Lynton Crosby's knighthood in the New Year's honours list has joined a long history of abuse of the honours system to reward cronies. By now the papers read a little as if they are recycling old outrage, and perhaps it is this weariness of sleaze that has prevented much recent scrutiny of the honours system and its use as a kind of quid pro quo machine. I spent some time on the website of the Electoral Commission, which details every donation made to political parties. There have been over 46,000 of these since 2001, when the records begin, so it is not easy to skim through the details, but even a quick dip can elicit some fascinating insights, and it rapidly becomes clear even to a single student with access to the internet that Crosby is but the tip of the fatberg. As if by magic, the names on the list seem to gather titles as time passes. Between 2002 and 2012, one Michael Hintze donated £1,410,580 to the Conservative Party; in 2013 he received a knighthood for services to the Arts. In 2001, Irvine Laidlaw donated the bizarrely specific sum of £62,938.66 to the Conservatives; by the time of his next set of donations, amounting to almost £3 million in 2007, he was Lord Irvine Laidlaw. In 2001, Christopher Ondaatje gave Labour a total of £103,700, and in 2003, the year in which he was knighted, a further £1,000,000. Indeed, the one compensation of trawling through the lists is the amusement of trying to spot the moment at which 'Mr Stanley Fink' becomes 'Lord Stanley Fink' (in 2011, incidentally, after donating £2,158,066 over four years). Naturally, there is no way of demonstrating any whiff of a deal or reward for services rendered in the solemn bestowing of these important honours. Yet it is disquieting that there is not more written about them.
What vexes us about Crosby in particular, apart from the natural revulsion any normal human being experiences upon considering him, is probably the quasi-dictatorial nature of Cameron's reward, the echo of the decadent, whimsical emperor showering largesse on his loyal minions (though in some ways the roles seem reversed; it is Crosby, in this case, who has made a horse consul). And while the grubbiness of it is outrageous, at least it can be said of Crosby that he is definitely the paid servant of the governing party. Patronage does not merely mean flinging gongs at those who give politicians money; it can often be the route vested interests take unnoticed into the very heart of our democracy.
Much of this ground has already been covered by investigative journalists such as the peerless George Monbiot, who wrote in his book Captive State of the tendency of certain major donors to Tony Blair's Labour to find themselves often not only in the House of Lords, but actually in the government itself. Probably most famous among these was David Sainsbury, or since 1997 officially the Lord Sainsbury of Turville, who in 1998 was appointed to the post of Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for Science and Innovation. He occupied this position for eight years and was described during that time as 'unsackable'. Between 2002 and 2005, he donated £4,016,000 to the Labour Party (he has been a major donor since 1996, but the figures for these donations are not available from the Electoral Commission). Of course, no link can be proven to exist between these two facts. The office is undeniably minor, but as Monbiot points out, it happens to be in the Department of Trade and Industry, which has responsibility for regulating competition policy, including policy on supermarkets. However inconsequential to the government at large, for Sainsbury's supermarkets the position would be an excellent one in which to be able to wield control.
Obviously, this is now a decade ago. We have a new governing party, one led by the fresh-faced new leader of the Conservative Party who promised in 2008 that politics would change. Yet now we are well acquainted with the truth that Cameron's fresh face was not his only one. However outrageous Sainsbury's appointment, as a member of the government he was at least nominally scrutinised by Parliament and the press. Other patronage, such as government contracts, remains in the shade, and in the darkness all kinds of unpleasant things grow. In 2012, the attention of the press was drawn to the car company Addison Lee, which lost a contract to drive minicabs for Whitehall after a very minor scandal involving its use of bus lanes. It was little remarked upon at the time that, according to the Electoral Commission, the company's chairman John Griffin had donated £250,000 to the Conservative Party; strangely for the usually punctilious Commission, the date of this donation is not listed, but it was certainly registered before 2012. Thus the chairman of a minicab company who donated a quarter of a million pounds to the governing party happened to receive a lucrative contract from the government. We might never have known about this fascinating coincidence had the company not momentarily surfaced into the public gaze.
Nor is it always necessary to maintain a constant presence in government in order to influence its policy. Sometimes, a donation is followed by a, presumably entirely unrelated, action by the recipient party taken in favour of the donor. In all fairness, the media do usually pick up on these; see the uproar when Blair was discovered to have intervened in the sale of the Romanian state steel company to make the case for LNM group, owned by Labour donor Lakshmi Mittal, or when the SNP quietly dropped a plan to re-regulate bus companies from its manifesto after receiving a total of £625,000 from Stagecoach owner (and unapologetic homophobe) Brian Souter. Alternatively, and less noticeably, internal party positions can be used to reward donors in a way that excites far less press scrutiny. This technique has been used by all parties. In 2009, Labour appointed Nigel Doughty, who in the preceding three years had given them £833,000 and in that year added a further £1,000,000 to that total, as assistant treasurer of the party and also as head of its small business task force, which seems entirely appropriate given that Doughty's own business, the private equity fund Doughty Hanson & Co., generated almost $2 billion between 1987 and 2002. But it is the Conservatives who have mastered the use of the internal party to reward donors clandestinely at the expense of accountability to their membership. Among their appointments as treasurers of the party in recent years have been David Rowland in 2010, who had donated £2,007,050 in the previous year (though Rowland was forced to resign before even taking up the job amid questions about his tax status); Michael Spencer in 2006, whose company IPGL had donated £1,094,217.53 to the party in the previous year and who went on to become Chairman of the Conservative Foundation in 2011, by which time he had donated a further £2,466,285.40; and Stanley Fink in 2009, in which year he gave the party £1,595,965 on top of £369,501 in the previous three years. The role of treasurer is not irrelevant; it carries with it a seat on the Board of the Conservative Party, which the party's website explains "is the ultimate decision making body of the Conservative Party. It is responsible for all operational matters including; fundraising, membership and candidates." While abuse of the honours system sticks in the craw, it is evident that the contamination of corruption extends much further.
Given that these issues were first raised after Harold Wilson's notorious 'Lavender List' almost forty years ago, it seems evident that corruption is difficult to root out of the honours system, and even if we manage to wipe off some of the muck we will be leaving unscathed vast swathes of unscrupulous patronage and favour within the political parties. Although it has become something of a cliché to offer accountability as a panacea, democracy seems the best solution to the broad issue of corruption. Perhaps the nominations for honours should be put to a public vote; at the very least, the people should be able to find out who has made each nomination. Reform in 2011 now forces the Main Honours Committee to examine any donations made by a nominee to a political party; this information should be made public. Within the parties themselves, it is the duty of the membership to wrest control back from the centre and purge their institutions of external influence. Perhaps members of the Conservative Party would like to demand that the Board be made elective. Labour has already made some progress on this score; Private Eye detailed the exclusion of the usual corporate lobbyists from their conference in September. Perhaps most of all, we need to rediscover our outrage at the abuse of an honours system which, however clunkingly antediluvian, should exist to recognise outstanding contributions to our society, not measure the depth of plutocrats' pockets.