributing generous travelling expenses, even though the councillors did not travel, and though the council had been specially summoned for the transaction of trivial business of which a committee could well have disposed ; of councillors who had provided, in local administration, for all their abundant families; of contracts improperly assigned ; of election to the council regarded as a means to a sinecure with valuable patronage. Ile would be surprised that various unofficial bodies should feel it necessary to fight to bring municipal accounts into the daylight. But one thing would not surprise him--that demands had been made for the appointment. of Commissioners to enquire into the local administration of South Wales.

The allegations may be true or not, but that they are commonly accepted as true is certain ; and not only with regard to South Wales. They go far enough to suggest that local administration in these areas is thoroughly corrupt. It is strange that while, on suspicion only, in national politics, a public enquiry is held because some £30,000 or 5:10,000 are thought to have been improperly acquired, persistent reports of flagrant corruption and bribery in local government are consistently ignored. It may be said that the Budget leakage is important, not because of the sums involved, but because of what the Budget is, and because of the principles involved ; it may be replied, with the same justice, that local administration is the basis of all govern- ment, that it is the training-ground for all politicians, in which they learn the rules of their trade, and that if a system is corrupt at the bottom it is hopeless and hypocritical to pretend to make it honest at the top. With this admitted, it must be said that, if the suspicions caused by the Budget leakage are held to justify a public enquiry, then the allegations made against local government bodies arc even greater justification, for public enquiries into their conduct. Sir Assheton Pownall, in the House of Commons, has raised the particular case of Monmouthshire. There may or may not be special reasons for dealing with the Council of that County. And it is fair to recognise that the general demoralisation created by the prevalence of prolonged unemployment in a depressed area must inevitably affect the publicly- elected bodies in whose hands administration rests, many of whose members arc themselves. in point of fact, unemployed. All we are concerned with here is to urge that a clear case for investigation exists.