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'Sleaze' is said to be the new threat to public life. James Heartfield explains why the real meaning of the sleaze debate is the degradation of public life into a phoney war between good and evil

The corruption of politics and the politics of corruption

The least thing was not done amiss,
Or cross'd the Publick Business;
But all the Rogues cried Brazen'ly,
Good Gods, had we but Honesty!

Bernard Mandeville, The Grumbling Hive, or Knaves Turn'd Honest, 1705

With the publication of Sir Gordon Downey's report on the 'cash for questions' scandal, MPs breathed a sigh of relief that they had put the problem of parliamentary sleaze behind them. The determination of the New Labour government to raise standards in public life, running a whiter-than-white administration, would surely put an end to the damaging perception that Westminster is corrupt. To underscore that point Prime Minister Tony Blair published a beefed-up version of the Questions of Procedure for Ministers - the senior politicians very own code of conduct. A commitment to transparent government, it was argued, would mean an end to the secretive skulduggery, the off-the-record briefings, personal infighting and cover-ups that crippled the Conservative administration.

So how has the new policy fared?

Glasgow's Mohammed Sarwar, the country's first Muslim MP, has been accused of bribing an opponent and suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party. Veteran left winger Bob Wareing has been found guilty of failing to register financial interests and suspended from the commons. Lord Simon, the former BP chairman and new Minister for Trade and Competitiveness in Europe, was first revealed to have a conflict of interests - owning £2.25 million of BP shares - and then to have £1 million salted away in a Jersey-based tax avoidance scheme. Michael Levy, the pop-music impresario who raised £2 million for a special fund to pay for Tony Blair's personal campaign team during the general election, was rewarded with a peerage. 'Ethical' Foreign Secretary Robin Cook was revealed to be conducting an extra-marital affair with his personal assistant. Another cabinet minister Clare Short was allegedly having an affair with a fellow MP behind his wife's back. Labour MP Gordon McMaster killed himself, denouncing fellow Scottish MPs for conducting a smear campaign against him, amid allegations that he was dying of Aids. The leaders of Doncaster council's ruling Labour group must have been grateful that their own suspension from the party, pending investigations into allegations of Lording it up at the council-owned racecourse, has been put in the shade by these weightier scandals.

Rumours of an end to sleaze, it would seem, have been greatly exaggerated. On 3 July, on the lawn of Westminster Abbey, members of parliament were being wined and dined at a private party. The party was organised by Apco the firm that has taken on former clients of Ian Greer Associates, lobbyists at the heart of the original 'cash-for-questions' scandal. The crowd was New Labour as much as it was Old Tory, cabinet ministers as well as ex-cabinet ministers. Weeks later they would all murmur in approval at the outcome of the Downey Inquiry, which concluded as the Lynskey Inquiry did in 1948, that lobbying companies have no legitimate role in government.

Sleaze, though, is a misnomer for the relationship between government and business. The charge of 'sleaze' suggests that politicians' willingness to do favours for business, and to enrich themselves in the process, is the exception. In fact it is the rule. The rationale of the sleaze inquiries under Lords Nolan and Downey is that corruption afflicts a few rotten apples in an otherwise healthy barrel. But the inordinate influence of business in government is built into the very structure of the British state, independent of party affiliation or personal predilection. Capitalist wealth has always enjoyed an intimate relationship with power in society.


Michael binding Satan, William Blake, circa 1805


Any politician who wants to get things done in the marketplace needs to work with business. Its old hostility to the capitalist class in abeyance, New Labour provides a striking example of the way that government and business are forced into ever-closer relations. Indeed New Labour has been precocious in its pursuit of leaders of industry. In 100 days the government has set up more than 50 task forces, reviews and advisory groups from the Numeracy Task Force through the Better Regulation Task Force to the Export Forum. What these new bodies have in common is the preponderance of businessmen sitting on them and often chairing them, from Barclays Bank executive Martin Baker (Tax and Benefits) to Pete Davis of the Prudential (Welfare to Work) (C Daniel, New Statesman, 1 August 1997). And all of these business roles in government are on top of the extensive quangocracy established by the last government and staffed by the great and the good.

The influence of big business on government is profoundly anti-democratic: wealth buys influence. The much-vaunted people's forums stage-managed by Tony Blair are just a rubber-stamp on this real consultation process. The endorsement of the voters is a formality, compared to this ringing vote of confidence from the powers-that-be. And compared to this network of wealth and power, buying questions in the House of Commons is chicken-feed. Anybody who thinks that political influence is bought with bundles of fivers is underestimating the reach of the British establishment. But is this the corruption of the parliamentary system? No. It is the parliamentary system.

If you want to understand the real reason that 'sleaze' has become so widely reported, there is no point looking here. This network of industry and government has been with us for hundreds of years and there is nothing new, or 'scandalous' about it. Corruption in politics is one thing, but the new politics of corruption is something quite different altogether.

The politics of sleaze-busting, the high-profile campaigns to clean up government, are not inspired by particular instances of corruption or bribery alone. Those have always taken place. What needs to be explained is why now they have come to dominate public life. MPs and ministers have always had some dubious skeletons in their closets, whether they are business interests or sexual peccadilloes. But in themselves these things do not create the heightened sensitivity to sleaze and demand for sleaze-busting. As well as having the evidence, there has to be a public appetite for scandals (and sometimes the appetite means that you do not even need the evidence). Two inquiries into standards in 1974 after a housing kickback scandal involving architect John Poulson and Newcastle City Council Leader T Dan Smith were not even debated in the House of Commons at the time - though notably the same events were dramatised over 13 episodes of Our Friends in the North last year.

The preoccupation with sleaze, as opposed to mere instances of corruption, is a relatively recent phenomenon. But what the politics of sleaze lacks in lineage it makes up for in its scope. 'Sleaze' seems to have infected much of the Western world, and sleaze-busting has become close to the organising principle of the political process in countries as far apart as America, France and Italy.

In America the junk bonds scandal of the late eighties was followed by the Savings and Loan collapse - implicating President Bush's son. One off-shoot of the S&L collapse was the Manhattan District Attorney's successful investigation into corruption in the Bank of Credit and Commerce International - a bank that specialised in Third World investments and enriching its officials with other people's money. Since then President Clinton has been subject to investigation into corrupt business dealing and sexual harassment dating back to his days in Arkansas. Republican Congressional leader Newt Gingrich has been reprimanded for the entanglement of his business interests and his office.

In Italy in 1992 the ruling coalition of Christian Democrats and Bettino Craxi's Socialist Party was effectively swept aside by the judges. The 7000 Italian judges, about a third of whom were members of the leftish Magistratura Democratica, conducted a 'clean hands' campaign against 'Tangentopoli' - bribe city - embroiling establishment politicians in crippling, open-ended investigations. The first to gain by the magistrate's intervention was the rightist Forza Italia party which gained power briefly before the judges mired its leader Silvio Berlusconi in corruption charges, leaving the way open in 1996 for the former Stalinists of the Olive Coalition to take power.

Similar scandals have engulfed the Belgian government (accused of protecting a paedophile ring), the Irish (where the long-ruling Fianna Fail party has been accused of selling influence) and the Parisians (where the Gaullists have been accused of handing out hard-to-come-by flats). In most of these cases public sympathy has been with the investigators, sometimes brimming over into sporadic mass demonstrations, as in Belgium and Italy.

What has happened to the politicians? Have they suddenly descended into moral depravity? Of course not. The links between government and business, and sometimes even organised crime, have always been there in the background. The real change is in public perception. Once, identification with the state and the political system was sufficient to guarantee that the politicians' less reputable dealings remained in the background, unremarked upon. But the widespread disenchantment with politics in recent times has turned the spotlight on any hint of indiscretion. It is like the difference between an old friend and an untrustworthy associate: you may overlook and forgive a lot in an old friend, but pounce on the first failing of an unknown quantity. Since the eighties, with the exhaustion of the political programmes of both left and right, the major parties have forsaken the trust of the voters, becoming the devil you neither know nor trust.


Saint Michael triumphant over the devil with the donor Antonio Juan Bartolomé Bermejo, circa 1460


But the debate over sleaze is much more than a symptom of popular disaffection. It is also a self-righting mechanism, employed by the elites to win back the voters' trust in the state. Within the preoccupation with corruption there are two processes intertwined, each pushed forward by the other. 'Sleaze' is about discrediting and delegitimising the old political order - and, at the same time, legitimising and winning authority for a new one.

The process of delegitimation is important because the authorities dread losing control of events altogether, and would sacrifice their grandmothers to hang onto power. For the Conservatives in this country it was a painful political lesson that all their friends in the press, business and the professions dropped them the moment that it became apparent that they could not deliver popular support. Conservative ruling parties from the US Republicans to Italy's Christian Democrats were also reduced to rumps amid sleaze scandals at different times in recent years. But more importantly, the various sleaze investigations and judicial rulings were a process of religitimating authority in new guises.

It is pointed that the major upsurge of public condemnation did not lead to the collapse of states and political systems, but, on the contrary, saved them. In America, Wall Street dumped the junk bond traders like Michael Milken in order to save the market's reputation overall. In Italy, the judges acted to 'bring a regime to judgement before its fall' according to Milan magistrate Pier Camillo Davigo. In miniature, the same process of kicking out the Old Guard can be seen in all kinds of institutions, whether it is 'corrupt' police officers being kicked out to make way for 'clean' ones, or even the renegotiation of local authority cleaning contracts to oust the 'cowboys'.

In the process of junking the old regimes, new sources of authority - authorities that are far from being open to popular pressure - are invigorated. This process is especially pointed in Britain. The judiciary, shaking off a reputation for antediluvian prejudices, has been reinvented as the arbiter of moral rectitude. For all the rhetoric about modernising government, Lords and Knights play a far greater role in parliament than they have for a decade, handing down judgements on the elected politicians from on high, as though they were the very word of God himself. Even the British press, long despised for scandal mongering and trivia, has been reinvented as a moral crusader against corruption. Today it is the quality press of the Guardian, the Independent and the Times that have become 'scandal sheets' - a role that, far from damaging them, has enhanced their reputation as a necessary check on the overweening power of the politicians.

For some Conservatives, like the handful of 'Real Socialists' inside and outside the Labour Party, the hope lives on that normal service will be resumed as soon as possible. But that is a mistake. The current preoccupation with sleaze is not an interruption to the ordinary political process of left verses right. On the contrary, 'sleaze' is the new political process.

Sleaze politics is not about privatisation policies, or welfare spending or any of the old political issues. Sleaze politics is about correct behaviour v corruption, public service v private greed, or, as we used to call it, Good v Evil.

Under sleaze politics, people are not expected to have a vested interest, or act from any obvious motivations, like what would make their lives better, but only from the very highest sense of self sacrifice and public duty. The high moral tone has become the defining style of all government statements and policies. Of course when you are up on your high horse, the rest of us tend to look a little base. Condemnation and moralising are what one comes to expect from a whiter-than-white government.

The publication of the revamped Questions of Procedure for Ministers (QPM) is indicative. This is a document first drafted for Clement Attlee's government in 1945, that originally had a wholly technical character, largely consisting of advice about radio interviews and studio debates ('don't'). Its current hallowed status - 'the Bible of ministerial conduct' - is due to the fact that it is the only document with anything like constitutional status in the history of British government, since John Major declassified it. To those like Blair's government advisor and former Charter 88 activist Tony Wright MP, this makes QPM the Holy Grail of those who want to see a written constitution. In Blair's hands it has become the charter of political correctness, the mother of all codes of conduct.

The general climate of restriction and regulation in the country at large finds its highest expression in the process of government as a permanent anti-sleaze campaign. From top to bottom sleaze-busting has become the way that life is organised in the 1990s. And like all moral schemas this one has a tendency to reproduce the basic inequalities in society as if they were personal moral failings.

A morality that discourages self-advancement and encourages public service is easy to observe if you are already powerful or well-to-do. It is easy for Lord Simon to take the moral high ground and decline his minister's salary, or even give the profit made from selling his £2.25 million of shares to charity. After all, that still leaves quite a healthy lump sum. The magical operation of the sleaze morality means that he looks like he is doing us a favour when he takes on the onerous burden of ministerial office. For the rest of us who have to make our own living, public service is not an option.

In a telling Guardian editorial it was argued that 'sleaze' 'is not just about money', it is also about constitutional reform, proportional representation and so on (9 July 1997). Of course these constitutional questions have long been a hobby-horse for the chattering class of Guardian readers - but what did they have to do with 'sleaze'. The answer is nothing at all, except that any kind of policy proposal these days must be motivated in terms of fighting sleaze. That way the policy takes on a moral force it would otherwise lack. Reading the Guardian you get the idea that any kind of prejudice that they latch onto could become an extension of the politics of fighting 'sleaze'.

Moral rectitude is the government's self-image, and sleaze is its all-purpose bogey-man. That is not just rhetoric. It is the organising principle of the British state today. All political goals become reinterpreted in the terminology of sleaze. So Britain's foreign policy must be an 'ethical' foreign policy. Of course 'ethical' in this context means playing hard-ball with the 'unethical' Bosnian Serbs - even to the point of gunning down Simo Drljaca. The 'ethics' of political assassination is not something that is likely to be discussed.

On a more mundane level, the competition for influence in government is stripped of any semblance of difference over policy, and reduced to a largely artificial debate about 'character'. The degrading thing about this new politics of sleaze-busting is that it is much more open to petty personal rivalry and backbiting than the previous set-up. Indeed, when 'character' becomes the defining issue of politics, contestation is reduced entirely to a process of smear and innuendo.

Despite appearances, Labour's recent difficulties do not indicate a seething mass of sleaze beneath the holier-than-thou surface - as much as the charge of hypocrisy appeals. On the contrary, most of the so-called scandals are of a wholly trivial nature, that would be of little interest if the government had not made such a great play of being whiter-than-white. In fact these latest scandals are almost entirely driven by petty rivalries that only have any purchase because of the new climate.

The disciplined Labour MPs Bob Wareing and Mohammed Sarwar have been picked out for special attention simply because their faces do not fit. Wareing offended the front bench because of his Old Labour views, and his opposition to military intervention in the former Yugoslavia - an issue that his accusers tried, dishonestly, to construe as proof that he was in the pay of the Serbs. Here acting 'against sleaze' has become little more than a means of disciplining dissent in the ranks. Sarwar might well have fitted into the London Labour Party, but the millionaire Muslim businessman was just too exotic for the Scottish Labour mafia who have clearly fitted him up. Gordon McMaster's plaintive suicide note gives an insight into the vicious personal character of Scottish Labour's infighting - and its utter lack of political principal.

Tony Blair's response to McMaster's death is if anything even worse: an inquiry that will become an excuse for yet more allegations of improper behaviour. Such an inquiry is bound to become a part of the same petty infighting in turn, operating according to no higher principle than who can score points at somebody else's expense. As ever, this climate of moral condemnation is there to be manipulated by whoever is sufficiently ahead of the game to determine what is improper behaviour, who is sleazy. But like the young lady of Riga, who rode to town on a tiger, the preoccupation with sleaze can devour you as well as propelling you forward.

At the moment, New Labour has ridden the sleaze tiger with great success. Allegations of sleaze allowed Labour to distance itself from the Tories' record while adopting many of their market policies. But as these recent hiccups have shown, the perception of sleaze could just as easily turn on Labour. To Blair's irritation, the Conservatives have scored points manufacturing sleaze allegations against his administration in much the same way that he did against theirs.

Labour's protestations that the Foreign Secretary's extra-marital affair is a personal matter are entirely justified - except that it was the likes of Cook and Blair that did the most to reduce political debate to questions of personal character. And if that is all that is at issue, why should we not be interested in matrimonial betrayal. We will probably never know for certain how it was that details of Robin Cook's affair were leaked to the press, whether it was a case of Labour infighting or a rival outside of the party. What we can know for certain is that gossip about who is going out with who is likely to be a high point of debate in the new politics of sleaze.


Saint Michael, Carlo Crivelli, circa 1470


Reproduced from LM issue 103, September 1997
 
 

 

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