I was reading recently John Vincent’s “The Formation of the British Liberal Party 1857-68”, a classic on the subject and a most interesting book. I was struck by the following passage:

Very striking rewards, then, did not act at all on the people at the top, because of the prevailing morality there; nor did the people at the top much wish to create a system of rewards for those below them. Naturally, too, the mass of the electorate could not be influenced by these means. But in the middle level of politics, at the point of contact between the MP and the leading notables, the joint system of honors and patronage came into its own. Government patronage continued to be very useful in the 1860s in binding civic leaders to the Cabinet, and in raising the authority of those civic leaders locally.

Discussions over the importance of “codes of honor”, attitudes, and mindsets in restraining corruption trends are interesting, but very often look somewhat fuzzy to me. Perhaps Victorian England could provide a more solid point of reference. But I also find interesting that “rewards” were rather useless both for the élites (bound by this code of honor) and the masses–not enough money was at the government’s disposal, back then, to bribe the great majority of voters. But they played a role for those that were actually organizing consensus.

It is banal to say that the most densely politicized strata of society–those that deal with securing consensus on a daily basis–are characterized by an extensive recourse to political patronage. The organization of consensus and the extraction of benefits out of the political system go together: one justifies the other. This is a rather simple and logical point. And yet part of modern politics is a farcical charade written and acted so that this basic fact doesn’t come across as clearly as it should. Consensus is considered good, extracting benefits out of the political system not-so-good: this is something it seems to me the right and the left share, as a basic narrative. But can one go without the other?