Sunday, July 16, 2006

Nick Cohen and the Curate's Egg

I really quite like Nick this week. This is to say, I think the cash for peerages scandal has legs, and I don't like ID cards. So at least I feel he's talking to me, rather than at me, and that's a great improvement.

It's not such a good column on closer examination. One of the purposes of columnists is to give you an idea of what might happen next, either by bringing to light research too detailed for the news pages, or through some combination or experience and training being better aware of the way, to use a cliche myself, the wind is blowing. Nick's main piece -- on peerages -- makes one prediction, and it's a prediction I'm convinced will prove wrong.

When he told MPs from other parties that donors to the SNP weren't recommended for honours, they looked at him with incredulity. We would never be able to raise enough money if we did that, they countered. (What they said is true, by the way, and means that the state funding of political parties is inevitable once this scandal has done its work.)

I'm not happy about state funded parties (I can't see why I shouldn't donate over and above the membership fee to a party); all I want is greater openness -- the openness I thought we were going to get in 1997, which seems to have been finessed away by tricky lawyers. I'm not sure how many other G8 countries have honours systems (clearly, I should have researched this) -- I suspect it's not many. I'm not going to pretend that the US system is admirable; but they don't have honours, and the parties seem to biff along with plenty of funding. (There's probably a scandal of two in there as well of course.)

In fact my main complaint is that Nick doesn't say anything not in elsewhere in the paper.

However, we do know that Tony Blair has been fantastically unwise. Instead of keeping party funding at a safe distance by leaving it with the party machine, he has made it the responsibility of his personal envoys.

Now, Nick's written two books on this government, and he's done a lot of background research into Tony Blair. He's right about the PM's unwisdom. But the key question is -- "why?" Sadly, Nick doesn't know.

Tony Blair is a lawyer, though he hides this pretty well these days, as he affects (at least) to hold the judiciary in contempt. Torygraph: Blair: Labour 'in the clear' over peerages. If the 1925 legislation is as "refreshingly straightforward" as Nick claims, he's been almost implausibly stupid.

Why would Blair be so sanguine? Wikipedia has the Relevant Sections, which read in part:

Any person guilty of a misdemeanour under this Act shall be liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or to a fine not exceeding five hundred pounds, or to both such imprisonment and such fine ...

With the prisons as full as they are, and five hundred quid probably equating to restaurant bill and tip for a half dozen friends, I doubt Blair is much deterred.

As so often when I write on Nick's articles, I come away with a deflated feeling. Geoff Hoon may well be right about the non-groundswell of public anger. Perhaps Blair is really betting on that. There are other things to say, and while I'm with Nick on this, he hasn't said them. Is Blair deluded or astute? I despair of ever finding an answer to this: everyone you read tells you what they think; it's like getting the weather report from the prisoners in the cave in Plato. Secondly, does this really matter? It's not good practice, clearly the bribes that dare not speak their names are sleazy, but does it make any difference? Are we actually worse off, is our average food shopping bill higher than it might be because Lord Sainsbury passed the odd bung to the government? I don't know the answers to these questions. But someone should know if what is being bought and sold is venal influence or just the ultimate vanity accoutrement after the silly personalised number plates.

Nick's clearly given up on Gordon Brown as a moral alternative to Blair. (As have I.) But this is exceptional mind-reading:

He was against identity cards because they would cost a fortune, they wouldn’t work and finally - and I suspect most importantly - they were Tony Blair’s idea.

The first is probably true (although the government tried to spin this as much as possible). The second doesn't mean very much. The problem with identity cards "working" is what were they supposed to do? They were supposed to deter fraud by being wizardly techno, but the Pentagon computers were supposed to be secure and someone broke in. Fraudsters like people to feel secure -- especially as with ID cards where the Home Office thinks fraud is the banks' problem and the banks wonder what they pay taxes for. Foreigners wouldn't have to carry them, extant legislation means that neither would anyone else. (If I understand the 1952 law which repealed the last ones.) I've not heard that crime in France or Italy is lower as a consequence, and ID cards didn't stop the Madrid bombers.

I don't understand Nick's present Foreign Office obsession. I think he must be concealing some facts. I can't believe that the FO doesn't have ulterior motives, presumably infiltration and intelligence gathering. I'd like just a little more cause and effect than "Provide the religious justification for murder, and it will get you a five-star hotel." They've been massively wrong before, of course, and of course all the famous traitors like Philby were in the Intelligence services. But I find it a lot easier to understand sympathy with Communism (even under Stalin) than this clandestine working for the Caliphate or whatever it is Nick is alleging the spooks are doing. If MI5 collar Osama bin Laden, I'll crow about it. Though I can't see it happening any time soon.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not going to pretend that the US system is admirable; but they don't have honours, and the parties seem to biff along with plenty of funding.(

They might not have honors, but I wonder how much being a US Ambassador costs these days?

PS: Re scandals: Jack Abramoff

7/17/2006 09:00:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not going to pretend that the US system is admirable; but they don't have honours, and the parties seem to biff along with plenty of funding.

Well no - the politicians are just bought, and pretty cheaply at that. In fact arguably one of the best investments going - some people have managed 100,000% return.

7/17/2006 09:22:00 AM  

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