John Lidstone: If only Blair had reformed the honours system...

In that brave confident morning of election victory, it was all going to be different
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The Independent Online

Regardless of the outcome of the investigation by Scotland Yard into the "Cash for Honours" scandal, the Prime Minister has ensured that the New Year's and the Queen's Birthday Honours Lists will remain as tainted as they ever were.

The reactions of two people honoured in the 2006 New Year's Honours List says it all: "Although I believe that I had merited my CBE for medicine, I felt grubby when I read of how others had bought their baubles"; and, a life peeress commented: "As I look around the House of Lords and how so many got there, I feel dirty."

On the morrow of his election victory in May 1997, I wrote to the new Prime Minister, and asked - regarding the honours system that he had just inherited from John Major's sleaze-ridden government - whether "there is any hope that the new broom you have brought with you into 10 Downing Street will sweep away the present debased system of honours? Or are there too many socialists in the queue who have been waiting for a now worthless gong or other base pieces of metal?"

In that brave new confident morning of election victory, it was all going to be different under "New Labour". Tony Blair's government was going to be "purer than pure". A new age had dawned. Addressing the newly elected Labour MPs in 1997, Blair said: "Remember, you are not here to enjoy the trappings of power, but to do a job and to uphold the highest standards in public life."

Many must have believed his honeyed promises for him to have pulled off such an election landslide. But how quickly the rot set in. Remember his response to the Bernie Ecclestone scandal when £1m was donated to Labour? A proposed ban on tobacco advertising was dropped, the £1m donation was paid back, yet Blair still had the gall to declare himself "a straight sort of guy".

More than nine years on, purer than pure has a hollow ring; it has been replaced by sleaze which oozes from every facet of this New Labour government. By 1999, Blair had created more life peers than any other prime minister in history. During her 11 years in office, Margaret Thatcher created 201 peerages. In two years Blair alone had already created 170! Now we know that many of those he ennobled had donated or secretly loaned hundreds and hundreds of thousands of pounds to Labour and to the "blind trust" financing his office.

In 1998, Blair told us that he and his senior ministers wanted "to introduce tighter checks before senior honours were granted. There is nothing wrong with a political donation, but the crux is, did it buy an award?" How duplicitous those words sound now.

In July 2004, The House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee offered Blair an escape route from his peerages for sale, secret loans and the other honours scandals that now beset him on all sides. The Select Committee's report, A Matter of Honour: Reforming the Honours System, contained a number of far-reaching recommendations that would have appealed to the majority of Labour MPs and to members of the general public, a number of whom had corresponded with me at the time, all expressing their agreement with what was proposed.

The first of these was that the incumbent prime minister should no longer be able to influence the 1,000 recommendations for honours in the bi-annual honours lists. Secondly, that all titles, knighthoods and damehoods should be phased out. Titles are unhealthy and divide society. What distinguishes people is what they achieve in life. Thirdly, the politically charged, "Order of the British Empire", be discontinued and in its place, a new "Order of British Excellence" be instituted.

Along with the adoption of these three proposals, every honour should be accompanied by a full description for the award so that we can all read and understand why a man or woman was so honoured and deserves the distinction given. The recently published citations of awards for bravery given to men and women serving in our armed forces in Afghanistan and Iraq underlines how proud and humbled we all were when we read of their acts of courage in the face of the enemy.

But Blair did not take advantage of this timely life-line. Instead, with an eye to the 2005 general election, he sold his birthright and his ertswhile reputation for a political mess of potage. When he leaves 10 Downing Street, his legacy will probably be "all talk and promises but little integrity".

The writer gave testimony to the House of Commons Select Committee on the Reform of the Honours System