Paul Foot

Bribery and corruption

(13 February 1993)

From Socialist Worker, No.1329, 13 February 1993, p.11.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

JOHN POULSON died last week. He got enormous obituaries in all the posh papers.

These obituaries were written in the sort of reverential tone which might have been reserved, say, for the prodigal son. The general theme was that here was a man who had strayed and should be pitied by all decent upper class people.

The real reason for the sympathy was, however, not that Poulson was a crook but that he was caught. Tories are always singing the praises of self made men and John Poulson was certainly that. His background was the very essence of stout hearted English self help.

Born into a relatively modest home in Yorkshire, he turned out to be a specially stupid young man. He tried his hand at architecture but could not pass even the most simple exam. Because he managed to set up a practice before the war, he was able to masquerade as a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects, though in fact he would never in ten lifetimes have qualified.

Poulson was a rotten architect but he was very good at “handling people”. As an employer he was a bully and a skinflint.

Greedy Tory

But his most consummate skill was assessing the price of everyone he came in contact with.

He was a Tory, but he noticed that Tories often charged more (and expected higher bribes) than Labour politicians, so he built his practice on the bribery of Labour councils in the north of England and Scotland.

Of course if a greedy Tory came his way Poulson snapped him up. He welcomed wirth open wallet a Tory cabinet minister, Reginald Maudling, and a prominent Tory backbencher, John Cordle, whose membership of the Synod of the Church of England in no way precluded him from accepting generous bribes from John Poulson.

Poulson built one of the biggest architectural practices in Europe by the simple device of bribing politicians, council officials, sheikhs and sultans.

No Labour chairman of committees was too lowly for Poulson. Vast inedible dinners in hotels were his speciality for Labour councillors.

There was no reason at all why John Poulson should ever have been knocked off his pedestal. The business world then (and now) was full of gangsters and charlatans who lived out their life in the full glow of their contemporaries’ high regard.

Poulson was done down by his own greed. Like Robert Maxwell in a later period, he became obsessed with obtaining riches which were beyond his grasp. He borrowed too much and spent too much.

When he finally went bankrupt, journalists who had honoured him and fed at his table turned on him to gloat at the “greatest corruption story of the decade”.

Poulson went to prison for seven years. Yet he did nothing more than what other more skilful “entrepreneurs” have done.

In many ways he was a model for the “enlightened self interest capitalism” which became known as Thatcherism. He helped himself at others’ expense, grabbed what he could from his workers, sold his cusptomers short with shoddy goods, built himself a palatial house and promised to do his duty to God and the Queen.

When he wrote his life story he called it, appropriately, The Price. It didn’t sell any copies. Before it could even hit the bookstores it was being sued mercilessly by all sorts of people Poulson paid, and who would have done exactly the same if they had had the chance.


Last updated on 7.2.2005