“Follow the money.” It’s always about cash, even in political scandals, as we see in this week’s installment of Infamous British Political Scandals.
Think of the “Cash for Honours” furor as England’s version of the Rod Blagojevich scandal writ large – and perhaps with white wigs replacing the Illinois governor’s famous hairdo. Blagojevich was impeached and convicted on charges of attempting to sell Barack Obama’s vacated Senate seat, while Labour politicians in England were investigated for essentially selling life peerages, although unlike Blago, no one was ever prosecuted for any of the allegations in the U.K.
Life peerages are appointed by the Prime Minister – people who become life peers can take on the title of “Lord” and they can sit as members of the House of Lords, although their titles cannot be passed down to their children.
Although the British government has over time tried to divorce money from title and privilege, it’s a rather quixotic enterprise. After all, James I created the title of baronet strictly as a way of raising money – he sold baronetcies for £1500 each.
In 1925, Parliament passed the Honors Prevention of Abuses Act after Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s government was accused of selling peerages.
The more recent “Cash for Honours” scandal arose in 2006 when a Scottish National Party MP filed a complaint with London’s Metropolitan Police accusing the Labour Party of offering peerages in exchange for donations and loans.
There were allegations that politicians had asked title-hungry donors to make loans, rather than outright donations, to political parties because of the lax reporting requirements for loans. The practice of soliciting loans was by no means limited to the ruling Labour party.
The police interviewed 136 people, most notably Prime Minister Tony Blair himself, who was questioned three times – the first time a prime minister has ever been interviewed in the course of a police investigation. Blair was not, in British legal terminology, “under caution,” meaning that he was questioned only as a witness, not as a suspect.
However, two of Blair’s aides were arrested, as well one donor and one education program manager.
In the end, prosecutors said there wasn’t enough evidence to file any charges, but the investigation – which spread to look into possible “perverting the course of justice” suspicions as well – was tenaciously conducted by then Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner John Yates, who later lost his job because he failed to investigate police corruption in The News of the World scandal with any tenacity at all.
Although no one was ever charged, the political fallout from the Cash for Honours scandal damaged the Labour Party and Tony Blair. The BBC’s Nick Robinson, writing at the time, said Blair’s supporters told him that “people cannot overstate just how much damage this did to Mr Blair in his final months in office – he was wounded at a time when he was already under attack, it led to an early exit from Downing Street, and all the while, Mr Blair felt quite unable to defend himself.”