George Robertson, the newly appointed secretary general of NATO, has received an appointment to Britain's House of Lords. Depending on your political persuasion, this is either a well-earned tribute for Robertson's stalwart leadership during the war in Kosovo, or a cynical electoral ploy.
When Prime Minister Tony Blair this week named his longtime Labor Party ally to a seat in the Lords--where the son of a village policeman will become Lord Robertson of Port Ellen--Blair said his intention was to recognize Robertson's effort during the war. As defense minister, Robertson held daily public briefings and traveled to virtually every NATO capital to build and maintain support for the allied air campaign against Yugoslavia.
Robertson is an elected member of the House of Commons. He will give up that seat and his cabinet post in October when he moves to Brussels to take over at NATO. His new place in the House of Lords--a nonelected body with much less power than the Commons--is strictly honorary, from Robertson's point of view. He says he has no plans to sit or vote in the Lords as long as he is overseeing NATO.
But Blair's political adversaries--from the Conservative and Scottish National parties--are crying foul. They have no particular gripe with Robertson, or his management of the war. Rather, they claim the appointment to the Lords is a political gambit designed to ensure that Labor holds onto Robertson's seat in the Commons.
When a member of the Commons moves to the Lords, a special election must be held within weeks to fill the Commons vacancy. The new election in Robertson's rural Scottish district will be held on Sept. 23. If Robertson had not been made a Lord, the election to fill his Commons seat would have been delayed until November.
The Scottish Nationalists (SNP) had been gearing up for an extensive campaign in the Robertson district, planning for a three-month effort to undermine the Labor vote--and, potentially, snatch away Robertson's seat in November. But with the voting now moved up to September, the SNP has a mere 3 1/2 weeks to campaign. As a further distraction, the special election will take place while the party is in the middle of its annual convention.
The Labor candidate--that is, Robertson--has won the district by big margins in the last four elections. It would be a painful political embarrassment for Blair and Labor if the SNP were to win a special election there--or even come close.
So the quick September election seems clearly to be an advantage for Labor.
That political fact of life prompted the chairman of the largest opposition party, the Conservatives, to criticize Blair for "breathtaking political manipulation." Michael Ancram added that the scheduling gambit "exposes Tony Blair as a cynical opportunist."
The Tories also argue that Blair and Robertson, who have always criticized the House of Lords as an elitist anachronism, are hypocrites for using a Lords appointment now to gain a political advantage.
Robertson, 53, doesn't exactly fit the image of old-money aristocrats who still dominate Parliament's upper chamber. The newest peer of the realm grew up in an apartment over a police station and went to a three-room public school. Before he got into politics, he was a union organizer in the Scotch whisky industry, working at the Laphraoig, Lagavullan and Ardbeg distilleries on his native Isle of Islay.
In Robertson's days as a "malt man," there was yet another famous Scotch made on Islay, bearing the name Port Ellen. That beloved malt is gone now, but the name, at least, will live as long as the new lord chooses to remain Lord Robertson of Port Ellen.