Sleaze: time for some ‘adult’ debate
As the UK government is thrown into turmoil by the home secretary’s claim for £10 worth of porn films, how much lower can politics go?
UK prime minister Gordon Brown might want to stake his government’s authority on a multi-billion pound bailout of the economy. But to judge by recent events, the going rate for the government’s reputation is about 10 quid.
The death knell for satire and New Labour’s authority sounds amid the revelations that UK home secretary Jacqui Smith, tireless crusader against pornography and the exploitation of women, has billed the British taxpayer £10 for two ‘adult’ films that her husband paid to watch on cable TV. What they choose to watch chez Smith should be their business, of course; but public reactions suggest that many feel claiming for it on parliamentary expenses was a slight misinterpretation of what a ‘free’ society should mean.
There is no point being too po-faced about all this; it is understandable that Smith has become a figure of ridicule. But now let’s have a more grown-up discussion about the problems of the government and MPs’ expenses. As that wise old bird Terry Wogan quipped on the radio this morning, ‘There’s nothing “adult” about porn’. And there is nothing very adult about a sleaze-obsessed political culture that reduces the substance of debate to a couple of sordid movies.
There are plenty of things for which Smith deserves to be brought to book. Her most recent offence is the new Home Office anti-terror campaign, complete with another scare about dirty bombs (rather than dirty films) and plans to conscript thousands of public employees as the eyes and ears of the security state. There are many others, including as it happens the draconian new law against ‘violent’ porn (see To the censors, we’re all Aboriginals now, by Julian Petley) and the government campaign to stop the supposed ‘trafficking’ of thousands of women for sex (see Exploding the myth of trafficking, by Nathalie Rothschild).
There is no shortage of sticks with which to drive her out of office. However, the ‘inadvertent mistake’ (what other sort is there?) of claiming £10 for her husband’s late-night entertainment is not one of them. The media-set bar for British sleaze ‘scandals’ has been lowered far enough. When the leader of Labour in Scotland was pressed to resign over an irregular donation of just £650, I wondered on spiked how low the price of a political career could go. Now, in these deflationary times, it seems some want it cut to a tenner. (Smith is also being investigated for her £160k housing expenses claims.)
This is not simply a case of saying, as the government has tried to, that there should be more important things to talk about. The all-party obsession with sleaze and MPs’ expenses scandals reveals much about the real crisis of politics today and the degraded state of public debate. It is because the political class really do have nothing better to talk about or more meaningful to offer that small change can assume such significance.
Sleaze has always excited the Westminster village of pundits and politicians far more than the wider public. However, the expenses issue does seem to have become a symbol of the public mistrust of politicians and the sense that these freeloaders don’t live in the same cash-strapped world as us. The notion that MPs are simply in it for the cash and the expense claims (which, to be fair, most of them probably are not) is underpinned by the fact that people can see little else motivating politicians today. Where are the grand causes or noble principles that might inspire honourable men and women to become MPs? When they talk and act like managers, accountants and security consultants, it is little wonder many suspect them of being no better than bankers.
Although media attention is currently focused on expense claims by the useless home secretary and the equally useless employment minister, Tony McNulty, this is not merely a New Labour problem. It has lowered public opinion of the entire political class. See the way that leading Tory MP Eric Pickles was shouted down by the audience as he tried to defend his unspectacular expense claims on BBC TV’s Question Time last week.
There is an unhealthy element to the obsession with sleaze and scandal. It means that not just individual politicians but politics itself can be dismissed as corrupt and self-serving. How we judge leaders comes to be based more on their bank statements or even cable TV statements rather than any statements of belief. In the process politics is dragged further into the gutter, and more people turn their backs not just on a home secretary or a government but on the very idea of taking political action to achieve something worthwhile.
New Labour started this before the 1997 election of course, when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown ousted the last Tory government in a sleaze-dominated campaign that seemed to focus more on ministers’ tax returns than their policies. That was always likely to come back and bite New Labour, especially after Blair declared that his government must be ‘whiter than white’. Now we seem to have reached the point where sleaze scandals are not so much a distraction from politics, but have become the stuff of everyday political debate. Hence on the eve of a world summit to discuss the recession and multi-billion dollar bailouts, the British political class is arguing the toss over a tenner’s worth of hi-tech smut.
We would all be better off with an adult approach that spends more time examining what politicians and parties claim to stand for than what they claim expenses for, making them account for their political choices more than their choice of home entertainment. No doubt something does need to be done about the system of MPs’ expenses – although the notion that appointed commissions and ombudsmen should be able to dictate to elected representatives is a dangerous one. But at the same time, amid all the calls to cut off their claims on the public scaffold, it is important they should be properly paid.
It is worth recalling that the call for members of parliament to be paid was a central demand of the movement for democratic reform in the nineteenth century, to ensure that people other than the rich and the landed had the chance to serve as MPs. But it was clear that those reformers wanted access to parliament to pursue a greater purpose; the money was a means to an end, not an end in itself. If the public was sure that the same was true of politicians today, few would make such a fuss about the home secretary’s claim for a tenner’s worth of home entertainment.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
Previously on spiked
Mick Hume argued that scandal dominates debate while governments achieve nothing, and despaired that the donations scandal was news at all. Tim Black looked at the Corfu funding allegations. Matthias Heitmann suggested the Paul Wolfowitz affair reveals how fear of corruption undermines political life. James Heartfield that we should get rid of codes of conduct not sack ministers. Or read more at spiked issues British politics.
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