Sunday, June 12, 2005

Ye see yon birkie ca’d a lord,

Wha struts, and stares, and a’ that

Tho’ hundreds worship at his word

He’s but a cuif for a that.

The most moving moment in recent Scottish politics was also one of the most comic. Sheena Wellington was delivering a marvellous rendition of A Man’s A Man at the first opening of the Scottish parliament and there, but a few feet away from me, was Prince Philip, trying to understand the words, and the Duke of Hamilton, who had led the honours of Scotland into the parliament chamber.

What better example of the paradox of Scotland. We strive to be modern and democratic, to honour our egalitarian sentiment, but we present it side by side with the flummery of the past.

Nobody should be against putting on a good show and a bit of pageantry. The problems begin when the tourist attraction gets mixed up with the functional democracy, and they end when the institutions of a parliament are brought into total disrepute.

For whatever problems we may have in reconciling the past and the future in Scotland, in the present Palace of Westminster one of the houses of parliament is both corrupt and corrupting.

When Lloyd George sold peerages after the first world war, it was to fund his version of the Liberal Party and himself. He defended it on the basis that given he held the system in disrepute, there was no harm in bringing it further into the mire.

In Tony Blair, we have a Prime Minister who now funds his version of the Labour Party through the honours system and, in particular, through the House of Lords. He has brought the system into complete disrepute but has done so under the cloak of reform.

The facts are there for all to see. Since the 2001 election, every Labour donor who has given the party more than £1 million has been given a knighthood or a peerage. Twelve out of the 14 individuals who have given more than £200,000 have received an honour, as is the case for 17 out of the 22 who donated more than £100,000.

In total, 80p out of every pound donated to Labour by individuals comes from people who have been honoured in one form or another. Those who have been missed out thus far no doubt can have reasonable expectations for the future and, now that the 83-year-old Honours Scrutiny Committee has been scrapped, inadequate scrutiny will be replaced by none.

All of this gravy train involves rather more than just the House of Lords and, of course, there are people in the House of Lords who are neither large donors nor indeed small cronies.

However, have huge Labour donors such as Lord Sainsbury or Lord Drayson ever demonstrated the degree of political flair that would have brought them into government as ministers of the crown by a process of natural political selection?

In addition, the people of independent mind and real ability such as Baroness Kennedy look increasingly scarce in the Lords as the time-servers and place people move into position.

Would it be possible to suggest a revising chamber with less credibility than one still stuffed with hereditary peers? The answer is yes if it is largely occupied by people who are thought to have bought their way in. At least the hereditaries were by and large bought and paid for some generations ago and therefore capable of exercising some degree of independent judgement.

Of course, Labour are not alone in this. The Tories have just as many questions to answer and even the Liberals one or two. However, our “regular kind of guy” of a Prime Minister presides over this irregular system and is the main blockage of fundamental and democratic reform.

It is against this background that the Scottish National Party is debating whether we should dip a toe into these murky waters by nominating people for the House of Lords.

On the one hand, the arguments are beguiling. The hereditaries will soon be gone, removing one of our long-standing objections. It is also true that there would be opportunities to defend the Scottish interest in the Lords sometimes denied in the House of Commons, and the SNP has been throughout its history a participative rather than an abstentionist party.

It is also true that if the second chamber in Westminster moves to some system of an elective base before Scottish independence, then we will undoubtedly stand for election. It is impossible to conceive of any election in which the SNP would not turn up and put the case for Scotland.

No doubt, the pressure for this change will grow. The present position is not just corrupt but will be seen to be corrupt. It is likely to be the continuing scandal of the last years of Blair, just as individual MPs’ interests and their brown envelopes dominated the last years of John Major.

However, that real change is in the future and not now. Unless and until this particular byre is mucked out, I would caution against the SNP seeking admission lest some of the dirt rubs off.

There are institutions of the British state in which we must participate to advance the Scottish cause. However, there is a world of difference between representing the people with a democratic mandate and presenting yourself with nominated preferment.

Or to paraphrase Thomas More in A Man For All Seasons: what profit a man if he were to gain the whole world and lose his own soul – but for a few seats in an un-reformed House of Lords?

It would be tempting, of course, to put an SNP firebrand or two into the Lords, if only to wake up the newly ennobled Lord Foulkes or Lord O’Neill.

But then as the remainder of Sheena Wellington’s verse told us:

For a’ that, an’ a’ that

His ribband star an’ a’ that

The man o’ independent mind

He looks and laughs at a’ that.

Copyright © 2005 smg sunday newspapers ltd. no.176088