Leading article: Looking tough is not enough

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The Independent Online

First, two pleas should be entered in mitigation on the Prime Minister's behalf. The Government has tightened the rules on political donations and required their disclosure. It seems extraordinary, looking back, that before 1997 partial information on donations had to be pieced together from company accounts, while money from individuals, including from abroad, was simply secret. Second, it should be emphasised that the British political system is one of the cleanest in the world. Instances of politicians using power for personal gain are rare and trivial (such as David Blunkett's first-class train ticket for his son's mother). There has been only one provable case of the policy of the Labour government being changed at the urging of a party donor, namely the temporary exemption of Formula One from the ban on tobacco advertising (and Bernie Ecclestone's £1m donation was returned). Although it would have been difficult for Tessa Jowell to continue as a minister while sharing her life with a man facing bribery and perjury charges in Italy, no suggestion that she has misused her position has been sustained.

Nevertheless, Tony Blair still has an important case to answer. The sale of peerages and other honours may be no more than what occurred under previous governments. But the point of disclosure is to enable people to judge what had been hidden. And Mr Blair can hardly expect a nation's gratitude for legislating for openness if such disclosure reveals that his conduct is as unbecoming as we suspected the behaviour of politicians to be.

The new regime of disclosure also makes it harder to maintain the fiction, behind which governments have always hidden, that any correlation between party donations and honours is coincidental. In raw statistical terms, this is obvious nonsense, although it is difficult to control for common factors. Many party donors, for example, are also generous philanthropists in non-political fields. But our analysis on pages 20 and 21 today should dispel any doubts that peerages and knighthoods are for sale at Baubles 'R' Us, just up the road from the Commons.

Much has been made, in a fairly jocular way, of the parallels between Tony Blair and David Lloyd George, as if the sale of honours were a harmless historical tradition. Wrong. Time may have softened the image of Lloyd George, the lovable rogue, and it may be said that knighthoods are mere snobbish decorations. But the sale of peerages is a problem. A peerage confers the right to sit in Parliament and amend the laws of the land. The idea that it should be possible to purchase a seat in a legislative assembly was outlandish in the last century; in this it is simply intolerable. It is surprising that Mr Blair, elected as a moderniser, allowed this state of affairs to continue for nine years - indeed, he took it to a new level, with the advent of multimillion-pound Labour donors.

It may now be too late for Mr Blair to complete a thorough and corruption-proof reform of the House of Lords. And it could be argued - this is the third plea to be entered on the Prime Minister's behalf - that the new system of scrutiny is working. The row over the current batch of proposed peers, revealed by The Independent on Sunday in November, suggests that stringent standards are being enforced to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. But this is not enough. If Mr Blair will not do it, Gordon Brown and David Cameron should say that, pending full democratic reform of the Upper House, no one who has given money to a political party should be eligible for a life peerage.

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