Home  -  Back Issues  -  The Team  -  Contact Us
     Volume 5 Issue 93 | May 5, 2006 |

   Cover Story
   Special Feature
   Straight Talk
   South Asia
   Food for Thought
   Slice of Life
   Dhaka Diary
   Book Review
   New Flicks

   SWM Home


Past Imperfect                           

Farah Ghuznavi

History has a frightening habit of repeating itself. Apart from anything else, that really says something about human nature: how we fail, with monotonous regularity, to learn from past mistakes. Nowhere is this more evident than in the world of foreign policy, where there seems to be a "statute of limitations" i.e. after a certain period of time, mistakes may be repeated with impunity!

Analysts have drawn comparisons between America's role in Vietnam and its current occupation of Iraq. The superficial similarities are obvious. Both interventions have had disastrous consequences for the "recipient" country, as well as damaging the international standing of the US.

But more subtle, and infinitely more disturbing, is the sense of déjà vu one experiences watching the excellent documentary "Fog of War", which provides an analysis of that earlier conflict. Comparisons are perhaps inevitable, but what does shine clearly through in both situations is the arrogance of a powerful government which is convinced not only of its rightness, but also its rights which include the absolute prerogative to intervene in other countries, to define the destinies of other peoples, and to pursue naked self-interest. All cynically sugarcoated in the righteous propaganda of freedom, democracy and liberty!

It is of course not only the US that is guilty of failing to learn from past mistakes. The electorate in the UK is also currently experiencing a most unpleasant sense of déjà vu.

The last Conservative government came to an ignominious end, after a spectacular series of sexual and financial scandals. That too, in the midst of rhetoric about "family values"!

The Conservatives' failure to govern with a modicum of dignity contributed in no small measure to the landslide victory that ushered in New Labour. An electorate weary of the hypocrisy of the ruling party welcomed Tony Blair's promise to ensure "high standards" in political life (UK Independent).

A decade later, a bitter sense of disappointment has settled in. The recent "cash for peerages" affair has only served to heighten the disillusionment experienced by those who had expected New Labour to be different from the dubious conduct that had characterised their predecessors.

But as the chairman of the committee on Standards in Public Life has already stated, "This government clearly is in danger of attracting the sleaze label that was... pinned on the previous government". His comments echo the public mood as a recent report revealing that Mr Blair is regarded as "sleazy" by more than half of voters (UK Independent).

At the heart of the "cash for peerages" affair is the revelation that the Labour Party received a total of 14 million pounds in secret loans from 12 millionaires before the last general election. A key issue is the secrecy involved, as some of these donors appear to have been expressly told to provide their donations as loans by the chief fundraiser for the Labour Party. It is believed that this was done in order to avoid the Party having to declare their names. Indeed, Sir Gulam Noon, one of the 12 donors, described himself as being "absolutely devastated" to be caught up in the scandal, since he had simply "done exactly what they asked me to do...I would have given them money but they wanted to do the loan ".

To make matters worse, four of these millionaires were nominated by Tony Blair to receive peerages, raising the inevitable suspicion of a link between the funds provided and the nominations for honours. Indeed, in the case of Sir Gulam Noon, his nomination was initially cleared by the House of Lords Appointments Commission but subsequently rejected after it was discovered that he had lent 250,000 pounds to the Labour Party. The problem arose primarily because the loan had not been declared beforehand.

The reason that the Labour Party needed to raise the money in the first place, was in order to avoid being outspent by the Conservatives in campaigning for the elections. Loopholes in the system allowed for the loans to quietly be transformed into donations at a later date, and details of the loans were not only kept secret from the public, but from senior members within the party! (UK Independent)

Even stalwarts within the government admitted to discomfort over the revelations. The Deputy Prime Minister, admitted that he "certainly wasn't happy" when he learned about the secret loans from media reports.

The Leader of the Commons also accepted that there was a public perception linking the loans to the peerages.

Within the Labour Party, there was vociferous criticism of the way the issue had been handled. As one trade union representative on the national executive stated "The question I want to ask is: who knew about the laws and the peerages? If there is even the slightest hint of someone offering peerages for financial support, we should discipline them for bringing the party into disrepute - and that has to include the Prime Minister".

Others went further. The Liberal Democrat leader said that there appeared to be a "link" between individuals giving to political parties and subsequent preferment. He made it clear that his party had not nominated anyone for a peerage who had loaned it large sums. Furthermore, they had also declared the three loans received in the period before the general election. The Conservative Party, on the other hand, was clearly uncomfortable about the estimated 18 million pounds worth of loans it had received before the last elections...

One of the most peculiar aspects of the entire episode was the fact that a number of the 12 donors had not previously been supporters of the Labour Party. In contrast to those like Sir Gulam Noon, who is a long-term Labour supporter, the list of millionaire donors included others such as Sir David Garrard, who had previously supported the Conservative party!

Hours after the Labour Party's national executive decided to close ranks over the affair, the Metropolitan police announced that it was looking into three complaints about alleged breaches of a 1925 law (passed following the sale of peerages by David Lloyd George when he was Prime Minister).

Angus McNeil, an MP from the Scottish National Party, was one of those who made a formal complaint. In his view, "With 80p in every 1 pound received by Labour from individual donors coming from people who have received an honour and every Labour donor of over 1,000,000 pounds in receipt of a peerage or a knighthood, there are big questions to answer" (UK Independent)

While the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, is now proposing a change in the law that would make it illegal for political loans to remain secret, he admitted, "I don't think we would be doing it if it had not become public" (UK independent).

The sad truth illustrated by the whole affair is that corruption is an almost universal failing. It can only be kept under control by constant public vigilance and strong institutions. Without these safeguards, no one is immune. And unless that lesson is learned properly, history will undoubtedly keep repeating itself…!

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2006