Lords of Sleaze Part 1
This article appeared in Ceylon Today on September 9 2020.
Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) in the UK House of Commons becomes more embarrassing as week succeeds week. It should be renamed PMB (Prime Minister’s Bluster). Boris Johnson never actually answers a question. He changes the subject and often harangues the Leader of the Opposition, Keir Starmer, firing questions at him. Starmer recently reminded Johnson that the prime minister was supposed to be the one answering the questions but if he wanted to change places, he, Starmer, would be happy to do the PM’s job.
Traduced by Lies
Last week Johnson contrived to traduce two party leaders – Starmer, Labour Party leader, and Ian Blackford of the Scottish National Party, both men of integrity and intelligence who always engage in rational argument. While various crises were bubbling up and the government was pirouetting in a series of U-turns, Johnson did his usual trick of going on holiday. He went camping on farmland in Scotland (without asking the farmer’s permission) in Blackford’s constituency. Johnson or his minions leaked to the press the fake news that Blackford had told the press about Johnson’s presence in his constituency. Blackford strenuously denied that he had even known that Johnson was there and demanded an apology for the inconvenience the lie had caused. Blackford and his family had been deluged by hate mail and death threats. Despite a somewhat limp intervention by the Speaker, no apology was forthcoming.
While avoiding a well-constructed question about the exam fiasco, Johnson insinuated that Starmer had been an IRA sympathiser. Unusually, Starmer was visibly angry and demanded that the Speaker reprimand the prime minister. The Speaker mumbled something ineffective but Johnson did not withdraw or apologise. Starmer made an irrefutable point by telling the prime minister that in his five years as Director of Public Prosecutions he worked closely with the Northern Ireland police service and brought many IRA murderers to justice.
I thought Starmer missed a trick here by not challenging the prime minister’s decision to award a peerage to Claire Fox, a former Brexit Party MEP. She was once a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) who defended the IRA’s killing in 1993 of two young boys, Tim Parry (aged 12) and Jonathan Ball (aged 3), in Warrington. Bronwen Vickers, the 32-year-old mother of two young daughters, had to have a leg amputated, and died just over a year later from cancer. The Irish Rock magazine Hot Press recently featured an article by Eamon McCann, who was a prominent nationalist member of the civil rights movement in Derry. He reminisces about a visit to Derry by the RCP in the early 90s. “I knew the minute I set eyes on RCP-ers that they were well dodgy. Clean fingernails, glossy hair, that sort of thing.” Lady Claire and her buddies were polite enough when they were telling the locals what to do: “they engaged innocent Bogsiders in detailed discussion of how the community might slough off the congealed muck of British imperialism, patiently explaining that armed struggle was your only man.“ When the IRA declared a cease-fire in 1997, she went “Bat-shit crazy” and “stormed along to the Blutcher Street home of one of Derry’s top Sinn Feiners, banged on the door and demanded an explanation. His response that she should – to use a technical term – fuck off, appeared to dampen Claire’s fervour.” She was never seen again in Derry.
Was the Queen Graciously Pleased?
“The Queen has been graciously pleased to signify Her intention of conferring the following Peerages of the United Kingdom for Life.” The honours list was sneaked out on a Friday evening to avoid attention but it still caused a great deal of shock and disgust. To judge by the comments on the Telegraph, Times and ConservativeHome websites, even Tory supporters are disgusted. Just like the National List in Sri Lanka, the House of Lords has been corrupted and perverted from the useful device that it could be. The Lords could be a forum utilising the wisdom of experienced professionals who had not made a career in politics. There is a need for a check on the Commons that is not distracted by elections every five years. Johnson is not the first prime minister to depart from this ideal but this list is the most blatant expression of contempt for it since Lloyd George.
There has been criticism of the size of the Sri Lankan parliament and we have endured bloated cabinets constructed, not to provide efficient administration, but to build support and pay dues. In the UK, there is a cross-party consensus that the House of Lords has too many members. Johnson has chosen to swell the ranks of those getting £162 a day for remotely attending a meeting (£323 a day in normal times), plus expenses. This influx of cronies will increase membership of the Lords to 830. That is 160 more than 20 years ago; France’s upper chamber has 348, the US has 100 and Germany has 69. The Seanad Éireann has 60.
Johnson has rewarded cronies, Brexiteers, family (a peerage for his brother Jo),
Tory donors, time-serving Conservative MPs and Labour rebels. Would Ian Botham have been given a peerage had he not been a vocal supporter of the Leave campaign in 2016? What kind of asset will Beefy be to the national legislature?
A History of Sleaze
The Johnson list has little to do with “honour”. Although, it is a particularly egregious example of cynicism and contempt for the nation’s institutions and citizens, there is a long history of prime ministers doing this kind of thing. Lloyd George’s 1922 list prompted King George V to say it “must be regarded as little less than an insult to the Crown and to the House of Lords“. The Lloyd George affair led to the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925 which states that it is a criminal offence for someone to offer “any gift, money or valuable consideration as an inducement or reward for procuring or assisting or endeavouring to procure the grant of a dignity or title of honour”. The 1976 list of Harold Wilson – the “lavender list” – caused merriment as well as anger. On December 14 2006, Tony Blair became the first serving British prime minister to be interviewed by police conducting a criminal investigation. In November 2014, former Liberal Democrat Treasurer, Lord Razzall, blithely admitted that he was often approached by rich businessmen offering donations in return for honours. Although he had been a solicitor for 30 years, he claimed he was not aware that these approaches constituted criminal offences which he should have reported to the police. The three biggest donors to the Liberal Democrats had been given peerages by Nick Clegg when he was deputy prime minister in David Cameron’s coalition. In less than a year of becoming PM, David Cameron created 117 new peers. He bestowed honours on 46 aides, advisers and ministers in his resignation list.
More on this next week.