Michael White: Cash for peerages? What’s new in that?

‘Do you really haggle with party donors about the price of knighthoods and peerages?’ I asked a prominent Labour fundraiser during the recent excitement. ‘If anyone did that with me Michael, I’d give them a two-word answer: “Piss” and “Off”,’ was his indignant and well-practised reply.

Was my friend's answer designed to deceive me or, possibly, himself? A little of both, I expect. What is beyond dispute is that a trade in cash for honours has been going on for centuries, only occasionally disturbed by outbursts of public morality.

A century ago, party managers had annual cash-for-peerages targets to meet and a future press baron could joke: 'When I want a peerage, I will buy one like an honest man.' His family remain the Lords Rothermere to this day.

If you doubt me in your hurry to see Tony Blair hanged, ask why the Tories and Lib Dems have been reluctant to throw mud at him? Or why it took a Scottish Nationalist MP to summon Inspector Knacker to the scene of the alleged crime? To me it suggests the SNP has no share in the spoils, one reason, perhaps, why nationalist fundraisers across the Irish Sea still have to rob banks.

Why has no one been convicted of peerage-peddling since Lloyd George's flamboyant bagman, Maundy Gregory, was made the fall-guy in 1925? Because it's a victimless crime with few witnesses, let alone any with anything to gain from disclosures that might cost them their coronets. Who wants to be an unfrocked peer?

Did I say victimless? Yes. The confusion arises from mixing political power with social status. Most wannabe cash peers don't want to sit up late amending obscure legislation. Too much like hard work. They want the world to know they're not just rich Nigel Moneybags, but posh Lord M. And don't forget Lady Moneybags, who wants her bit of posh, too.

It is an illusion, naff but harmless. If we renamed members of the upper house senators, it would help solve the social confusion. But we will have to find some honest way of helping political parties raise money if we are to stop them flogging peerages dressed up as services to charity.

This time the scandal is different, or so I keep reading from the same columnists who told me Blair would 'have to resign' over Hutton, Butler and countless other media-driven outrages. We will soon discover how good Fleet Street's witnesses are. I suspect Inspector Knacker will wish he was back doing easy cases like City fraud. Wake me up if I'm wrong.

Michael White is assistant editor (politics) of The Guardian. Kate Nicholas is away.

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