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1 November 2005Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

This is no way to bring down Bush and Blunkett
The scandal-mongering that passes for politics on both sides of the Atlantic means no one is ever truly held to account.

by Brendan O'Neill

So on both sides of the Atlantic, scandal is once again the big issue.

In America, I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, chief of staff to vice-president Dick Cheney, has been indicted by a federal grand jury for giving inconsistent evidence about the leaking of a CIA agent's name - Valerie Plame - to the press. (Don't worry if you feel left out of the loop: as Mark Steyn said in the Spectator, it's a 'squabble among people you've probably never heard of'.) And in Britain, David Blunkett, former home secretary turned work and pensions secretary, is under pressure over revelations that he took up a post as director of a DNA testing company without first consulting the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments - even though he was only in the job for two weeks and resigned from it when Tony Blair put him back in the Cabinet in May. That might be described as a squabble over issues you probably don't care about.

As far as scandals go, these are hardly up there with the Profumo Affair, when in 1963 it was revealed that the British secretary of state for war, John Profumo, was knocking about with a high-class call girl, Christine Keeler, who was also sleeping with a Soviet official based in London - much less something like Watergate, in which President Richard Nixon was implicated in the theft of documents from the Democrats, for which he was eventually impeached and resigned for in 1974. The Plame and Blunkett scandals are even less interesting than the Clinton/Lewinsky affair in the Nineties, which at least had the merit of being mildly raunchy.

But today's scandals are more than history repeated as farce (or farce repeated as double-farce, to be more accurate): the elevation of the pallid Plame affair and Blunkett's behaviour to front-page prominence in America and Britain confirms the ascendancy of scandal-mongering in Western politics and how all sides now use rumour and revelation to circumvent public debate and knock down their opponents. The real scandal is not anything that Scooter Woshisname or David Blunkett did, but today's substitution of intrigue for democracy. Scandal has itself become a mode of politics.

So if these people haven't really done anything very outrageous, what's with the shock-horror headlines? Both of these affairs are really attempts by opposition parties to rattle the ruling party with scandal where they have failed to do so with politics. This is most clear in the American spats: if you can bring yourself to read the coverage you'll realise that the Plame debacle is kind of, in a roundabout way, about Iraq - and that, ironically, it has its origins in bickering among the US elite itself rather than in the efforts of the anti-war movement. There's this guy called Joseph Wilson, a former US ambassador, who in February 2002 was sent to Niger to investigate intelligence that Iraq had tried to buy compressed uranium there (intelligence that was cited by both Bush and Blair in the run-up to war). Wilson found no evidence, and after the war he penned a piece that said 'we went to war under false pretences' (1). Seemingly in revenge, 'two senior administration officials' leaked to journalists - including Judith Miller at the New York Times - the fact that Wilson's wife is Valerie Plame, a CIA agent with expertise in nuclear matters. And because it is a federal offence to disclose a CIA agent's name, there is an ongoing grand jury trial into who leaked it, why they did it, and….are you still awake?

Democrats and their army of supporters in the liberal media and Blogosphere have attached themselves to this internal wrangling in a last-ditch effort to punish the Bushies over the Iraq war. What a moral and political cop-out: having failed to stop the war before it started, or to make a convincing political argument against it that might have won the masses to their side, anti-war activists and Democrat politicians (many of whom supported the war) now hope to embarrass Bush officials over their wartime squabbles rather than hold them to account for invading a sovereign state and leaving it in a mess. Various anti-Bush websites cheer on Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor overseeing the investigation into the Plame leak, with headlines such as 'Happy Fitzmas!' (2). Democrats also hope Fitzgerald will do their dirty work for them; they seem to be relying on him to give Bush a bloody nose over Iraq because, in the words of one columnist, they are 'either unable or unwilling to present a clear agenda of how they would do things differently' (3). Scandal-mongering moves into the gap where political debate ought to be.

Similarly in the UK, the Tories are stoking the Blunkett 'scandal' as a way of having a pop at New Labour - a government they have failed miserably to oust from office over the past eight years. They may be in the midst of a leadership election, but serious and senior Tories seem to be devoting their energies to bringing down Blunkett over the fact that he had some job for a couple of weeks. Sir Malcolm Rifkind told the BBC that Blunkett 'has lost the plot', and he and other Tory dignitaries have written a letter to Blair demanding to know what action he plans to take (4). And they're calling for an independent inquiry. (The Blunkett affair also shows that, once you have been tarred with the scandal brush, there's no escaping it. Like Peter Mandelson before him, Blunkett has for the past year been chased from pillar to post over matters relating to his personal life.)

Parliamentary politics today resembles the courts of ancien regimes
The shift from clashes over political beliefs and actions to spats over individual discretions and bad behaviour has been gathering steam for the past 30 years. As Matthew A Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg argue in their very good book Downsizing Democracy: How America Sidelined its Citizens and Privatised Public Debate, since Watergate both Democrats and Republicans have relied on scandal-mongering to shift the balance of power in DC. They write: 'Today's tactics of political combat - revelation, investigation and prosecution - have moved to the centre stage once occupied by electoral mobilisation…. Both parties [have] developed and demonstrated the capacity to drive their opponents from office without mobilising or even consulting the electorate, which [seem] a mere vestigal organ of the American body politic.' As the authors point out, this makes the public into 'virtual citizens', who can 'watch political struggles in which we are not invited to participate' (5).

Indeed, neither the Republicans in America nor New Labour in Britain are in a good position to complain about the scandal-mongering currently being wielded against them: these two parties came to power through that very process. The Republicans made numerous charges against the Clinton administration in the Nineties, including over Whitewater real estate development in Arkansas, various sexual affairs, and most notably Clinton's fling with Lewinsky, over which he was impeached for lying under oath before the grand jury. Blair swept to power in 1997 on a ticket of attacking the Tories for being wily and corrupt, and promising that his government would be 'whiter than white' and he 'a pretty straight kind of guy'. Both parties made a rod for their own backs with their promises to be better behaved than their forebears. Indeed, it is only as a result of New Labour's own broadened definition of scandal that something like Blunkett's job could be judged as earth-quaking, parliament-shaking headline news. The more the politics of sleaze takes hold, the more everything and anything can be defined as 'sleazy'.

The rise of scandal mirrors the decline of democracy and debate. It's not that politicians are greedier or more unfaithful to their spouses or more closely linked to business interests than they were in the past - rather, as politics has been emptied of vision and ideology, and become more and more remote from the concerns of the electorate, so accusations of scandal have become the currency of contemporary debate. Crenson and Ginsberg argue that 'there is little reason to believe that the actual incidence of official corruption or abuse of power has increased since the 1970s. Instead, the growing use of criminal sanctions against public officials has been closely linked to struggle for political power in the United States.' (6) Today's parliamentary politics, in short, more closely resembles the courts of the ancien regimes than mass democracy, with gossip, intrigue and backstabbing taking the place of open debate before a mass audience of voters.

No one benefits from this scandal-mongering. As everyone chases the head of some politician or official judged to have done something dodgy, real political issues do not get thrashed out or properly resolved. So Bush and his cronies are challenged over whispers and leaks about Iraq rather than over their invasion of Iraq (or Afghanistan, come to think of it). Blunkett is blasted for his personal behaviour rather than for all those scandalously illiberal things he did as home secretary - from bringing in ASBOs to denouncing anybody who defended free speech or civil liberties as a woolly 'Hampstead liberal'. That means that even if Blunkett and some Bush officials are brought down, they will not have been defeated politically. Thus their political legacies - foreign interventionism on the part of Bush, and clamping down on freedom in the name of security on the part of Blunkett - are likely to remain. As with the old court politics, the ruling orthodoxies stay in place and only the faces change.

And in the process, politics becomes more and more of a spectator sport - and the rest of us become increasingly cynical about these apparent liars, fornicators and incompetents who rule over us.

Read on:

The Blunkett debacle: bad news for democracy, by Mick Hume

(1) Indictment rocks Bush administration, BBC News, 28 October 2005

(2) See, for example: And a very merry Fitzmas to you, Democratic Underground, 9 October 2005

(3) Bush is in ethical meltdown but all the liberals can do is gloat, Gary Younge, Guardian, 31 October 2005

(4) I am not resigning says Blunkett, BBC News, 1 November 2005

(5) Downsizing Democracy: How America Sidelined Its Citizens and Privatised Its Public, Matthew A Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002

(6) Downsizing Democracy: How America Sidelined Its Citizens and Privatised Its Public, Matthew A Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002

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