Thursday, July 13, 2006

Time for a revolution... and to end the reign of King Tony the First

Can I start this post off by saying how much I welcome the investigation into the cash for honours issue. As someone who is implacably opposed to an honours system based on patronage, I actually think far more of the honours have been 'bought' in one way or another than we really know about. I know we are all expected to gasp with joy when a little old lollipop lady gets a gong for 40 years service seeing the kids cross the road... but these are just sops to make us think the honours system touches everyone. I'm sure there are people in the Lords who have been put there because they are capable of scrutinising legislation, and to ensure that at least someone is awake as Bills make their passage through the House. But I am equally sure there are Lords who have earned their place by decades of servility to their party leaders, or by agreeing to shuffle upstairs to create a vacant safe seat for an up and coming star of the future. Until the introduction of the requirement to declare donations we had no idea who was bankrolling the Parties, or what they got in return. However the number of super wealthy people who made it in into the ermine robes seems like pretty good circumstantial evidence that people have been getting their rewards in the Lords, even if not from the Lord. The loans for honours scandal is just the latest ruse to allow the wealthy to buy a Lordship which can be used as currency to buy even more Non-Executive directorships in the City of London. Slowly... but steadily, the information is being prised out of it's shell, and the near silence from the Tories over this (compared to the hysteria and rush for the media spotlight during the Prescott fiasco) tells me that squeaky-clean Dave is keeping his head down on this one.

Of course, part of the answer is for total transparency in Party funding. But that is not enough. The essential problem in this country is that at it's very heart, it is undemocratic. It is Her Majesty's Government, the Monarch can declare war, legislation requires the Royal Assent, the Monarch appoints the Peers, the Archbishops and the Bishops, and all the CBE's MBE's and OBE's are doled out by the Queen as if she had sat in her bedroom into the early hours pouring over lists of the worthy to decide who gets what gong.

But in reality, this power lies with the Prime Minister... and it is this power of patronage that needs to be brought to an end if we are to call ourselves a democracy. The monarchical powers are passed down by the monarch, not to the people, through the House of Commons, but to the Prime Minister, who exercises that power with all the grandeur and ruthlessness of a feudal King. The Prime Minister selects the Cabinet, those who would be King, and decides who gets what job. That gives the King the power over his Barons. The Prime Minister selects all of the other underlings of Government, all of the PPS's the Junior Ministers, the Whips and who sits on which important Select Committees. Added to this power, the Prime Minister can also decide who is next in line, who is waiting at the foot of the greasy pole, if one of the underlings doesn't behave themselves. In this way the Prime Minister controls the Government, and can therefore usually command the controlling Party... and in this way, controls the House of Commons. The power of patronage over the Lords just seals the whole thing up in one neat package. So the next time you hear Ruth Kelly or David Miliband talking about empowering people you will know they are saying you may be able to have power over the person that decides how often your dustbin is emptied... whilst the country is still run along feudal lines.

So, I'm not upset if one of the Lords has been detained by the police to try to explain whether or not his fellow Lords got there by bunging someone a few hundred thousand pounds. I welcome it. But until we decide to sweep away the power of the robber Barons and their feudal Master, we will remain serfs scrabbling around in the dust for crumbs.