Thursday, 21 December 2006

POOP-POOPING FOR THE PARTY

I rather doubt whether Tony’s Cronies know much history, or care about it, but a salutary piece of holiday reading for Blair’s ubiquitous bagman. Lord Levy, would be Maundy Gregory, Purveyor of Honours by Tom Cullen [1974]. This is the riveting story of a super-con man who for several years in the 1920s sat spider-like in a plush office in Whitehall dishing out honours on behalf of first, the Lloyd George coalition and later, both the Lloyd George Liberals and the Conservatives in return for copious cash to fill the party coffers and his own pockets.

Cullen’s description of Gregory bears a remarkable resemblance to our Dear Leader himself: “The thing about [him] was not so much that he lied but that he bent the truth. He regarded truth as something infrangible that could be twisted and contorted out of all recognition.” Like so many rogues, Gregory was the son of a solemn Victorian clergyman. Early fascination with the theatre led him to become in his twenties an impresario on a shoestring. Induction into the barefaced necessities of successful self-promotion came through an old school fellow – none other than that notorious Rector of Stiffkey whose chequered career ended by his being mauled by a lion in a circus cage. This personage calmly rang up a West End theatre asking for a box at that evening’s performance to be placed at the disposal of Mr. Maundy Gregory, “the well-known theatrical producer, who would be entertaining the Duchess of Somerset.” “But I don’t even know the Duchess of Somerset”, Gregory protested. “Why should I entertain a Duchess I don’t even know in a box I can’t pay for?” “You will, my boy, you will” assured the suave Rector. “If you want to attract investors it’s important to be seen in such company”.

And Maundy Gregory thereafter made it his business to be seen in such company. At the zenith of his shady career, his bosom pals included the ex-Lord Chancellor Lord Birkenhead [F. E. Smith] and the exiled King George II of the Hellenes, both of whom he entertained frequently at the Ambassador Club, which he owned. Such folk may or may not have believed he was entirely above board, but they enjoyed his lavish hospitality and showered him with gifts and decorations, including the Order of the White Rose of Finland because of his staunch support for Marshal Mannerheim’s Schutzkorps: he was extremely right-wing politically, fanatically anti-Bolshevist [believing the USSR was a worldwide Jewish conspiracy] and involved himself in various White Russian conspiracies – some funded by the Nazis [although Gregory always steered clear of home-grown ones like Mosley’s blackshirts]. He also became a Roman Catholic convert and did a brisk business in selling Papal honours.

Gregory claimed that during the 1914-18 war he was engaged in counter-espionage work ‘employing some 1,000 agents’. He certainly had quite a lot in common with the founder and head of MI5, Captain Vernon Kell, who was a fearful snob and staffed his unit largely with public school boys, sons of admirals, and ‘well-bred’ secretaries whose immaculately stockinged legs were a far stronger feature than their erratic typing. Under Kell’s auspices, Gregory assembled an unofficial detective agency which soon spread its tentacles far and wide, gathering some useful information but far more inconsequential tittle-tattle.

After the 1918 ‘coupon election’, which returned Lloyd George to office in the thrall of a large Tory majority, the Welsh Wizard realised that if he was to regain power he needed to create a substantial war chest for his wing of the Liberal party. His Chief Whip, Freddie Guest [a cousin of Winston Churchill], was assigned the task of raising £4 millions through the time-honoured method of selling honours. At that time there was no law against such goings-on. Guest settled on Maundy Gregory as the ideal instrument, and set him up as secret ‘honours czar’ to act as go-between for the party in approaching potential donors. He would, of course, be completely disowned if the set-up became public. For cover, he established an official-seeming monthly paper, The Whitehall Gazette, which was freely distributed around top London clubs, foreign embassies, and other influential gathering-places. It was – in tune with Gregory’s own predilections – an organ of extreme right-wing opinion, waging ‘a consistent and insidious campaign on behalf of monarchy and against the growth of Bolshevism and Communism and their ramifications’ [i.e. the Labour party and the trade unions].

The shadowy relationship between Guest and Gregory has been described as that of a gamekeeper with his beaters who flush the quarry out into the open. For a while all went well; then the inevitable storm broke. Having assisted Lloyd George to sell so many knighthoods to his Welsh compatriots that Cardiff came to be known as ‘the city of dreadful knights’, Gregory rashly obtained a peerage for one of the most unsavoury of the South African ‘Randlords’ – a hard-bitten multi-millionaire named Sir Joseph Robinson, who had been convicted of fraud and fined £500,000 by the South African Supreme Court. After Robinson had knocked Gregory’s price down from £50,000 to £30,000, his ennoblement was gazetted in the 1922 Birthday Honours List. King George V was so infuriated that he wrote personally to Lloyd George calling it “little less than an insult to the Crown”. When Robinson, now in his eighties and stone-deaf, was requested to write a letter to the Prime Minister declining the peerage, he at first thought he was being asked for more money, and pulled out his cheque book. It is said that when the furore had died down, the Chief Whip asked Gregory what had become of the £30,000 and received the jaunty reply ‘Oh, I’ve spent it’.

This scandal, and similar ones, played a significant part in Lloyd George’s fall from office. But Maundy Gregory’s activities did not cease, and he quite happily continued providing his services to the new Conservative government. They, however, having seen the writing on the wall, passed the 1925 Honours [Prevention of Abuses] Act making the sale or purchase of honours a criminal offence. In 1933 Stanley Baldwin decided that Gregory knew too much to be left at large unhampered, and he was prosecuted under the 1925 Act. After much behind-the-scenes pressure and changes of mind, he finally decided to plead guilty and accept summary jurisdiction. He was sentenced to two months in prison, a fine of £50, and 50 guineas costs.

After his release Gregory was quietly pensioned off on condition that he lived abroad. He died in France during the German occupation in the 1939-45 war. There is much more interesting material about this unsavoury man in Cullen’s book, but if I recount it all Lord Levy may not bother to read it, which would be rather a pity, don’t you think?

4 comments:

Merkin said...

Jeez-oh.
Are you racing against time or partaking of some rent-boy's speed?.
You are full of 'The Story'
Don't care, we love it.
More and more.
No point in asking for informed comment from me.
Informed comment to follow.
(Maybe not well informed, but I will try my best).

anticant said...

Certainly the former. Maybe both. Perhaps it's the frustrated journalist in me coming out. I can meet deadlines as long as they are MY deadlines. Chris and Toby, please note!

As for the history bit, I've always taken the view that if you don't know where you have come from you probably don't have much of a clue as to where you are most likely going. [Memo to Dubya and Bliar.]

anticant said...

BTW, one of the raciest anecdotal histories of the 1920s and '30s, gleaned from contemporary newspaper reports, is "The Long Weekend" by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge. Superb stuff.

Suzon said...

As the guy on Rowan & Martin's Laugh In used to say, "Verrrrrry interesting"--but not schtupid.

More please.