In 1912, British politics were roiled by the Marconi affair. As long ago as it was, it's strikingly relevant in view of the cash-for-honors affair that is now roiling London, since on both occasions there has been a subplot—a recurrent theme of anti-Semitism. But then another theme has recurred: the love of money, which is the root of so much political evil. Sex scandals cheer us all up from time to time, but not even Bill Clinton's worst enemy—or Newt Gingrich's—could claim they are as damaging to public life as financial corruption, whether for personal or party gain.
Whatever other successes Tony Blair would like to claim, his Labor Party has gone broke over the 10 years of his prime ministership, and he has resorted to drastic means to raise money, notably through his friend, tennis partner, and fund-raiser Lord Levy, who is in the eye of the current storm over the alleged sale of peerages and other honors. Since I wrote about this here last year, Levy has been arrested, though not yet charged, and in December Blair himself made another contribution to the history of our damp little island when he became the first prime minister ever to be questioned by the police at Downing Street. Blair is now alarmed that Levy won't carry the can and go quietly like Scooter Libby (if I have read that right from afar), but that he might, to the contrary, spill the beans.
Now a different anxiety has been expressed: that Levy is the victim of the oldest prejudice of all. "The Jewish community is becoming increasingly more sensitive," says Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, Levy's friend and rabbi, "that there's the one Jew seemingly being hung out to dry here." This echoes what Jonathan Freedland wrote last summer in the Guardian: The "Jewish community have long detected old-fashioned prejudice" in phrases such as "flamboyant north London businessman" regularly used about Levy.
And Rabbi Schochet's comments were echoed in turn by David Rowan, editor of the Jewish Chronicle, who is worried that Levy may be "scapegoated as the traditional outsider-turned-court-Jew whose casting out might finally purge the corrupt body politic." Rowan deplored "the unashamedly anti-Semitic and conspiratorial rhetoric surrounding him." Since anti-Semitism exists, this is not inherently absurd, still less an "insane" accusation, as Stephen Glover of the Daily Mail has called it. But that doesn't make it true either, and the more seriously anti-Semitism is taken, the more cautiously the charge should be used.
As it happens, the Marconi affair gave a good illustration of the real thing. Attempting a succinct account of it is a little like the Monty Python "Summarize Proust" contest, but three ministers in the Liberal government—Rufus Isaacs, the attorney general; David Lloyd George, the chancellor of the exchequer; and Alexander Murray, aka the Master of Elibank, the Liberal chief whip—had bought stock in the American Marconi company. Marconi's British division had just been granted a franchise by the London government, and its shares shot up when the sinking of the Titanic then revealed the new importance of wireless telegraphy, or radio.
When the news of their investment transpired, the three gave, to put it mildly, a disingenuous account of their activities. They were cleared by an inquiry after Elibank had left the government and made himself scarce in South America, sending a message that he couldn't attend the inquiry because of pressing business in Bogotá; Liberal meetings were thereafter disrupted by catcalls of "Bogotá" from Tory hecklers.
Still, that mild derision was nothing compared with the vituperation directed at the attorney general. But then, Isaacs was a Jew. None of the three could be said to come out of it well, but whatever Lloyd George and Murray had done, no one said that their behavior showed what the Welsh were like, or the Scots. Isaacs was venomously denounced as embodying the odious character of "the Jews."
In 1918, even the philo-Semitic Winston Churchill warned Lloyd George, by now prime minister, "There is a point about Jews which occurs to me—you must not have too many of them. Three Jews among only seven Liberal Cabinet ministers might I fear give rise to comment." (One of the three concerned was Isaacs, who in the interim had become Lord Reading, Lord Chief Justice and ambassador to Washington, suggesting that there was another side to English bigotry.)
Margaret Thatcher was just as philo-Semitic, and there were five Jewish ministers in her Cabinets in the 1980s (though not all at once, Churchill might have noted). But this did indeed "give rise to comment." At the beginning of 1986, the Westland affair erupted when the ownership of a helicopter company occasioned a turf war inside the Thatcher government out of all proportion to its real importance. This time, the fall guy was Leon Brittan, and at least one commentator claimed he had been fingered because he was a Jew. After all, the former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan had occasioned much merriment in clubland when he said that Tory Cabinets were once full of Old Etonians but now they were all old Estonians, while that lecherous, outrageous pol the late Alan Clark recorded the complaint at a dinner of Tory MPs that there were "too many Jewboys in the cabinet."
In my view, Levy has some reason to think he's being set up. No one who has followed Tony Blair's career can doubt that he would sacrifice anyone, however close to him, if he thought it would work. And yet what Schochet and Rowan say does seem far-fetched, since Blair himself is as philo-Semitic as Churchill and Thatcher. Like them, also, he is a poor judge of men. Michael Levy is not a villain, but he is a flamboyant North London businessman, who made his money from cheesy pop music, and he is a very recognizable type, a glad-handing, backslapping tummler, who shakes down his friends to give, give, give—to the Jewish Lads' Brigade or Israeli charities or that ultimate good cause, Tony Blair and his New Labor Party.
And like Churchill and Thatcher, once again, Blair is careless about money and where it comes from. So much that has happened on either side of the Atlantic, from the Clintons hiring out the Lincoln bedroom to Jacques Chirac's lurid adventures, shows that fund raising is the cancer of modern politics. Blair should have taken the greatest possible care to avoid any appearance—and there is now much more than an appearance—that he would trade honors and favors for cash.
When the latest twists in the story began to break, the current attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, tried to silence the BBC with an injunction, until a judge lifted it. We were then able to learn something of the content of one anxious memo, from Ruth Turner, a Downing Street aide, to Jonathan Powell, Blair's chief of staff, about her dealings with Lord Levy. It begins in the purest New Labor style with the exclamation, "Oh fuck." And that pretty much sums up what the British public feels about cash-for-honors, about the Downing Street junta, and about Blair's prime ministership as it reaches its unhappy end.