Analysis: Blair's scandal

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus   |   Jan. 31, 2007 at 8:55 PM

WASHINGTON, Jan. 31 (UPI) -- There could have been a certain tragic grandeur about the fall of Tony Blair. Historians might have portrayed him as the last British prime minister to fall on his sword for the "special relationship" with the United States. They could have seen him as the last sad coda to the long imperial tradition of Britain's role in the Middle East, for the Anglo-Arabian wheel has come full circle, from Winston Churchill's invention in Iraq in 1919 to Blair's part in its disintegration.

But Blair looks to be ending not with the forlorn bang of a post-colonial salute, but with the whimper of petty corruption, with the discreet rustle of banknotes, with the sale of those monarchial "honors" that the British like to think make them unique.

Lord Levy, Blair's friend and chief fund-raiser, his tennis partner and personal envoy to Israel, was arrested Tuesday on suspicion on conspiracy to pervert the cause of justice. He was already on bail for a previous arrest last July, relating to alleged offenses under the Honors (Prevention of Abuses) Act of 1925 and Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act of 2000.

Lord Levy, nicknamed in London "Lord Cashpoint" for his fund-raising skills, was released on bail and has issued a statement completely denying any wrongdoing.

This followed the dawn arrest at her home ten days ago of Ruth Turner, Blair's director of government operations at 10 Downing Street, and the questioning under caution of his chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, by the special Scotland Yard team led by assistant commissioner John Yates. "Under caution" means that the police begin their questions with the ominous words: 'You are not obliged to say anything, but anything you do say will be taken down and may be used as evidence against you.'

Blair himself was questioned by police in December. And while it is unlikely that any trial would get under way before Blair's promised resignation this summer, this twilight phase of his ten years as prime minister is now wholly overcast by the shadows of Iraq and of this tawdry scandal. He is a discredited figure; his approval rating stands, according to a new Daily Telegraph poll, at a dismal 28 percent.

The entire affair turns on accusations that Blair and his team "sold" honors such as peerages and knighthoods in return for political loans and donations to the Labor Party. The reality is that every British government in history has rewarded its most generous and devoted supporters with the title of Sir this or Lord that. In the old days, Kings handed out such ennoblements in return for loyalty in battle, or for acquiescence in the presence of an attractive wife or daughter in the royal bedchamber. These days, the reward is more usually for political and financial loyalty.

The trappings remain cherished. Many people like to be addressed as "My Lord" or "My Lady" as they are ushered to the best table at the restaurant, or as they take their privileged place, wearing a cloak of ermine and a coronet, at grand state occasions like royal weddings and funerals and the queen's opening of parliament. The House of Lords, with its splendid library, imposing restaurant and its matchless terrace overlooking the River Thames, is said to be the best and most exclusive club in London.

"With such baubles are men ruled," said Shakespeare, and it is as true now as it was when he coined the phrase back in the early 17th century. People love such marks of distinction, such trappings of nobility that are endowed to the lucky few by Queen Elizabeth, acting (of course) on the advice of her most trusted ministers. And since these honors are much prized, while they cost the government little or nothing to bestow, they have a natural attraction to the political fund-raiser. And after Lloyd George, prime minister during and after World War I, openly sold peerages like hot cakes, a new law was enacted to require a decent interval and a thin veil of discretion between the cash being delivered and the first utterance of the words "My Lord."

Blair's team seems to have taken some risks with the decent interval and the thin veils. In early 2005, worried at a shortage of campaign funds with a general election scheduled for May, the Labor Party chairman Ian McCartney agreed that Lord Levy could seek commercial loans (which unlike grants of cash do not have to be publicly declared) from individuals. Labor spent 17 million Pounds, or just over $30 million.

In October, a list of names being recommended by Tony Blair for peerages was leaked to the media. Amid speculation that some had helped finance Labor's election, the Lords' Appointments Commission held up the name for further checks. In March, 2006, Chai Patel, one of the "blocked" names, announced that Labor had taken secret loans from him, and said "there is clearly a history here and a reality of peerages for fund-raising."

The Conservative Party, which would not like to be in the position of the pot calling the kettle black, maintained a discreet silence. But the minor parties have not traditionally been able to take advantage of the honors system, and so it was a Scottish Nationalist Member of Parliament Angus McNeil who formally complained that the Labor Party had contravened the Honors (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925.

Scotland Yard was duly called in to investigate, and the embarrassments and arrests have followed. The process has been enlivened for the avid media by regular leaks of stories about blocked e-mail systems in Downing Street and police detectives "hacking" into secret computer systems. Such tales, spiced by the occasional arrest, come drip by embarrassing drip, like a Chinese water torture, and keep the scandal before the public gaze on an agonizing slow simmer while newspaper editorials pontificate about Britain's Watergate and the problem being "the cover-up, not the crime."

Ironically, Blair's embarrassments began when he tried to clean up the system by ending the Labor Party's traditional financial dependence on the labor unions for campaign funds. But in the absence of an adequate system of public finance, this forced Labor's fund-raisers to turn to wealthy donors instead, with predictably embarrassing results.

Americans, who know that their politicians spent over $5,000 million in the last presidential and congressional election cycle, must gawp at the miniscule sums spent by the stingy Brits (ironically, quite a lot of the money went to American pollsters and campaign strategists). But the principle remains the same. Democratic politics and political parties need money, and if the state cannot devise a sensible system to fund them, money will have to be found elsewhere, and faced with the urgency of an election, desperate people resort to desperate measures.

We all know this, but we are slow to draw the obvious conclusion that corruption, embarrassment and hypocrisy are all built into the system, and that there are few things a democracy likes more than kicking a politician when he is already down.

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