A QUES­TION OF HON­OUR

The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS&BOOKS -

IREVIEWED BY VER­NON BOG­DANOR N JULY 2006, Lord Levy, Tony Blair’s chief fund-raiser and per­sonal en­voy to the Mid­dle East, was en­joy­ing a birth­day lunch with his fam­ily when he was told by his so­lic­i­tor to re­port to Colin­dale po­lice sta­tion, in North Lon­don, where he was go­ing to be ar­rested. A Ques­tion of Hon­our de­scribes in graphic de­tail the pur­ga­tory he and his fam­ily en­dured for over a year be­fore he was re­leased with­out charge.

Levy was sus­pected of hav­ing so­licited money for Labour by promis­ing hon­ours in re­turn. New Labour, if it wanted to es­cape be­ing in hock to the trades unions, had to rely, like the Con­ser­va­tives, on hand­outs from mil­lion­aires. But af­ter the year 2000, when the par­ties were re­quired to make pub­lic all do­na­tions over £5,000, many were de­terred from giv­ing.

There­fore, the par­ties be­gan to so­licit loans which, at the time, did not need to be de­clared. Of 12 in­di­vid­u­als who gave loans to Labour be­fore the 2005 gen­eral elec­tion, seven were made peers.

Yet only one per­son has ever been con­victed of sell­ing hon­ours, and that was in the 1920s. The rea­son is not far to seek. For, un­less some­one puts an of­fer in writ­ing, it is im­pos­si­ble to prove a con­nec­tion be­tween the cheque and an hon­our.

There is cer­tainly no ev­i­dence that Levy promised “hon­ours for cash”, nor that the seven were hon­oured pri­mar­ily be­cause of the loans that they had made. Still, the story is not very ed­i­fy­ing, and Levy is right to say that the an­swer lies in the pub­lic fund­ing of po­lit­i­cal par­ties.

Levy him­self was cer­tainly well qual­i­fied for the Lords. He was not only an ex­traor­di­nar­ily gen­er­ous donor to a wide range of char­i­ties, but, af­ter sell- ing his mu­sic busi­ness, he de­voted much of his life to char­i­ta­ble work. Few of his crit­ics can claim as much.

His book is not just con­cerned with cash-for-peer­ages, how­ever. There is also much fas­ci­nat­ing ma­te­rial on the Mid­dle East. Ac­cord­ing to Levy, a peace agree­ment be­tween Is­rael and Syria was tan­ta­lis­ingly close in the year 2000, and was frus­trated solely by Ehud Barak’s un­will­ing­ness to com­mit him­self pub­licly to restora­tion of the 1967 borders, though per­fectly pre­pared to ar­gue for it in private.

Levy sees him­self as a se­ri­ous player, and prob­a­bly ex­ag­ger­ates his in­flu­ence — ex­cept in the case of hon­ours, where he is anx­ious to min­imise it. Yet he was per­haps more crony than politi­cian. Prime Min­is­ters need cronies, men pre­pared to lis­ten sym­pa­thet­i­cally while they blow off steam about their col­leagues. Tony Blair was no ex­cep­tion.

Though leader of a party ded­i­cated to im­prov­ing the lot of the poor, Blair much pre­ferred the com­pany of the rich. “What is your re­li­gion?” Un­der­shaft, the arms man­u­fac­turer, is asked in Shaw’s Ma­jor Bar­bara. “I am a mil­lion­aire, that is my re­li­gion,” he replies. It seems for a time to have be­come the re­li­gion of the Labour Party as well.

The main les­son which Levy draws from his ex­pe­ri­ences is “that if you look for good qual­i­ties in peo­ple you al­most al­ways find them”. He is nice about ev­ery­one — Tony Blair, Ge­orge Bush, Syria’s Hafez al-As­sad, even the po­lice in­spec­tors who ques­tion him. There is just one ex­cep­tion: Gor­don Brown, who, so Levy in­sin­u­ates, with­out of­fer­ing the slight­est ev­i­dence, was in­volved in cash-for-hon­ours.

Yet Brown does not court the rich, nor has he ever been ac­cused of sleaze or of mak­ing du­bi­ous ap­point­ments to peer­ages.

Lord Levy did a lot for Labour. But Labour also did a lot for him, giv­ing him a peer­age and a pub­lic profile. It is a pity that he has cho­sen to dis­fig­ure his es­say in vin­di­ca­tion with spite­ful al­le­ga­tions against its cur­rent leader, al­le­ga­tions that are bound to dam­age the party he claims to love. Ver­non Bog­danor is Pro­fes­sor of Gov­ern­ment at Ox­ford Univer­sity

PHOTO: JOHN RIFKIN

High profile: Lord Levy and Gor­don Brown up close in 2007 — but not, ap­par­ently, in di­rect com­mu­ni­ca­tion

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