Sunday National, 19th of July 2020.
Lloyd George once described the House of Lords as “a body of five hundred men chosen at random from amongst the unemployed.” Now, of course, there are far more than five-hundred barons and baronesses, and the choice of which wobblebottom to settle on the red benches is hardly random. One of the most sordid feature of the UK constitution is the authority it vests in the Prime Minister to dish out magic names to his cronies and placemen.
This weekend brings the news that “Boris Johnson is to mark his first anniversary as prime minister by rewarding Brexit loyalists, including Sir Ian Botham, with peerages.” Beneficiaries include useful idiots on the Labour side who gave the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement the patina of cross-party cover, with sturdy democratic socialists like Frank Field, Gisela Stuart, Ian Austin and John Woodcock all taking the scarlet and kissing the ring. To the outrage of bunterish Brexiteers everywhere, Tory heretics and Brexit backsliders like Ken Clarke and former Chancellor Phil Hammond will also be dusted liberally in stoat to “bring the Conservative party back together.” Quite why surviving twelve months in office is grounds for national jubilation, I’m not sure – but in Britain’s uncodified constitution, anything seems to go.
Tory, Labour, Liberal Democrat – all of these parties have colluded in this tawdry gameshow. Today, the scarlet plantations of the House of Lords are planted thick with almost 800 people, including twenty-six Anglican bishops, and an astonishing ninety-two hereditary peers who still take their places in the nation’s legislature because centuries ago their ancestors successfully massacred – or went unmassacred – in the king’s name. The House of Lords is sheltered housing for political failures, the deselected and the unelected, a colostomy bag for all the banjaxers and the toadies our system of government creates, for the crawlers, climbers, lubricators, lickspittles, apple polishers, and know-nothing slebs our needy premier presumably hopes to befriend.
“Batting for Brexit earns Botham a peerage”, trilled the Telegraph, as if this was somehow an admirable feat rather than a mortifying expression of the facile character of the British state and the corruption of its institutions. When Theresa May’s chassis finally gave out under her in July last year, Jackson Carlaw CBE wasn’t the only beneficiary of the end of her political career. A spray of nobility spattered all over the departing Prime Minister’s collection of starched ghouls and failed political henchpieces, with life peerages, knighthoods, and lesser gongs giving countless party minor villains, money-men and accomplices. Lawful it may be, but corruption doesn’t only come in brown envelopes.
Humanity can have conceived few more transparently ludicrous ideas that nobility can be conferred by a pensioner bouncing a sword off your shoulder, or by being gazetted into an order of chivalry because the First Lord of the Treasury sees you as the kind of chump who merits some kind of social decoration for your sustained pliability. In other countries, senior politicians express their gratitude to their aides with a hand-written letter of thanks and a handshake. In the UK, by contrast, Prime Ministers have access to a personal tap of nobility they can turn on and off to reward their creatures as their cynicism, prejudices and whimsy tends. It is remarkable that this is blandly accepted as a fact of British political life – because, like Buggins’s turn, the Leader of the Opposition might eventually have the opportunity to dish out his own booty to his people too.
Our own Jackson Carlaw is a case-study in the mediocrity and cronyism which the British state unapologetically celebrates. This bouffant Commander of the British Empire took his gong in 2019 for “political and public services.” Carlaw is a man who has precisely no experience of government. Given current polling, he is unlikely to be troubled by any experience of it in future. His political career, such as it is, has consisted of vigorously stalwarting the Scottish Tory bureaucracy. Identifying a single perceptible contribution to the public good he has made is nigh impossible. Conferring medals for giving regular off-colour after-dinner speeches to the East Renfrewshire Conservative & Unionist Association might strike you as a curious definition of “public service” – though I suppose it keeps the stauncher kind of Scottish pensioner off the streets of an evening.
There are many ways of failing upwards – but only in the United Kingdom, as far as I can tell, can you fail upwards into an ermine overcoat. All those weasels died in vain, ladies and gentlemen, and no amount of windy rhetoric about our ancient traditions and the noble history of the mother of parliaments will transform the House of Lords into anything other than an anti-democratic abomination whose existence testifies to the fairground of snobbery and distinction which remains a cardinal feature of Britain’s public life. Boris Johnson’s remarkable ascent into cosplaying the role of Prime Minister is inexplicable without the influence of these social factors. Without this generous job retention scheme, many members of his cabinet would be lucky to earn a living raffling a duck in a pub.
Two centuries ago, Tom Paine described titles as “like circles drawn by the magician’s wand.” They “contract the sphere of man’s felicity.” What he meant was this. The edifice of social class, honour and aristocracy can only separate us from one another. It invents and petrifies false distinctions. Its existence isn’t an eccentric residue of British history or a harmless tradition. It remains an active and corrupting force in the life of this country. It plays its part in determining who succeeds and who fails, who is listened to and taken seriously, and who is shrugged off, derided, and ignored. It is the just one expression of the active and malign role which distinctions of class continue to exercise in all of the United Kingdom’s key institutions.
And however many gewgaws he confers on friendly spirits, twelve months into his Prime Ministerial spirit quest, does Boris Johnson really have anything to celebrate? During much of his first year in office, Boris Johnson’s administration has been on a ventilator – in more ways than one. For his fans, the Prime Minister’s key political virtue is that he is a “great communicator”, but on any fair reckoning, his communications strategy has been a word-salad of confusion for weeks. While this doesn’t seem to have seriously disrupted the Tory Party’s standing with the English electorate, Johnson’s personal popularity is fraying there. The Scottish polling, as we know, is dire. The Scottish Tories are already shedding senior spinners and spokesmen in anticipation of a Holyrood drubbing – and who can blame them for beating retreat? Would you be keen to spend the next half decade of your life locked in a room being lectured by Jackson Carlaw on his vision for an ineffective opposition?
Back in Westminster, his administration is accumulating economic and health challenges of the kind which seem to bore or baffle the Prime Minister. His key allies fragile or faulty. Every day, in every interview, our benevolent Home Secretary Priti Patel proves she is manifestly intellectually and morally unfit for the responsibilities she has been asked to discharge. Now, independent investigations into allegations of bullying against her show every sign to have been pauchled by No 10. Any administration for which the talents of Chris Grayling seem indispensable has to be reckoned a regime of startling frailty.
And it isn’t just old-fashioned political corruption Johnson’s young administration stands accused of. This week, and OpenDemocracy investigation revealed that the Cabinet Office awarded an £840,000 contract to “two long-term associates of Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings” without putting the work out for tender. Serious questions remain about the amount of Russian money sloshing around in the Conservative Party’s bank accounts – and why it ends up there. Boris Johnson’s housing minister Robert Jenrick remains in-post and conspicuously unsacked having become embroiled in controversy about unlawful planning decisions materially benefitting Tory donors to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds.
Against this backdrop, I suppose playing king for day – making and unmaking knights and lords, ladies and dames – feels like a kind of welcome escapism for the Prime Minister, and just the kind of task he imagined the job would entail when he fixed his limitless ambition on the position decades ago. In 1789, the French declared “men are born and remain free and equal in rights”, insisting that “social distinctions can be founded only on the common good.”
Two hundred and thirty-one years later, Britain is still trying to get its head around this idea. In what conceivable universe is the common good served by a constitution which gives the government of the day the ability to “reward” subjects who have political views the administration finds congenial? You may prefer your perfidy to be more subtle – but in Britain, there’s no need to conceal this kind of royal court chicanery. It is standard operating procedure. Nobody blushes.