Angus MacNeil’s family croft on Barra is about as far as it is possible to get from Westminster and still be in Britain. It isn’t even on the mainland side of Outer Hebrides, but looks over a sandy beach to the Atlantic. Barra’s hills so effectively shield the croft that his parents couldn’t get a television signal to bring the chatter and bellows from Edinburgh and London to his family home until he was 10.
When I spoke to him, his sheep were playing on his conscience. Some time before the end of the month, he must shear them. Frankly, the job should have been done weeks ago – it’s hot and the sheep are getting very woolly. He put it off for two reasons. Shearing is ‘slow, back-breaking, tedious work’, and in any case, he’s got his hands full trying to bring down the Prime Minister.
Angus MacNeil, who to the best of his knowledge is the only crofter ever to sit in the House of Commons, is the Scottish Nationalist MP who initiated the police investigation into the sale of honours which may yet end the Blair years. I’m trying hard to avoid a cliche about an honest man being carried over the sea from the outer isles on a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to confront the decadent metropolis.
But there is no escaping it unless I use another one about the boy and the emperor’s new clothes. For MacNeil, who is 35 and won Na h-Eileanan an Iar (formerly the Western Isles) for the SNP only in 2005, has caused havoc by asking a very good and very simple question: ‘Isn’t it illegal to sell honours?’
As a Scottish nationalist, he felt more keenly than most the suspicion of central government, the London media and the City that is the dominant national mood. I sense that the clubbable nature of Westminster started to turn him when he got there, as it has turned so many outsiders before. He says he had beers with politicians he had only read about and found to his surprise that even ‘Ian Paisley was quite a gregarious character’.
What got him ‘fizzing’, to use his favourite word, was their nonchalance. When he told MPs from other parties that donors to the SNP weren’t recommended for honours, they looked at him with incredulity. We would never be able to raise enough money if we did that, they countered. (What they said is true, by the way, and means that the state funding of political parties is inevitable once this scandal has done its work.)
The unclubbable Geoff Hoon pushed him over the edge in March. Chai Patel, the founder of the Priory rehabilitation clinics, had just revealed he had loaned Labour £1.5m and been offered a peerage a few weeks later.
The leader of the SNP, Alex Salmond, asked Hoon about the ‘groundswell of support for a debate on the marketplace for honours’ he alleged the government had established. ‘Is it not the case that 80p out of every £1 of individual donations to the Labour party comes from people who are subsequently ennobled or knighted by the government?’ he thundered.
Hoon gave a typically New Labour answer. On the one hand, he rightly pointed out that Labour had introduced safeguards the Tories refused to contemplate in their 18 years in power. But he also dripped with condescension when he sneered at Salmond: ‘Clearly, my political antennae are not as well attuned as the honourable gentleman’s. I have not detected a great groundswell.’ In other words, the government could do what it wanted and get away with it because an indifferent public wouldn’t hold it to account.
Fizzing with rage once again, MacNeil went to the Commons Library and discovered that the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925 is a refreshingly straightforward piece of legislation. It says you can’t buy them, you can’t sell them and if you do either you can go to prison. He complained to the Metropolitan Police and had his first stroke of luck. For the first time in living memory, the police decided to investigate accusations of political corruption. As MacNeil is the complainant, they brief him on their progress. He is impressed by the seriousness of purpose the detectives are bringing to an inquiry they could never have imagined undertaking, and their determination to be ‘thorough’.
The second stroke of luck is that the pressure of the unexpected police attention is forcing open cracks. The revelation by the curry tycoon Sir Gulam Noon last week, that a senior Labour figure told him not to tell the Lord’s vetting committee about the £250,000 he had lent the party, is what every detective hopes for: the first sign that witnesses are turning on each other.
We don’t yet know if MacNeil will have a third stroke of luck and see the affair he began lead back to 10 Downing Street. However, we do know that Tony Blair has been fantastically unwise. Instead of keeping party funding at a safe distance by leaving it with the party machine, he has made it the responsibility of his personal envoys.
I don’t know what is going to happen next, but my guess is that Angus MacNeil’s sheep are just going to have to wait.
Gordon Brown plays his cards right
Gordon Brown’s refusal to supply funding has killed the national identity card scheme. For what feels like an age now, I’ve been pointing out that it would undermine the basic principle of the common law that peaceable citizens have the right to be left alone, but such high motives do not seem to have moved the Chancellor.
He was against identity cards because they would cost a fortune, they wouldn’t work and finally – and I suspect most importantly – they were Tony Blair’s idea.
The silliest lines TS Eliot ever wrote were: ‘The last temptation is the final treason/To do the right thing for the wrong reason.’ This simply isn’t true, and all who care about the culture of Britain will be glad that the Chancellor was small enough to allow his meanness and malice to persuade him to get it right.
The FO mandarins who go to extremes
The civil war within the Foreign Office about its policy of appeasing the Islamist far right has produced its first casualty. All I can confirm is that officers have arrested a civil servant under the Official Secrets Act.
I can’t get his name or find out when and if the Crown Prosecution Service will take him to court, but what is clear is that the pro-Muslim Brotherhood faction in the FO is now out of control.
After I mentioned last week that leaks showed Angus McKee, of the Middle East and North Africa Desk, had said that ‘consideration might be given to channelling aid resources’ to Islamist groups, the BBC found that public money was indeed being spent on the Brotherhood.
British taxpayers paid for Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the supporter of the judicial murder of homosexuals and Muslims who freely decide to abandon their faith, to attend a conference in Istanbul. The Foreign Office put up the spiritual leader of the Brotherhood and his wife in the five-star Ceylan InterContinental Hotel.
It sounds a rather self-indulgent place for militant puritans to stay – but apparently the Qaradawis didn’t complain.
At the same time we heard that Mockbul Ali, the Foreign Office’s adviser on Islamic affairs, had overruled the protests of British Muslims and encouraged his superiors to give a visa to the ultra-reactionary Bangladeshi MP Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, despite his rants that Britain ‘has it coming’ because of its part in the downfall of the Taliban.
This is the way it goes with the Foreign Office. Provide the religious justification for murder, and it will get you a five-star hotel. Support the Taliban, and it will get you a visa.
Speak out against its mandarins, and it will get you arrested.