Neil and other scallywags from my old school

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The Independent Online
At The moment Mr Neil Hamilton is the most famous pupil of my old school, the Amman Valley Grammar School, Ammanford. As he is some years younger than I, our paths did not cross. Nor was his family indigenous to that part. His father came from Monmouthshire to succeed the father of the present leader of the Lords, Lord Richard (himself educated in the private sector), as the Coal Board's chief engineer in that corner of what used to be Carmarthenshire. The former MP for Carmarthen, Dr Roger Thomas, was an old pupil likewise. He was a good member and a nice man but had to resign before 1987 on account of an embarrassing episode in a public lavatory just outside Swansea.

Our most notable old pupil of all was, I suppose, Hugh Lloyd-Davies, who won the 1947 university match for Cambridge by kicking two penalty goals, joined Barrow as the first Oxford or Cambridge blue to turn professional, promptly decamped for Paris with the then substantial signing-on fee of pounds 1,000 - so bringing about a change in rugby league financial rules - and went to prison after removing an overcoat from the library of Gray's Inn, where he had briefly been a student. He ended his days passing himself off as a retired colonel and working as a gardener for the Islington Council.

We might almost have been Old Harrovians. This louche impression would, however, be misleading, derived from a few aberrant examples. For most of us became teachers of one sort or another or, if we happened to be girls, teachers or nurses.

No doubt Mr Hamilton is equally untypical on the Westminster stage, together with Mr Tim Smith, Sir Michael Grylls (from my reading of Sir Gordon Downey's report, the most consistently culpable of the delinquents), Sir Andrew Bowden, Mr Michael Brown and Sir Peter Hordern, who has in my opinion got off lightly and should give thanks to whatever deity may be watching over his affairs.

None of these is any longer a member of Parliament. In theory, perhaps, the present House of Commons could try to punish all or some of them for contempt of Parliament. But this would be an oppressive use of a power which is already unjustified and anachronistic and which should in any case be abolished by Mr Tony Blair's administration.

The House certainly has no power to disqualify them from membership. If, say, Mr Hamilton and not Mr Martin Bell had been returned by the good electors of Tatton, and if the House were now to expel him on a motion moved by Mrs Ann Taylor and supported, as it would be, by the opposition front bench (even if Mr William Hague's trumpet has so far given forth a somewhat uncertain sound), the voters of Tatton or, for that matter, of any other constituency could promptly re-elect him. This is what the voters of Middlesex did with John Wilkes, after he had been thrown out for making a nuisance of himself to the government of the day, and what the voters of Bristol did with Mr Tony Benn, after he had been pronounced disqualified to take his seat because he had inherited his father's peerage. By the same argument, there is no power to disqualify Mr Hamilton or anyone else in advance.

What about the knighthoods? I am almost always against stripping people of baubles. It looks both vindictive and faintly ridiculous - like Alfred Dreyfus having his sword broken and his epaulettes torn off before being dispatched to Devil's Island. No such fate for Sir Michael, Sir Andrew or Sir Peter! I was certainly opposed to depriving Anthony Blunt of his knighthood. The old boy had done a lot of good in his time in art history and art teaching. And the Queen and everyone else set in authority over us had known perfectly well about his various goings-on. "I am told that that distinguished man who comes in to dust the pictures is a notorious homosexual." "Allow me to calm your fears, Ma'am. He is merely a Russian spy."

There has been a tendency to connect the corruption exposed by Sir Gordon with the era of Lady Thatcher, she the cause and Mr Ian Greer, so to speak, the effect. There is a good deal in this. Though personally a moral, even a moralistic individual, she presided over a period in our national life when corners were cut, rules disregarded, profits placed above conscience. We are still suffering from the consequences, which disposed of the last Tory government. As a nation we may never recover.

But there have been other corrupt periods too. Hilaire Belloc satirised Edwardian politics. Stanley Baldwin saw it as one of his historic functions to clean out the stables left by David Lloyd George. There was an undertone of corruption even in the era of C R Attlee who, though himself a model of rectitude, oversaw a period of wrongdoing on the part of government officials and Labour MPs brought about by rationing (which lasted till 1954, when Winston Churchill had returned to office) and also by the power of the unions.

The atmosphere of the time is well caught by the early novels of Maurice Edelman and John Mortimer. Most exactly of all was it caught by the tribunal which was set up to investigate the corrupt issue of licences by the Board of Trade. The presiding judge was Mr Justice Lynskey. The villain was Sidney Stanley, who was what was then called a "contact man", the Ian Greer of his day. The proceedings were sometimes imperfectly understood by the public. One Cockney woman was heard saying to another on the top deck of a bus: "That Lynskey, he's guilty all right if you ask me."

Almost 30 years ago, in a column in the Sunday Mirror, I questioned the connection between Reginald Maudling, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, and one Jerome Hoffman, who ran a fraudulent enterprise called the Real Estate Fund of America. Maudling promptly issued a writ. I apologised on the insistence of the Mirror board, the legal manager having said firmly that, without wishing to be offensive in any way, if a London jury had to choose between Maudling and me, they would unfailingly prefer the Conservative politician. Times were different then. In any case I did not repine, for the wretched Reggie was soon to disgrace himself comprehensively over his relationship with the corrupt architect John Poulson. The other rascals were Alfred Roberts, a Labour MP, and John Cordle, a Conservative. Pusillanimous though the Commons proved, it was really the beginning not only of the modern era of political corruption but also of the attempt to control that corruption by parliamentary means - by what is known as "self-regulation".

In fact Sir Gordon's position is anomalous. He has made his report, it has been published and it has been commented on - how it has been commented on! - but it still has to be approved by the Committee on Standards and Privileges, which consists of Mr Robert Sheldon, the chairman, and 10 others. "At one point," Sir Gordon observes, "I learnt that potential witnesses were being advised that to provide ... material to the inquiry might involve a contempt of court and, to deny it, a contempt of Parliament." Exactly so. Sir Gordon has done a good job. But what he has shown is that MPs should be accountable, not to him and a committee of their own, but to the ordinary law of the land, just as the rest of us are.

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