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nomination was objected to by the independent body that vets nominations to the House of Lords while Sir Gulam has withdrawn his candidature after the controversy erupted.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)

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