Friday, March 24, 2006

Price of honour (March 24, 2006)

The suffix MP has been on sale for the past fifty years

By Swapan Dasgupta

The life of David Lloyd George, the amiable rogue who rose to be Prime Minister of Britain, if we are to believe the impish wisdom of his admirer A.J.P. Taylor, was an unending quest for the hyphen—that formidable icon of British snobbery. Born to a Welsh family with the surname George, this great Liberal statesman who steered Britain into victory in the Great War of 1914-18, insisted on being addressed as Mr Lloyd George. In 1945, after he was made an Earl, Lloyd George slipped in the hyphen and breathed his last as Earl Lloyd-George. It meant, as Taylor put it with characteristic bluntness, that “after 80 years of struggling to be Lloyd George, he was in fact entitled to do so.”

For the past fortnight, the ghost of Lloyd George has hovered over the palace and wine bars of Westminster thanks to the aspirations of other successful men with perceived social disabilities. A storm has erupted in Britain following revelations that of the dozen benefactors who had together “loaned” the Labour Party nearly £14 million, four had subsequently been nominated for membership of the House of Lords. These included one Dr Chai Patel who runs a successful healthcare business, and Sir Gulam Noon, whose contribution to Britain’s curry revolution is seminal. Patel’s nomination was objected to by the independent body that vets nominations to the House of Lords while Sir Gulam has withdrawn his candidature after the controversy erupted.

The whole matter has now been referred to Scotland Yard following allegations that a senior Labour peer close to Prime Minister Tony Blair was running a “cash for peerage” racket. More important, this operation is alleged to have run foul of something called the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act of 1925. The Act, which few people knew was in the statute books, makes it illegal to either accept or offer gifts or “other valuable consideration” for procuring “the grant of a dignity or title of honour.”

The only victim of the 1925 Act was one J. Maundy Gregory, the son of a clergyman and owner of the Ambassador Club. Gregory was arrested and convicted in 1933 on the charge of soliciting £10,000 from E.W. Billyard-Leake for the procurement of a knighthood. Billyard-Leake, a retired naval officer with a DSO, was too well connected to need the assistance of a tout and promptly reported the matter to the police. Gregory pleaded guilty, was sentenced to a term of imprisonment in Wormwood Scrubs and was never heard of again.

The British establishment is good at keeping secrets and not snitching on each other. Consequently, the impression conveyed to the public was that Gregory was just a freelance, street-smart rascal who overplayed his hand and got his well-deserved comeuppance. The reality was grimmer. There was consternation in the gentleman’s clubs that “desperation and financial stringency” would prompt Gregory to be needlessly over-communicative. An operation was mounted by some Tory grandees to cut a deal with the disgraced tout before his trial. According to an account by Lord Davidson, chairman of the Conservative Party from 1926 to 1930, “someone” whispered into Gregory’s ear that “he couldn’t avoid a term of imprisonment, but that if he kept silent we would bring pressure to bear on the authorities to let him live in France after his sentence had been served.” Upon release, Gregory was whisked away to France, settled in a house and paid a quarterly pension until his death.

At a time when the dangers from Bolshevism were real, the British establishment just couldn’t afford “Gregory’s peers” being outed. Their consternation must have equalled the alarm of “Skullion’s scholars” in Tom Sharpe’s satirical farce Porterhouse Blue. The response was equally ridiculous, but effective. Just as Skullion the College Porter was made Master to keep the traditions and privileges of Porterhouse intact, one Sir Julien Cahn was elevated to a baronetcy in 1934 for paying £30,000 to Gregory as hush money.

In his diary, Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald recorded his conversation with Tory leader Stanley Baldwin: “He said that Maundy Gregory… would stir up such a filthy sewer as would poison public life; …that all parties were involved; …that people like Winston Churchill, Austen Chamberlain, Birkenhead were involved; that Gregory had been used by Lloyd George and Bonar Law; that the subscription lists for the rebuilding of St George’s Chapel, Windsor, were involved… The dunghill had to be cleared away without delay and £30,000 was required to do it. So I had to give the honour.” MacDonald resisted for six months and then did what had to be done for King and country.

As someone who was a product of the Labour movement, MacDonald’s squeamishness was understandable. However his predecessors were not pricked by pangs of conscience in misusing their political prerogative—even if it meant coming into conflict with Buckingham Palace. Lloyd George was the most shameless offender. In his four years as prime minister, Lloyd George rewarded the world of finance and industry with 26 peerages, 130 baronetcies and 481 knighthoods. This was in addition to the 50 newspaper proprietors and editors who were similarly honoured.

Lloyd George’s brazenness was grounded in earthy common sense. A few years after he ceased to be prime minister, he defended the “cash for honours” to a Conservative fund-raiser: “You and I know perfectly well it is a far cleaner method of filling the Party chest than the methods used in the United States or the Socialist Party… Here a man gives £40,000 to the Party and gets a baronetcy. If he comes to the Leader of the Party and says I subscribe largely to Party funds, you must do this or that, we can tell him to go to the devil.”

The point is significant: unless there is a completely harmless lure for political contributions, you are likely to be confronted with moneybags wanting to influence policy with donations. Lloyd George thought he had evolved the most pragmatic over-the-counter system of political funding—he wasn’t too choosy about who paid as long as they paid—but it was one which offended both old money and high morality.

Baldwin, the personification of stodgy Conservatism, for example, thought Lloyd George to be “a real corrupter of public life” and one who had “no moral sense at all”. On his part, after his bitter experiences with Lloyd George’s dubious recommendations, King George V is said to have remarked that if he were among the new rich, the last thing he would do would be to run after a peerage. “It was not”, wrote his biographer Kenneth Rose, that the King had lost faith in a hierarchical society; but that 25 years as the supposed Fountain of Honour had left him disillusioned by the wiles and extortion practised in his name.”

Ultimately, Lloyd George’s excesses forced the appointment of the Dunedin Commission and a law against the sale of honours. Yet, 80 years later, the problems associated with reciprocity in political funding persists. “I have lots of views on the important issues that affect our society” claimed Chai Patel who, alas, will not get a chance to adorn the red upholstered benches of the Lords. It’s a claim that is constantly echoed by those queuing before the party offices before a Rajya Sabha election, the proverbial suitcase discreetly visible. In Britain, you can buy a prefix if you are clever and socially adept. In India, the suffix MP has been on sale for over 50 years. It must be a colonial hangover.

(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, March 24, 2006)

Friday, March 10, 2006

New logic for new India (March 10, 2006)

There was no condescension in Bush's offer of friendship

By Swapan Dasgupta

Even after he fell from grace and spent his last years in disgrace, there was one country where President Richard Nixon was always welcome. For all its other angularities, China never forgot its indebtedness to the man who in 1971 began the process of extricating the Middle Kingdom from its post-Communist isolation.

It is still too early to say whether or not President George W. Bush will enjoy such a lofty status in India during his retirement years. Yet, when future historians chart the course of Indian foreign policy in this century, they will have to acknowledge President Bush’s unique contribution to overturning the entrenched assumptions of the Cold War. It is not merely that the controversial US President made a special effort to reach out to India. He was the first world leader of consequence who understood the enormous importance of democratic India in the 21st century world order.

In the natural course, the Indo-US understanding on nuclear energy would not have happened. Both countries had too many non-negotiable and conflicting positions. The March 2 separation agreement, which must now await the Congress’ ratification to be institutionalised and internationally acceptable, would not have happened if President Bush hadn’t taken the political decision to accommodate Indian sensitivities. The US President went out of his way to create a special place for India in the five-member nuclear high table.

Thanks to the Congress Party’s peculiar dependence on the Communists and the Muslim vote, this particular facet of the US President’s two-day visit to India has neither been adequately publicised nor appreciated. A nervous Manmohan Singh Government lacks the necessary self-confidence to flaunt India’s global coming of age as a political and diplomatic success. When it comes to the US, there is just too much historical baggage that the Congress Party has to carry. But why blame the Congress alone? The BJP, which should have shared the credit for a process that culminated in the July 18 and March 2 agreements, has been excessively circumspect—although it has raised a few important points for the Government to clarify. Consequently, it has been left to the media and corporate India to celebrate a historic step forward.

India, it would seem, is still mentally unprepared to cope with its new global status. Jawaharlal Nehru and the other eminent Nehruvians such as V.K. Krishna Menon may have been passionately interested in international affairs. Unfortunately, that interest was tempered by what can be best described as a monumental chip on the shoulder. Nehru, who was culturally steeped in Anglo-Saxon mores, was over-anxious to show that his heart went out to all the colonised peoples. Likewise, Menon never got out of the propagandist role he assumed as head of the India League in Britain. In attempting to be a “quality” in world affairs—Menon’s description—India ended up as a preachy, sanctimonious bore. Except with the Mountbattens and the liberal set in Hampstead, the British and American establishments tended to be more at ease with Field Marshal Ayub Khan and Sir John Kotelawala than with earnest Indians who shopped in London but pretended that Moscow was paradise. Despite her fierce espousal of national interests, Indira Gandhi carried this arrogant pretence to macabre heights.

It is not merely the leadership that indulged in this inverted snobbery. Feigned indignation directed at the West became a national philosophy and led to disastrous policy choices. Every failure stemming from sloth and incompetence was laid at the door of the colonial legacy. Excellence and entrepreneurship was shunned and mediocrity was celebrated in the name of self-sufficiency and Third Worldism. The economists and historians were, predictably, the worst culprits. “It has been well said”, wrote Jagadish Bhagwati, one of the early refugees from India’s socialist conformism, “that any elementary mistake in economics can be turned into a profound truth by ingenuously making the right assumptions to deduce what you want… India suffered the tyranny of anticipated consequences from the wrong premise.”

The problem hasn’t ceased with the onset of market economics and the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Some years ago, Sir V.S. Naipaul faced unwarranted hostility from the champions of political correctness by questioning the relevance of categories like decolonisation five decades after the Union Jack was finally lowered. Not that this blunt home truth has forced a re-examination of intellectual assumptions. Last month, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, a body created by the Nehruvians to shower state patronage on its chosen artistes, held a seminar to link Indian literature to other Third World experiences. At a time when Indian writers are seeking western markets for the Indian idiom and experience, the sheer absurdity of attempting contrived links with oppressed voices in Egypt and Sierra Leone was too apparent.

Like the elusive New World Information Order whose virtues are still proclaimed by the relics of an earlier era, “official” India hasn’t fully come to terms with the brash, self-confident India of this century. The energy and entrepreneurial dynamism of India which Bush detected quite early on has yet to sink into many critical areas of decision-making.

It is this incomprehension of the New India that is behind the paranoia over interacting with the wider world. The rediscovery of market-oriented economics and deregulation is only 15 years old but even within this brief period India has experienced one scare after another. The hesitant introduction of rule-based international trade under the aegis of the WTO was met by the fear of the takeover of the Indian economy by multinationals. Cable television triggered fears that the hapless villager in Azamgarh would be exposed to Baywatch and fall prey to an insidious cultural imperialism.

On almost every count these fears have turned out to be misplaced. Indian ingenuity and cultural comfort with itself have led to India dictating the rules of the market. Cricket is a case in point. When socialism prevailed in India, it was the English and the Australians who controlled the game. Today, no major cricketing decision can be taken without factoring Indian interests. In the 1970s, Yorkshireman Fred Trueman taunted Indian cricket as a matter of routine. He never toured India with any MCC side. Today, Geoff Boycott, the other Yorkshire cricketing legend, has to sing for his supper on Indian TV. His accent is regarded by Indians as quaint, just as Peter Sellers’ Indian act drew sniggers in Britain 30 years ago.

The lessons of the past decade are too significant to be brushed aside by insular Comrades and uninformed cultural chauvinists. Whenever an economically liberated India has confronted the world, it has always succeeded in turning the balance of power in its own favour. There was not a hint of condescension in President Bush’s offer of friendship and neither did he undertake the finger-wagging drill of a big brother—unlike in Pakistan. He wasn’t showering India with aid and freebees. He was imploring India to assume its rightful role in global capitalism and enrich itself. His offer lay in facilitating the removal of a irritants created by an earlier generation. Never mind all the lofty talk of democracy—which, like the Americans, Indians take for granted—Bush was speaking the language of a Texan out to cut a mutually beneficial deal.

Nehru, like the protestors who revelled in hateful anger, wouldn’t have comprehended Bush’s logic. That’s because he hated business, entrepreneurship and profit. He epitomised India’s Dark Ages. The country has moved on. And the young generation, unlike the Midnight’s Children, don’t even need to look back in anger at the 50 wasted years. They have nothing to lose but their subordination; they have a world to win.

(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, March 10, 2006)