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Editorial
Mick Hume

Who gets the pay-off?

When the Conservative Party is competing with the royal family to see which can sink deepest in sleaze and lowest in public esteem, you know that the old political establishment is up to its double chins in trouble. It is now open season on the Tories. After 15 years of one-party rule, the media is full of excited talk about a 'sea change' in political life, with the decline and fall of the corrupt ancien regime apparently paving the way for the regeneration of the British system of government in the age of Tony Blair.

It is fun to watch the Tories suffer. But why should we assume that their troubles will necessarily lead to something better? If things are allowed to continue on their present course, the governmental crisis seems more likely to make the mood of cynicism and pessimism in the country even worse, while allowing the ruling elite to carry on running society, regardless of who gets to sit in Downing Street.

The seemingly endless sequence of sleaze revelations has exposed the Major government's inability to command respect even among its own core supporters. The fact that MPs have taken corporate freebies and backhanders for asking questions cannot in itself explain the prominence given to recent scandal stories; after all, handouts have always been considered perks of the job for politicians and journalists alike. What has changed is that the government has lost any legitimacy in the public mind, so that everything the Tories do now immediately invites suspicion and criticism from all quarters.

The collapse of Michael Heseltine's unpopular plans to privatise the Post Office demonstrated the extent of the Conservative Party's troubles. After privatisation was scrapped, many commentators observed that the drifting Major government no longer had any major policies to implement. They were right, but the problem goes deeper than that. The truly remarkable thing was that a nonsensical proposal to sell off the Post Office could ever seriously have been proposed as the 'flagship' policy of a governing party in the 1990s. In a month when faltering industrial growth figures and falling car sales confirmed the ongoing reality of the capitalist slump, the only economic initiative which the party of the market seemed able to come up with was to auction off Postman Pat and asset-strip his black-and-white cat. It was an irrational policy which could have lost the government rural votes, and in the end most top Tories were probably quietly relieved to see it shelved.

But what other legislative plans are they left with? None - except the general predisposition to crank up their law-and-order crusade. Now that the Criminal Justice Bill has finally passed into law, we should expect Home Secretary Michael Howard to come forward with Son of CJB; but surely even he cannot criminalise enough groups of people to fill an entire session of parliament.

Locked into a downwards spiral, the once-cocky Conservatives are facing the possibility of defeat more starkly than at any time for 20 years. Yet what is this 'sea change' in political life really likely to change? It is not as if the problems end with the Tory Party. The Conservative collapse is only the most dramatic illustration of the extent to which the entire political culture of this country is in a state of degeneration and decay, a process infecting every mainstream party and the parliamentary institutions they rely upon.

What passes for politics on all sides of the House of Commons today is a concoction of the banal, the trivial and the tasteless. The terrain on which debate takes place has been continually narrowed until only a barren strip remains. Once politicians argued over grand visions of how to produce a richer and fairer society; now they squabble over whether or not to take a penny off income tax or put VAT on gas bills. The character of politicos themselves has changed accordingly, with the traditional distinctive Tory and Labour MPs being replaced by faceless placemen who are so interchangeably bland that the media can seriously suggest Tony Blair is good-looking by comparison.

The sleaze scandal itself reflects the trend towards petty tabloid-style politics. Jonathan Aitken is a millionaire banker and John Major's chief secretary at the Treasury, in the front line of the Tory cabinet's campaign to slash billions off spending on our health, welfare, wages and jobs. You would think that there was no shortage of sticks with which his opponents could hammer him. Yet in today's politics of trivial pursuit, the only financial matter over which Aitken has been seriously attacked is a hotel bill at the Paris Ritz - and even that issue was soon displaced from the front pages by further revolting insights into David Mellor's love life.

Meanwhile on issues of substance, on the big economic and social questions that affect our lives, there is little difference among the major political parties - and even less debate. For instance, in the midst of the sleaze row surrounding Aitken and other Tory ministers, two important documents were published: the report on the future of the welfare state issued by the Commission for Social Justice (set up by the Labour Party), and the government's white paper on changing unemployment benefit into a job-seeker's allowance. The similarities in the assumptions underpinning both - about the need to dismantle the old welfare state and the emphasis upon individual responsibility - were remarkable. Yet few remarked on either, all eyes being fixed upon cod faxes and hotel receipts. So it came to pass that a Labour Party body proposed measures, such as making parents pay for their children's university education, which Margaret Thatcher would not have dared whisper a decade ago - yet hardly anybody batted an eyelid.

We live our lives today under a political system in which non-personalities conduct non-debates about non-alternatives. The question of which parties actually form a government becomes less and less important, as their policies and personalities merge into one indistinct mass of mediocrity - a tendency towards convergence which was also well illustrated in the recent German and American elections. Meanwhile, over in the real world, the market economy which all sides now support continues to grind down our living standards and working conditions without attracting critical comment.

Against that background, why should we believe (except as an act of blind faith), that the Tory Party's problems are likely to lead to any change for the better in the way Britain is governed? Instead, the most important impact of the governmental crisis is on the political mood in the country. And here, it is making matters worse.

The sleaze exposures and endless ministerial cock-ups have further intensified the powerful sense of popular cynicism about not just the Tory Party, but politics in general. Most people feel entirely detached from a political process in which party man-agers and spin-doctors mix with lobbyists and PR men, none of them ever coming close to the realities of everyday life. As a result, politicians are now held in deep contempt by the public - an international pattern stretching from Whitehall through Washington to Milan and far beyond.

All of which might seem like no bad thing and not before time. The problem is, however, that as yet there is nothing to put in the place of the discredited old school of politics. In a situation where there appears to be no credible alternative on offer, disaffection with the status quo will not lead to any political uprising. Instead, the effect is the opposite, strengthening public cynicism and pessimism about the prospects of anything changing. Most people now wish a plague on all things political and withdraw into their private lives, while those who do expend energy on public affairs retreat into campaigning around parochial 'community' issues. The net effect is to allow the political elite to stumble on from one crisis to another, without facing serious pressure from any opposition movement.

Worse still, what new responses there have been so far to the governmental crisis look distinctly dangerous. The malaise of the Tory-run system of government has been widely interpreted as a problem with popular democracy itself. As a consequence, many of the solutions proposed, from the argument that there should be fewer MPs to the demands for more controls on the press, have distinctly authoritarian, anti-democratic undertones - and that can only confirm the control of the ruling elite over society.

Look at how the political elite itself is seeking to rebuild public confidence in its system by investing authority in the hands of individuals and institutions that are 'untainted' - which today is usually assumed to mean unelected. So Major appointed Lord Scott to inquire into the government's role in the Iraqgate scandal, and has now set up Lord Nolan to adjudicate on the sleaze allegations. These wise old men might seem more legitimate than the parliamentary crooks in the eyes of the public. But in fact their emergence as prominent figures in the political system represents an attack on democracy. It is the investment of more power in the hands of unelected, and so unaccountable, state officials. As such it means one more step away from genuine democratic control, and one more barrier to protect the pillars of capitalist power from popular pressure.

The sleaze scandals have provided a glimpse of how real influence is exercised in our 'free' country, behind the curtains of the parliamentary puppet show. They have shown that power lies with those few who have wealth enough to buy it. That ought to be a signal of the need to extend democracy, by creating a system where control is in the hands of the working people who make up the majority in society. Instead, without a political alternative pointing in that direction, the 'sea change' can end up as a move towards an even more unrepresentative, elitist system.

Some commentators now go so far as to argue that, however dreadful Charles and Diana might be, we should not consider getting rid of the monarchy, because the alternative would be a corrupt politician as head of state. That the rotten House of Windsor can now seriously be upheld as a more legitimate symbol of democracy than the House of Commons should be warning enough of the authoritarian direction which the backlash against government corruption is taking. When it comes to open government, give me an elected crook over an inbred hereditary monarch or a judge appointed by his ex-schoolfriends in the cabinet any day of the week.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 74, December 1994

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