Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Oh Lord! Reputation, Reputation, Reputation! The cost of Taylored legislation.

TWO members of the House of Lords have been suspended by their peers as a result of being exposed as willing to get parliamentary bills amended in return for payments. Lord Truscott and Lord Taylor of Blackburn are the first to be removed from the house since 1642

Lord Truscott, a former energy minister, and Lord Taylor of Blackburn,author of reports on education, and a consultant to British Aerospace, were exposed by undercover reporters from the Sunday Times back in January. Posing as lobbyists, they recorded Lord Taylor saying that he was ready, willing and able to manipulate the parliamentary system, and had done so, to help big business procure amendments to the law that would suit its interests.

The paper accused four Labour peers of "sleaze". they persisted in saying they had done nothing wrong. Two have now been reprimanded, and Taylor and Truscott suspended. Truscott resigned from the Labour Party a week ago, Taylor's membership has been suspended. The Lord's committee on privileges which made the recommendation that the two should be removed had not intially thought the House could do this, or needed to. But it changed its mind.

In a debate on the recommendation the leader of the Lords, Lady Royall, said innocent peers were being "shouted at in the street" because of the damage done to the reputation to the upper house by the affair. Members had been left feeling "sullied". Royall said: "We are at a dark moment for democracy. The trust that people place in parliament and parliamentarians has sunk like a stone. People's disgust at parliament is palpable."

Royall said she thought suspending the two peers was "appropriate, fair and just". She said she was "proud" to belong to the Lords, but that the "cash-for-amendments" affair had damaged the reputation of all members.
Quoting Cassio's speech from Othello – "Reputation, reputation, reputation! Oh, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial" – she went on: "I'm saddened when the reputation of this house is sullied. I know members on all sides of this house have felt stained and ashamed of the disrepute to which this house has been brought."

The true price of this affair may soon be felt far more widely than the disgraced peers. Baron Taylor of Blackburn is a director of Drax Power, and an advisor to several companies, one of which, Experian credit, agreed on Janury 29 that he should retire. But particular attention is focussing on his consultancy for British Aerospace, which as an arms producer has been looked after both by Tories and Labour. And on Blackburn MP Jack Straw, whom papers describe as a friend of Lord Taylor.

Seeing Taylor's name in the news takes me back about 40 years, to when as a "mature" student at Lancaster University and leading light of the Socialist Society I came across some correspondence from another Lord, not a backstreets boy from Blackburn, but a backwoods Tory, the 19th Earl of Derby, who as pro-chancellor of the University had written to vice chancellor Charles F.Carter expressing his concern about troubles on t'campus. Things might not have seemed serious at Lancaster, but he had given a lift the other night to Ted Heath who had told him "the anarchists have taken over Balliol".

Being naturally interested in what our betters had to say, we published a special issue of "Spark", our Socialist Society magazine (named pretentiously after a certain Russian publication), with Lord Derby's correspondence., with the headline "I was Ted Heath's Chauffeur" or something like that. Unfortunately I have not kept a copy. But in the row which broke out, with complaints of breached confidence, threats of discipline, and accusations of aristocratic influence, students stormed the university council meeting and occupied the senate chamber. The 19th earl had a heart attack, I believe. Since the university council was supposed to link the university with the outside world, students asked how representative it was. "Why are there no women on it?" asked one, while others like myself wanted to know if it had any trades unionists. At this, a member of the council said "Yes, I'm a trade unionist". It was a Labour councillor from Blackburn, by the name of Tom Taylor.

One swallow does not make a Spring, and one union man in its upper body did not prevent Lancaster University digging in its heels the following year against union recognition for its low-paid women cleaners. That led to a strike, and another student occupation, and though the university eventually conceded recognition, it also moved against a whole group of lecturers in the English department, with no obvious connection except they were seen ss left-wing and the most senior of them, Professor David Craig, had written a song for the women cleaners. The prolonged struggle which erupted over this is another story, except that it broke a truce the National Union of Students (NUS) had quietly made with the Tory government, and eventually brought an NUS officer up to lead a demonstration, a young fellow called Jack Straw.

That year, 1972, Tom Taylor became deputy pro-chancellor at Lancaster. Then in 1977 he became both chairman of Norweb electricity and of a government committee on Education, going on to produce the Taylor Report on problems in universities.
Jack Straw was selected in 1977 to stand for Labour in Blackburn, where Barbara Castle was due to stand down.

Straw has been both Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary, and was tipped as a contender for Labour leadership and therefore prime minister. There are people who have been gunning for him from more than direction, including American warmongers who resented his visits to Iran as Foreign Secretary and his remark that their plans to bomb the country were "nuts". They spread the story that Straw was taking this stand because he had too many Muslims in his constituency. This may be one reason he was demoted from Foreign Secretary.

But for now, the attention will be on the relationship with Lord Taylor and British Aerospace. Former British diplomat Craig Murray who stood against Straw in his constituency has been blogging away at this.

Even when Labour was in opposition it helped the Tories avoid a report fom the National Audit Office which said the Thatcher-initiated al Yamama arms deal had cost too much. Then when Labour got in, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook's "ethical dimension" to foreign policy was soon ignored when it came to sending Hawk aircraft to Indonesia. More recently it was Straw as justice minister supposedly charged with stopping corruption who was able to stop investigations into British Aerospace, though it was Tony Blair who said upsetting the Saudis might be bad for national security.

Something else I remember from the early 1970s was the Bishop of Blackburn and the Chief Constable of Lancashire joining forces to launch the Festival of Light and moral crusades. I don't know whether they had much influence on business and politics. The Lancashire Evening Telegraph thinks Taylor may lose his status as a freeman of Blackburn. He is also a freeman of the City of London. What may be interesting now is to go back over some of the legislation which the House of Lords has amended, and some of their rulings, seeing what interests may have been involved. It need not have been just the four involved.

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