Politics isn’t brutal enough
spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London), on the fallout from the David Kelly affair.
The personal tragedy of Dr David Kelly’s suicide has become a ‘dark actor’ in a more public tragedy: the slow death of British political life. Clare Short yesterday blamed Dr Kelly’s death on the Government’s ‘abuse of power’, but said that ‘some good’ might yet come of the fall-out if it changes the way we conduct politics. Others have claimed that Dr Kelly was ‘spun to death’, a victim of ‘our brutal, macho, brawling politics’.
The grim affair has certainly deepened public cynicism about politicians, and intensified the crisis of trust that David Blunkett talked about on this page yesterday . But far from ‘some good’ coming from these reactions, the sanctimonious demands for a cleaner, gentler politics are likely to make matters worse, and speed the demise of democratic debate. What is now condemned as ‘brutal and macho’ is more commonly called adversarial politics. And there is nothing wrong with that. Politics should be an open clash between competing visions of the good society, a total war of ideas. The problem today is that we have too little robust adversarial politics, not too much. The old programmes of both Left and Right have long since been exhausted, and nothing much has replaced them. Politics has been emptied of substance and reduced to a question of ‘character’, a beauty contest over which politician has the most honest face.
In effect, we still have the ‘adversarial’, but not the politics. What passes for politics is a finger-pointing row about who is ‘whiter than white’. Public debate has become a cynical exercise in picking over the integrity and alleged hidden motives of politicians, rather than interrogating their ideas and policies.
The rows over first Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, then the Government’s dodgy dossiers and now Dr Kelly’s death have brought this empty excuse for adversarial politics to a new low. All sides have been competing to see who can scream ‘Liars!’ most shrilly, strengthening the perception that conspiracies and cover-ups are all around us. One reason why many will believe the BBC over the Government is less because of its proud record of objective reporting, than because it has tended to act as a megaphone for public cynicism.
The latest reaction against ‘macho’ debates is about to depoliticise politics farther. Politicians will be even more nervous about pursuing clear interests or appearing as ‘the nasty party’. Many will be keener still to pose as clean, altruistic and above the factional fray. Petty issues of character and style will dominate. And everybody will be more scared of challenging their opponents or putting others on the spot for fear that they might be accused of bullying.
Witness the recent suggestion that people’s evidence to judicial inquiries or parliamentary committees should not be made public, in case that puts them under ‘too much pressure’. But putting people under pressure publicly to account for their words and actions is essential to democratic debate.
The Government’s own efforts to regain public trust also seem likely to make matters worse. Lord Hutton’s appointment to head a judicial inquiry with wide-ranging powers might be presented as a healthy step towards open government. It can also be interpreted as part of a dangerous tendency to give judges, ombudsmen and other unelected actors authority over representative politicians.
The anti-spin lobby often attacks Alastair Campbell because he has power without accountability. But at least he is open about his partisan interests, as a spokesman for an elected Government. By contrast, the judges and commissioners now being appointed to police MPs are empowered to exercise unquestioned authority from the moral high ground, like a headmaster disciplining squabbling schoolboys.
When it comes to safeguarding democracy, the worst of governments is better than the best of judges because they are at least accountable to the electorate. It is we who should sit in judgment on new Labour, not Lord Hutton. Far from rebuilding public confidence in politics, elevating judges in this way can only institutionalise mistrust by confirming the suspicion that there is something dodgy about democracy.
This deepening cynicism is not just a problem for Blair, Blunkett and Campbell. It is corrosive of everything, in a way that should also worry those of us who favour far-reaching political change. The conspiracy-mongering, ‘trust nobody’ view of the world will reinforce a sense of powerlessness and apathy. A society that believes nothing, and believes in nothing, will be capable of fighting for nothing worthwhile.
Whatever Ms Short might think, neither the Government nor the media can realistically be held responsible for Dr Kelly’s suicide. But they are both culpable for putting political life on the danger list.
This article is republished from The Times (London)
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