| Creating viscounts
O dear, the smell of rotten eggs rises once more over Westminster and threatens to engulf the parliamentary Labour Party. The prime minister himself has been fingered as the source of the rot by the party treasurer, Jack Dromey. The opaque dealings of the leader and the party treasurer, Lord Levy, in the titles for cash scandal are under a surgically bright spotlight of media and public attention. Labour members of parliament and government, and the powerful and self-made men who financed the Labour election triumph last year, and whose image has been tarnished by the appearance of underhand dealing, are the most traumatized by the ongoing scandal.
Peerages and honours are, not for the first time, under uncomfortable but not unreasonable scrutiny. The much discussed and promised reform of the House of Lords was stalled at the point that the government largely dispensed with the services of the hereditary peerage in favour of an appointments system always liable to accusations of favour and sleaze. Only reform to create an elected upper house could wholly remove the taint on appointments to the Lords, but so far, such gigantic upheavals in our political system have proved a step too far for any government. Not least, the ongoing squeezing of parliamentary time under the weight of new legislation does not allow for a policy of reform built through historical reflection and the desire for future transparency and probity.
Ultimately a new system may remove the vapours of sleaze around nominations to the House of Lords. It is deeply to be regretted, however, that the current stink has adhered so unjustly to men who have, in most cases, done a great deal for this country, whether through direct and successful business dealings or ' and usually it is both ' by the philanthropy born from that success. If there is to be an appointed House of Lords, these are the men who have the experience, ability and desire to do the right thing for the country. They have already made their fortunes and do not look to increase them through underhand dealings. It is right that their value should be recognized with a title when they will see that title as carrying further responsibility to the community.
Sir Gulam Noon, the man most responsible for the British love affair with chicken tikka masala, is perhaps the best known of those who, in the wake of the ongoing scandal, have had their nominations to the Lords blocked. His story of humble beginnings in Bombay and love at first sight for the United Kingdom on his first trip here in 1964 is well-known. Since then, he has built an extraordinary business; is described as a 'rare and exemplary employer' and put hundreds of thousands of pounds into community projects in the most deprived areas of London. His relatively small 'loan' to the Labour party, highly unlikely at '250,000 to have bought him a peerage, has instead, due to the lack of transparency on the part of Labour's financial machinery, left his image most unfairly sullied.
The prime minister, at the centre of what is now seen as a political net riven with financial misdealing, must take the blame for holding too many threads in his hand and not allowing the proper machinery of his party free scrutiny of all such dealings. Hiding donations under the terminology of loans opens the floor to accusations of obfuscation and dishonesty that will be dished up by the press in salacious detail. Parties have always received donations for political purposes, often the wealthy have donated to more than one party over time according to whim and business expediency.
It has also been a fact for many years that money spent in the right direction may lead to membership of the Lords and has been viewed as a route to political influence for those with no wish for the constituency commitments and time involvement inherent in election to the House of Commons. In general, those who enter politics later in life through the medium of the Lords may be seen as having something worthwhile to offer and a desire grown from their individual success to put something into their country. Such a rosy view may not cover every case but, in the case of the current blocked nominees to the Lords, I suspect it is a reasonable one.
My paternal grandfather was the last hereditary Baron, ennobled in 1964, before peerages became life appointments only. The late Harold Macmillan, the former prime minister, managed a hereditary earldom, of Stockton, and a viscountcy, twenty years later in 1984, in recognition of his long role as Conservative elder statesman in an almost Victorian mould. Margaret Thatcher too was responsible for creating two other hereditary viscountcies; Whitelaw for her stalwart ally and deputy, Willy Whitelaw; Tonypandy, for the long-term and much loved speaker of the House of Commons, George Thomas. Neither of them had sons to inherit the title so they were hereditary in name only. The most recent hereditary dubbing was of the late Sir Denis Thatcher, Baronet, consort of the iron lady. I am sure he deserved it. Regrettably his appalling son has successfully brought an honourable enough title into international disrepute.
Hereditary titles were historically seen as reward for much time spent in the service of the country, whatever individual political loyalties. Undoubtedly, however, there were, in the past, political issues around the appointment of new peers. Money, in a chamber where the privileged sat and in a time when members of parliament too were more likely to be of independent means, was less of a concern. Excepting the interregnum of Cromwell's Commonwealth, the Lords held the more powerful chamber of parliament until the 19th century. It took the arbitrary creation of 80 new pro-reform peers to pass the great Reform Bill of 1932 which finally curbed the political power of the unelected chamber.
The power of the Lords to destroy potentially unpopular legislation was once again curtailed in 1910 by the liberal prime minister, Herbert Asquith. He threatened, with the agreement of the king, George V, to flood the upper house with 500 new liberal peers to pass bills favouring social welfare and penalizing wealthy landowners, many of whom sat in the Lords. Nevertheless, the power of the House of Lords to debate, draft amendments and delay the hasty passage of ill-thought policies has been valuable, particularly as a vocal forum against the increasing diminution of the role of our elected parliament.
Here, in truth, is the rub. This whole scandal has been dragged out of a cupboard that rests squarely inside 10 Downing Street, hidden from the scrutiny of elected politicians and the impartiality of the civil service. It has tarnished, undeservedly, people prepared to give time to their country and to return favours received by service which could be given only through the medium of a seat in the unelected chamber of parliament. The process of reform of the House of Lords must begin again. More immediately, the financial machinery of political parties must be dissected and clarified. Transparency will lift the fog that allows the press and the public to assume impropriety even where there is none. Most of all, lack of accountability over his perceived dabbling in murky financial waters has placed the prime minister in an untenable position where even his Teflon coating is worn through.
Unless the prime minister passes on the baton gracefully at this stage, there will be increasing problems for his party in the run up to the next election, and sleaze and the Labour party may become synonymous as happened to John Major's Conservative government. I hold no candle for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, about to inflict his 9th budget upon us, but a buttoned up puritanical Scot may be what is needed to sweep the Downing Street cupboards clean and rebuild relationships with financial supporters through a transparent processing of all donor transactions by a publicly accountable party machine.