Monday, March 27, 2006

Selling Honors

Tony Blair is in trouble. Time was when the funding of political parties was straightforward. The Tories were funded by big business and Labour by organised labour. Corporations are no longer allowed to fund the Tories and the Unions have insufficient funds to pay for New Labour - and in any case New Labour wants to distance itself from the Unions. Both parties turned to rich individuals -but the Labour Government discouraged that by making such gifts public, exposing some Tory donors as tax exiles.

To get round the regulations, both Parties solicited loans, that don't have to be declared, but may never be repaid. But if you loan a million pounds and don't want to be repaid, what do you want?To be called Sir?

A knighthood is all very well if you want to think of yourself dressed up in armour and riding a horse, but a Lordship carries a seat in the House of Lords. When Baron Sausagemaker sat in his country seat and was content to Lord it in the County where he rode to hounds and Lady Sausagemaker entertained the County Set, and the only time he used his vote was when they threatened to abolish foxhunting, it was sort of alright. There was no great threat to the Constitution in buying and selling honours. The House of Lords is the best gentleman's club in London (some say the world); the booze is cheap, the view marvellous and they even pay you a couple of hundred quid for turning up. There is a long tradition; Lloyd George even had a price list: so much for a marquis, so much for a duke. And all those hereditary peers got their gongs by being a crony of Charles the first or the illegitimate son of Charles the second or some other reward for services rendered.

What's different now is that Tony Blair has reformed the House of Lords. Most of the hereditary peers have lost the right to vote, but the newly created ones haven't. They are not just getting a nice restaurant by the Thames, they are buying a vote; instead of being one in 40 million when it comes to having their say, they are becoming one in 600.

Selling honours may sound pretty crass and venial, but it is better than selling influence. Dressing up in ermine and going on parades is pretty harmless. Paying a million to influence decisions or change the law isn't.

So, completing the reform of the House of Lords becomes urgent. The Prime Minister's patronage has to be removed. A major elected element is vital. But if both houses are elected, which will have supremacy? Both can claim electoral legitimacy; the more recently elected will have to win.

The Upper House is supposed to be a Reforming Chamber; somewhere where legislation can be scrutinized and revised. It needs thought and common sense; not emotion. From somewhere it has to recruit experts and the worldly wise. These are not necessarily the skills of politicians.

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