How to buy your way into the British aristocracy.

The British scene.
March 22 2006 10:59 AM

So, You Want To Be a Lord ...

How to buy your way into the British aristocracy.

Prime Minister Tony Blair 
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Prime Minister Tony Blair

"People are rather apt," said Lord Curzon in his haughty way, "supposing they see in the newspapers that an honor has been conferred upon some person unknown to themselves, to imagine that the honor has been bought." People aren't only apt but sometimes right to suppose so, whether under the prime ministership of David Lloyd George at the time Curzon spoke in 1917 or of Tony Blair today.

A shadow of money-worship has long lain over Blair's career and has now been cast again by that old favorite, the sale of honors: peerages, which entitle the bearer to sit in the House of Lords, or lesser gongs, like knighthoods, which merely put "Sir" before a man's name. Last week, the treasurer of the Labor Party startled everyone by saying he had just learned about surreptitious loans made to the party by a number of rich men. Some of them had then been recommended for peerages by Blair.

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These generous souls have in some cases already made donations to Labor. The surreptitious lenders include Lord Sainsbury, a government minister who forked over £2 million ($3.5 million); property developer Sir David Garrard, who lent £2.3 million (more than $4 million); and biotech magnate Sir Christopher Evans, who put £1 million ($1.75 million) in the hat. There is also £2 million from Richard Caring, who made his money in the fashion trade but also owns the immensely chic Ivy restaurant in the West End. (It occurs to me that any politician might want to do him a favor simply to get a reservation.) Now Scotland Yard is investigating several of these clandestine loans under anti-corruption laws.

Four others who coughed up, including Dr. Chai Patel, who owns the Priory, the most fashionable drying-out clinic in Europe, were nominated for peerages but put on hold by the House of Lords Appointments Commission. Really, it's quite like the old days.

Human nature being what it is, people have always wanted baubles and prefixes, and human nature being what it is, these things have often been for sale. After all, the baronetcy, a quaint hereditary knighthood, was devised by King James I in the early 17th century specifically to raise cash. With the advent of electoral politics, it was parties that turned to selling honors—and prime ministers who were beset by importunate wannabes. After Lord Salisbury became prime minister for the first time in 1885, he said that dealing with those aspiring lords or sirs had "been a revelation to me of the baser side of human nature."

The last time scandal openly erupted—until this year—was under Lloyd George, prime minister from 1916 to 1922. He dished out titles with abandon, to King George V's intense displeasure. Lloyd George offered a sophisticated—or perhaps casuistical—defense of this trade in honors, as being "a far cleaner method of filling the party chest than the methods used in the United States." An American millionaire would give money to a party or a pol and would expect something concrete in return, whereas when a rich Englishman bought a baronetcy or viscountcy to gratify his vanity, that was the end of it. This argument could seem a little self-serving, but one has to say, gazing from across the Atlantic at the best Congress money can buy, it wasn't completely absurd.

But Lloyd George's trouble was that he was just too reckless and careless. Too many of those he honored, especially after 1918, were "hard-faced men who had done well out of the war." The inappropriateness of some nominations became more flagrant, and the mephitic stench of corruption more noisome, reaching scandalous levels in 1922. Four or five new peers were deeply disliked and distrusted, for good reason. One had dodged income tax during the war, and another's business affairs were "putrid," according to a memo from a senior official. But the South African mining magnate Sir Joseph Robinson was in a class of his own.

According to Louis Cohen—who had tried and failed to make his own fortune on the Kimberley diamond fields and had been reduced to writing some scurrilous but very entertaining memoirs—Robinson had once been "a notorious seducer of other men's wives and daughters," which presumably hadn't enhanced his popularity. But it was his business methods—outrageous even by the standards of the time and place—that led to his unique humiliation when he tried to add a peerage to the baronetcy he had already bought, elevating him from Sir Joseph to Lord Whateverhemighthavebeen.

His utter unsuitability was made clear to Lloyd George, who for once grasped the gravity of the situation. So, someone was sent to see Robinson with the disagreeable task of telling him that his peerage would have to be canceled. Robinson was very deaf and at first misunderstood the emissary, reaching for his checkbook with the words, "How much more?" But when he was denounced in the House of Lords itself, he had no choice but to withdraw.

Maybe things aren't quite as bad as that today, although a nation that thought it had lost its capacity for surprise has been startled to learn how Tony Blair was apparently selling favors. Ten years ago Blair made much of the sleaze surrounding the Tories, claiming he would be "purer than pure," and he is now hoist with his own petard, looking even more impure.

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