Gongs for Loans: Not Just Seedy but Illegal

The Evening Standard (London, England), March 22, 2006 | Go to article overview

Gongs for Loans: Not Just Seedy but Illegal


Byline: NICK COHEN

PEOPLE go on about sleaze without realising that they may be talking about crime.

You can't blame them for their mistake, because uniquely in the democratic world, the British authorities don't treat political crimes as crimes.

Take the case of the buying of a seat in the House of Lords - and with it the right to decide the laws of the land. After Lloyd George had pocketed a fortune by selling everything from baronies to OBEs, the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act of 1925 made the buying and selling of honours a criminal offence that should carry a maximum punishment of two years in prison.

I say "should", but in 80 years, only one suspect has been prosecuted: Maundy Gregory, a spy, blackmailer and probable murderer, who was the point man with the "business community" for Lloyd George's Liberals and their Conservative allies. He got a mere two months in 1932 and retired to France on release, his silence bought by a generous pension from the Tory Party. It has been left to the press to blow the whistle ever since.

Yet for all the blathering about the "power of the media", journalists aren't so powerful. In the end, we're just voters with editors. We can't force the mighty to reveal dirty secrets they would rather keep hidden. We can get leaks and we can get lucky, but we can't get search warrants.

Independent-minded MPs who want to do what MPs are meant to do and hold the executive to account are just as feeble. If you refuse to answer the questions of the US Congress, you can go to jail for contempt. If there's a whiff of corruption about you in Italy, prosecutors and magistrates will storm in - as Tessa Jowell's dumped husband has learned.

But in Britain backbench MPs are like journalists: they have no coercive power. All both can do is make links and ask questions that no one is obliged to answer.

As regular as clockwork, as soon as we start asking why it was that Bernie Ecclestone, Enron, Lakshmi Mittal and all the rest of the crew gave gifts then got rewards, some bucktoothed, empty-headed public-school boy from the BBC pops up and sneers: "Where's your smoking gun? Where's your proof beyond reasonable doubt?" And, of course, 999 times out of 1,000 we can't produce a smoking gun.

There's no Congress here and no independent prosecutors. In Britain, only the police can obtain search warrants, go through computer records, subpoena witnesses, strike plea-bargaining deals and question suspects under oath.

The Met's announcement that it is investigating Lord Levy and the alleged sale of honours may just be PR. …

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