Mr Bean meets Little Britain
'Donorgate' looks like a tawdry tale of small potatoes and Lilliputian politicians, which only confirms how the crusade against sleaze has corrupted political life.
The latest UK sleaze scandal slightly resembles one of those phone-in competitions where the lowest unique cash bid wins the prize. First Harriet Harman, newly elected deputy leader of the Labour Party and erstwhile Brownite darling, is hung out to dry and called on to resign for accepting a third party donation of just £5000 to her campaign fund. Now Wendy Alexander, newly elected leader of Scottish Labour, is branded a lame duck and called on to resign over an offshore donation of – wait for it – £950 to her campaign fund. Anybody bid under £950 to bring down a leader in Little Britain? How low can they go?
Watching politicians like those two self-righteous New Labour guardians of the matron state squirm, some may conclude that it could hardly have happened to more deserving cases. But the way that political life can now be paralysed by such rows over what is effectively petty cash suggests there are far bigger problems in our bankrupt system.
We often hear the gloom mongers claim that the nation formerly known as Great Britain is slipping inexorably down the international league tables when it comes to sporting excellence, or reading ability, or personal health. But one area where Little Britain really must be in the relegation zone is in the small scale of the scandals that can now create a sense of crisis within the insecure political class.
Other European parliaments and presidencies have been traumatised by allegations of politicians corruptly acquiring vast personal fortunes in office, and of wealthy interests bribing elected officials to do their bidding. By contrast, what exactly is the scandal that has brought Gordon Brown’s government to its knees? So far as we know to date, there have been some technical infringements of the party funding rules by one eccentric rich donor making donations – some small, some large – in other people’s names, and another overseas benefactor making a small donation who wasn’t supposed to.
In other words, people whom nobody has ever heard of have broken rules that few really care about to give money that, so far as anybody has been able to show, bought them no real influence for better of worse. Is that it? The idea that is the stuff to bring down a prime minister makes the notion of impeaching an American president over an old semen stain on a dress seem almost high-mindedly noble by comparison.
Which is not to defend Brown, of course. New Labour has brought all this on itself and almost gone out of its way to make it worse: first by making sleaze the central issue in British politics and the test of any government, and then by its reactions to the ‘shocking’ revelations. If anything has been revealed as even smaller than the scandals this past week, it is the small-mindedness of the prime minister and of top-level politics in Little Britain.
Brown reacted to the revelations of the third-party funding, not as the statesman and resolute leader he wants us to believe he is, but like an immature schoolboy accused of shoplifting or breaking a window. He immediately panicked, pointed the finger of blame at his friends like the Labour Party general secretary and Harman, tried to make out he was really on the headmaster’s side by volunteering that what others did had been ‘unlawful’, and then put out the story that it was actually all Tony Blair’s fault anyway – the prime ministerial equivalent of bleating that ‘a big boy done it and ran away’.
Little wonder that the allegation of Brown having been transformed in a few weeks ‘from Stalin to Mr Bean’ made such an impact in the house of commons and the media last week, despite being made by Vince Cable, invisible stand-in leader of the Liberal Democrats and himself one of the more Bean-esque MPs.
As a consequence of this pathetic response, it remains to be seen just how much damage ‘Donorgate’ will do to Brown and other New Labour ministers. But in any event, this is the low point we have reached after 15 years in which sleaze has been the overarching issue in British politics.
Over those years, writing on spiked and before that in LM magazine, I have often criticised the obsession with sleaze for doing more to corrupt political life than any of the largely inconsequential scandals involved. We began by arguing that there were far more important political issues to discuss at such length and by which to judge governments and parties. That still ought to be true. Now, however, the degradation of Westminster political debate has gone on so long that perhaps they really don’t have anything else to talk about.
The overblown obsession with sleaze in Britain is what you are left with when politics is emptied of principles and visions for society. Politicians without principles can only stand on boasts about their personal character – which invites their opponents to allege that they are not as white as they are painted. It is only the emptiness of parliamentary politics that means millionaires dropping their loose change in Westminster can make such a lot of noise.
The era of creatively small-minded scandal-mongering was itself a product of the demise of traditional political divides in Britain and the West after the end of the Cold War. The old Left v Right battles clearly had no meaning, yet there was as yet nothing to take their place. Thus, in the 1990s, New Labour was founded on the rejection of the Labour Party’s past rather than on any clear vision of the future. Under Blair’s leadership, the pieties of right and wrong replaced the politics of right and left, and leadership became a scramble for the moral high ground.
In the run-up to the decisive 1997 general election, New Labour attacked the decaying Tory government more for its ministers’ tax returns and dodgy hotel bills than for its manifesto. When Blair was elected with a landslide, he declared that the new government must be seen to be whiter than white, and that people would find he was ‘a pretty straight guy’. New Labour then passed strict new rules on funding and transparency, appointing ombudsmen and commissions to oversee the affairs of our elected representatives.
That was not only an infringement upon democracy, it was also an invitation to others to turn the double-edged sword of sleaze against New Labour. It was inevitable that, having set himself and his party up as a spotless secular priesthood, the issue of ‘character’ on which he was elected would come back to bite Blair time and again.
Then when Brown replaced Blair earlier this year, he showed that he had learnt little over his decade in office by immediately promising that his priority was to ‘restore trust’ in politics. From then onwards it was only a matter of time before the sleaze obsession that New Labour did so much to create would consume his government, too. That it has happened so soon is a sign of how little political substance Brown has to offer.
In politics, ‘trust’ of a leader is not just an abstract quality to do with how sincere your smile appears on television (Brown surely fails that test anyway). It is about whether people believe in you, your party and your policies. Many past prime ministers and presidents, who found themselves embroiled in far more serious scandals and cover-ups, have survived in office and in the history books, with their reputations as statesmen intact. Why? Because they stood for something more than their claim to personal integrity; they had a vision that went a little further than their own navels. The scandals might have been bigger, but so were the politics and the politicians.
So we are left with a generation of New Labour leaders who, whatever else they might be guilty of, are not crooks. Yet they are now all being tainted by self-inflicted sleaze scandals. And in response, they are all behaving as if they were dishonourable thieves by trying to shift the blame onto one another. This is what comes of having no unifying big cause or sense of common purpose to hold them together as a party.
Indeed, there are no real political parties remaining in parliamentary politics, in terms of movements with solid constituencies of support and activist bases committed to a cause. They are just empty shells of parties, with a PR election campaign stuck on the front. And this is where the roots of the party funding crisis lie.
Without dynamic parties to raise funds and win support, political leaders need more money than ever – to fund the media campaigns that substitute for activism at election time – but have less means of obtaining it. So they have to get donations from wherever they can, and try not to ask too many questions (until the papers do it for them). They are so strapped for cash and support that Harman is even under investigation for apparently taking out a £40,000 extension on her own mortgage to help finance her campaign for the pointless post of deputy leader of the Labour Party.
Now we are told that such unaccountable bodies as the Electoral Commission, and even the police, must decide whether or not these bankrupt politicians are fit to govern. That is a judgement that should be made by the electorate in the court of public opinion, not by quangos and coppers behind closed doors. But all of this nonsense about sleaze scandals and crimes can only make most people even more disengaged from, and cynical about, politics. The opposition parties are doing their best to strengthen that cynicism, with the Conservatives banging on about Labour sleaze in the hope that the government might fall apart before anybody notices the lack of alternatives. David Cameron’s party might congratulate itself on its sudden big lead in the polls, but in the end this cultivation of public cynicism can only further damage the entire political class.
Worse, it will make it harder to make the case for any sort of political action to change this state of affairs. What is desperately needed, as we have argued on spiked before, is the creation of a contemporary from of politics with a capital ‘P’, of big ideas and principles and a debate between competing visions of a good society. But that is a far cry from today’s Lilliputian politics in Little Britain.
If Brown, Cameron and other political leaders want to solve the party funding crisis, let them stop going cap in hand for more state funding, come up with some Politics, and then go out and argue with people that they are worth giving money to support. If they cannot do that, then these politically bankrupt parties surely deserve to go to the wall. That seems a fair deal to me. But I wouldn’t give a fiver for the chances of them risking it.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large at spiked.
Mick Hume looked at how Tony Blair dealt with allegations of New Labour sleaze, argued that it was a scandal that the loans-for-peerages scandal was news and said the police should get out of politics. Brendan O’Neill commented on the arrest of Lord Levy and said that the House of Lords should be abolished. Or read more at spiked issue Politics.
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