‘Smeargate’ and the suicide of the elite

The rumour-mongering of top New Labour officials is only the most twisted expression yet of the institutional corrosion of the political class.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics UK

Remember when Gordon Brown became prime minister in June 2007 and his supporters said politics would get serious again? No more spin, no more focus on personality, no more celebrities eating canapés in the drawing room of No.10; instead Brown would be ‘an intellectual in power’, a leader who ‘thinks long and thinks tactically’; he would reintroduce ‘conviction politics’ and would represent something ‘far more energetic and interesting than the doldrums of recent [mainstream politics]’.

Now, not two years later, Brown and his coterie of advisers are embroiled in a smear scandal that makes the spindoctoring of their predecessors, Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell, look like heavyweight intellectualising by comparison. Brown’s political and press adviser Damian McBride has been caught sending suggested smear stories – about Tory leader David Cameron, Tory anti-abortion MP Nadine Dorries, and various others – to the New Labour insider-turned-blogger Derek Draper. Draper described the rumour-based tales as ‘brilliant’ and said he would try to find a way to distribute them in the blogosphere.

The emails were leaked and the media is now hotly discussing, not Brown’s searing intellect, but his ‘psychological flaws’ and the ‘paranoid, macho culture’ he has created at Downing Street. Yet, in many ways, this latest barrel-scraping political scandal is less a product of Brown’s personal psychology, or even of any unique brand of stupidity on the part of his spindoctors; rather it is the continuation of the degraded politics of New Labour itself, and gives the lie to the idea that Brown represented the end of New Labour and the start of Something Serious.

What is referred to as ‘the New Labour project’ is not simply the creation of a handful of Blairites in the mid-1990s who wanted to elbow aside old-style Socialism; nor is it merely a gaggle of spindoctors coming up with wilder and wackier ways to promote themselves and denigrate their opponents, as depicted in satires such as The Thick Of It (though it is that, of course). More fundamentally, New Labour is the institutional, governmental expression of the demise of Politics with a capital P and of the widening chasm between our oligarchic-style leaders and an unimpressed, uninterested public.

In its elevation of the politics of personality over political substance, its increasingly direct and needy relationship with the media, and its utilisation of behind-the-scenes rumour-mongering and back-stabbing, the New Labour project neatly expresses the crises of substance, authority and democracy of the contemporary political elites. All of this rot is well captured in ‘Smeargate’, which exposes – to those too misty-eyed over Brown or Blair to have seen it previously – a decadent court-style Westminster Village rife with rumour and utterly cut off from the British public.

Smeargate reveals the rule of Personality over politics in modern-day Westminster. In many ways, the lowdown attempt to spread rumours about certain individuals – about their alleged STDs or one-night stands – can be seen as the flipside of the semi-official politics of personality that has been promoted by the political elite itself and lapped up by the media. At a time when politicians promote themselves by posing as whiter-than-white, decent, nice, caring, capable of pain, it makes perverse sense for their opponents to attack them on this very basis, too. Just as New Labour effectively ousted the Conservatives in 1997 by exposing individual Tories’ morally sleazy antics, and just as the Conservatives recently leaked information about New Labour ministers’ spending and porn-watching habits, so the McBride/Draper debacle is a more extreme, almost self-parodying version of the interplay between Personality Promotion and Personality Demolition that has taken the place of serious political debate in recent years.

As John Lloyd argues, yes Smeargate is ‘politically depraved’, but it ‘grows out of a very British politico-media swamp in which scandal is traded and bartered and in which, at times like these, it seems that the approach Draper advocates [publish the shocking rumours!] has actually arrived’. It is very rich for the media to wonder at the debased psychology and macho insanity of Brown and McBride when they have played a central role in cultivating this ‘politico-media swamp’, whether it was the Guardian being complicit in New Labour’s use of sleaze accusations rather than argument to defeat the Tories or the Telegraph endlessly publishing stories about New Labourite Peter Mandelson’s homes and homosexual lovers.

Indeed, Smeargate reveals much about modern politicians’ rather desperate reliance on the media: they live and die by the frontpage headline. New Labour’s intense relationship with the media springs, not merely from Blair’s starry-eyed publicity-seeking or now Brown’s attempts at damage control, but from the search for a new platform from which to ‘communicate messages’ (largely to one another) at a time when the electorate has rather intelligently switched off from mainstream politics and there has been a decline in voting and direct political engagement. The media has become an ersatz public forum for isolated public officials.

Smeargate shows the power, even the tyranny, of the ‘informal briefing’ in contemporary British politics. The political scene is now dominated by the ‘informal briefing’: this is the way that politicians and their sidekicks spread good stories about themselves and bad stories about their opponents. It is like a political version of the Daily Mirror’s ‘Wicked Whispers’ about rumoured celebrity antics, where nothing is explicitly said, certainly not on the record, but rather is implied. In today’s ‘politico-media swamp’, the informal briefing allows spindoctors both to invite certain journalists on to ‘the inside’ and also to ensure that potentially beneficial stories spread through the Westminster media, the Westminster Village, and, once in a very blue moon, beyond that into the real world.

The informal briefing circumvents not only parliament, but also press conferences and focus groups, and effectively formalises today’s inner cabal of aloof political actors and favourable journalists that oversees what passes for mainstream politics. The McBride/Draper rumour-mongering, their chat about who to leak the stories to and how to present them, represents only the most degraded, twisted example yet of the ‘informal briefing’ and the attempt by contemporary political gatekeepers like McBride to control who is in, who is out, who is smeared, and who is safe. Again, everyone is complicit in this system of informal briefings, including the journalists who are now so shocked by McBride and Draper’s antics – and bloggers, too, one of whom received the leaked McBride emails. Bloggers are the increasingly important parasites on the arse of the exhausted beast that is modern parliamentary politics.

Most of all, Smeargate illustrates the utter separation today between the political elite and the public. It is the political class’s very aloofness from public concerns – its lack of responsibility to any meaningful group of grassroots supporters or even to any very enthusiastic voters – which means that it can spin out of control and do things which appear, to most of us, quite foul and distasteful. Without the pressure of public accountability, the political class – made up today of dunces like McBride rather than impressive statesmen-like figures – can easily lose the plot. Looking more like an old-style monarchical court than a democratic political forum, Westminster today is a hotbed of rumours and whispers, uttered over ‘informal’ coffees with friendly journalists or amongst officials in the shadowy corridors of parliament, and it was only a matter of time before such bitching was explicitly exposed, in black-and-white, via a leaked email. It is just a shame that those disturbed by Smeargate said nothing about its admittedly less shrill but equally problematic antecedents in our era of sleaze and personality.

And who is really interested in the fallout from Smeargate? Once again, only the Westminster Village. This scandal doesn’t seem to have touched the public very much at all, and is instead salivated over by hacks, political groupies and bloggers. The whole thing speaks to institutional corrosion. The elites are writing, not only scandalous emails, but their own suicide notes.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume called for some adult debate following Jacqui Smith’s husband’s porn film expense claim. He also 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 argued that we should get rid of codes of conduct not sack ministers. Or read more at spiked issues British politics.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics UK

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