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Sep 27

Day 15: Goldington to St Neots

Now we approach the outskirts of Cambridge, facing flat, straight walks where I imagine Roman soldiers tramped their extra mile all those centuries ago. Moses (our dog) stirred up a fox and then an otter by the River Ouse and we are fortunate that Moses didn’t see it. We lunched in a garden centre – no pretension there – and we were served by the washer woman from Wind in the Willows: stout, red faced with a white apron and a relentlessly cheerful manner. We chose egg, beans and chips served on a large white plate – no fancy slates there! All washed down with a mug of workman’s tea and at a fraction of the price in the naff pubs.

I am bothered that the Conservative government is all that stands between us and Corbyn’s chaos! Let’s hope that Theresa isn’t gripped by hubris as a heavy responsibility rests on her and her team to rule in a balanced, middle ground way. She looks like my old Latin teacher: severe, perhaps a tad humourless, yet thoroughly decent. When she was around I always felt like an inky fingered schoolboy caught having a fag in the loo, but I knew that deep down she was tough, yet scrupulously fair. Let’s hope she hasn’t changed. Has there ever been a time before when we had a greater need for our political leaders to have competence and high integrity?

 

The Thin Blue Line

Of course we should all support the police, for they are the body that keeps us one blue line away from anarchy. I always wince when I hear yobs screaming “pigs” at them, they really can have no idea how tough being a good policeman must be.

But my admiration for them is not unqualified when they get things wrong. They seem on occasion to lack wisdom.

 

Honours for Sale!

Ten years ago, the Blair government was mired in allegations of “cash for honours”. It says a lot about the speed of events today that most people have to scratch their heads to recall what this fuss was all about.

Put simply there were serious allegations that the Blair government, under the guidance of its henchman, Lord Levy, was offering knighthoods, gongs and peerages for cash – just like the bad old days when prime minister David Lloyd George wanted to hoover up some cash following the First World War.

Lloyd George commissioned shady businessman Maundy Gregory to do the spade work. He hove to with enthusiasm and was duly offering knighthoods for £1.24m each and baronetcies for around £2m a time in today’s money. The scheme was a roaring success and the cash raised – about £40m – went to fund the Tory and Liberal parties (alongside a good deal of commission for Gregory).

In 1927, Gregory’s scam was rumbled and he was jailed for two months under the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925, which is still in force. No one really knows how Lloyd George escaped censure but wily old sod that he was, of course he managed to do so.

 

Yates of the Yard

Fast forward to 2006. There were allegations that the Blair government was offering honours for cash and allegedly oiling the wheels by using “loans” instead of cash donations: loans did not have to be reported, while yes, you guessed it, cash donations did.

Assistant Commissioner John Yates was instructed to investigate criminality: had a crime been committed or not? In the process, Blair’s one-time friend Lord Levy was arrested and questioned. The headlines were lurid, the great and the good ran for cover, and everyone waited to see if the government might fall. It was as tense as that.

I could have told Yates how the system works or that he was totally wasting his time. In Gregory’s day, there was a firm link between the payment of cash and the award of an honour. The Blair government (and all governments and political parties since) are far more sophisticated and have learned a lot over the years.

What happens today is that the seriously rich are told by the politicians, “Just give us your money, and wait and see”. So, Mr Big Wallet writes a cheque for a couple of million, and – lo and behold – a year or so later, a recommendation is likely to be made and John Bloggins becomes Lord Bloggins. Of course, if the Lords Appointments Commission rejects the recommendation then Bloggins has no comeback. He has blown his cash for there are no cast-iron guarantees.

So the police had the thankless task of investigating a system that was more or less fool- proof. All the political parties are involved in this soft-core corruption, and no one has any incentive to blow the whistle. The great Denis Healey once scornfully said, “Well I suppose it’s a bit better than shuffling brown envelopes.”

The police were obliged to spend months in the full glare of unfavourable publicity and parliamentary hostility, and poor old Yates of the Yard was never heard of again.

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