Sunday November 26, 2006
Conrad Black, who is currently awaiting trial in Chicago on racketeering charges, was a blustering bully who could bore for Canada. His latest biographer, Tom Bower, gets him just right when he says of Black’s grinding dinner party monologues: ‘While most hosts expected guests to sing for their supper, Conrad Black expected his to listen for theirs.’ None the less, the windbag could be succinct when he wanted to advance his interests.
After gaining control of the Telegraph newspaper group with some deft financial manoeuvres in 1986, he decided that a foreign press baron just off the plane from Toronto was entitled to have a seat in the British Parliament without going through the indignity of standing for election. He phoned Charles Powell, Margaret Thatcher’s confidant. ‘What does one have to do get a peerage?’ he demanded.
Powell didn’t reply. Such blunt conversations were not then an accepted part of the British establishment’s way of doing business. If Black could have persuaded another civil servant to speak frankly, the succinct answer could only have been ‘give money to the Tory party’.
In 1993, the admirable diggers at Labour Research proved it when they examined which business leaders had received honours since the Conservatives came to power. They found that although only 6.2 per cent of British companies gave money to the Tories between 1979 and 1992, 50 per cent of peerages and knighthoods for ‘services to industry’ went to the executives from the firms of Conservative donors. The Guardian calculated that the chance of the correlation being a coincidence was one in 10 to the power of 133. The statistical link between money invested and ‘honours’ received appeared incontestable.
Little seems to have changed in the 20 years since Black made his call. New Labour replaced the Tories in 1997 and Charles Powell, adviser to Margaret Thatcher, was succeeded in Downing Street by his brother, Jonathan Powell, as adviser to Tony Blair. In July this year, the admirable diggers at the Conservative think tank the Bow Group did to New Labour what the trade unionists at Labour Research had done to the Tories.
‘Statistical analysis shows that 58.54 per cent of all donors giving more than £50,000 to the Labour party receive an honour,’ they reported. ‘This compares with just 0.035 per cent of non-donors. Large Labour party donors are 1,657 times more likely to receive an honour than a non-donor and 6,969 times more likely to receive a peerage. It is almost impossible to avoid the conclusion that the Labour party has been selling honours, including places in the House of Lords.’
As you can see, we said the same about the Conservatives, but the difference this time is that the police have taken accusations of corruption seriously. In the early Nineties, backbenchers, opposition leaders, trade unionists and journalists could shout as loudly as they liked about honours being up for sale, but the Tories could reply that they were unfairly criticising captains of industry, who just happened to have given them money. The opposition had no comeback because it had no means of unearthing evidence. Only the police had the subpoena powers to demand the production of records and the police didn’t use them.
The old Britain of keeping up appearances by having one law for the powerful and another for the rest received a body blow this year – a fatal one, I hope – when Assistant Commissioner John Yates decided to treat accusations of political corruption no differently from any other accusation. If he goes on to interview a sitting Prime Minister under caution, you can say that Britain has finally become a modern country where no one is above the law.
I still don’t think that many in Westminster have grasped the potential implications of the change. The fear is there all right: you can see it in the slow realisation that eminent men may end up in the dock for breaking laws they thought did not apply to them. So, too, are the echoes of the past.
‘What does one have to do get a peerage?’ asked Conrad Black in 1986.
‘People are asking what’s the price of a peerage,’ said Chai Patel of the Priory clinics in 2006, after he was offered a seat in Parliament within weeks of agreeing to lend Labour £1.5m.
But you can tell that Labour believes the old regime can be kept alive by its plans for the House of Lords. The simple cause of the debasement of public life lies in its rotten structures. After Canada promised elections to its Senate, the only other countries in the world that remained fully committed to appointed second chambers were Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, while the only other country that still had hereditary seats in its legislature was Lesotho. You might have thought that a chastened Labour government would want to redeem itself from the dishonour this scandal has brought it by saying that the way forward was to join the rest of the free world and have a fully elected Parliament.
Jack Straw is offering a new Lords with half its members elected and half appointed. It sounds a small advance, but the Tories point out that it could be worse than what we have. Straw wants a modified version of the closed list system, the neatest swindle ever dreamt up by machine politicians. Voters pick a party – Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem or whatever – and those candidates who are highest on the party’s list are the first into the new Lords.
Naturally, the parties will only award high places on their lists to loyalists. Under Straw’s proposals, if the loyalists aren’t elected to the half of the Lords which deigns to put itself before the voters, they can always be appointed to membership of the other half which does not.
Whether the government gets away with it depends on our self-respect. It is our failure to protest that has allowed the parties to sell peerages for decades. If we now allow the very government that had seen leading figures interviewed under arrest to re-rig the system, what does that say about the commitment of the British to democracy?