Anthony Blair, you have the right to remain silent . . .

Dateline 10 January 2007

"Anthony Blair, you have the right to remain silent, but it may harm your defence if you fail to mention now something you later seek to rely on in court. Anything you do say will be written down and given in evidence." Actually, it wasn’t quite like that. Tony Blair was questioned by the police, but not under caution. We are thus to assume that he was questioned as a possible witness to a crime and not as a suspect. He is, nonetheless, the first British Prime Minister in the 250-year history of the office to be questioned as part of a criminal investigation.

The investigation is into the possibility that some of Blair’s associates may have offered to secure honors for Labour Party donors. The honors in question are mostly insignificant – the right to put ‘Sir’ in front of your name or letters such as ‘OBE’ after it. OBE stands for Order of the British Empire, which shows how dated the whole thing is. However, the Prime Minister can still appoint people to the House of Lords – a sort of stripped down Senate with real, but minimal, powers.

There are two laws under which crimes may have been committed: the Honours (Prevention of Abuse) Act of 1925 and the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The latter, embarrassingly, was introduced by Blair’s government.

It is at least arguable that selling honors is a good thing. People who make major donations to political parties in America have been known to receive rewards. And giving away meaningless titles is probably less damaging than, say, ambassadorships. Surely Democratic Party donor and Nazi sympathizer Joseph P Kennedy would have done far less damage if Roosevelt had made him Duke of Massachusetts instead of Ambassador to London?

But the explicit exchange of honors for money is illegal. It would also be difficult to prove, though there is still the chance that Blair’s advisor and fundraiser, Lord Levy, will be charged*. It is more likely that a charge will be brought under the 2000 law. This would be possible if the Labour Party failed to declare financial support. The specific investigation is into money that was loaned to the Party. If it was loaned on commercial terms the Party had no need to declare it, but there are suspicions that the terms were much softer than a bank would have charged. There is a similar investigation into the Conservative Party – but it refers to a time before current leader, David Cameron, was elected, so it is somewhat less embarrassing.

How much does this matter? Tony Blair has already promised to retire by the summer, so even if he is charged, which no-one expects, his party has the opportunity to move on by electing a new leader. The trouble is, Blair’s team has already been pointing the finger at likely successor Gordon Brown, whose cronies have responded by pointing it back at Blair. And this is in a criminal investigation. For all the notorious leaking and counter leaking of the Clinton administration, Clinton and Gore were not trying to get each other arrested.

Opposition politicians are hoping that the pall of corruption will continue to hang over Labour. Changing leaders may not prove to be enough. After all, no-one thought that Gerald Ford ordered the Watergate break in, but he still lost.

*Since this article was written, another Blair aide, Ruth Turner, has been arrested on suspicion of perverting the course of justice. She was subsequently released without charge.

Quentin Langley is editor of an academic at the University of Cardiff and is a columnist with Campaigns & Elections. This article was first published in the Common Sense series for Lake Champlain Weekly.

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