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
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