‘I will embarrass you now by saying that I always thought you should be Chancellor of the Exchequer’

Paul Foot

  • Sleaze: Politicians, Private Interests and Public Reaction edited by F.F. Ridley and Alan Doig
    Oxford, 222 pp, £10.99, April 1996, ISBN 0 19 922273 8
  • Changing Trains: The Autobiography of Steven Norris
    Hutchinson, 273 pp, £16.99, October 1996, ISBN 0 09 180212 1
  • The Quango Debate edited by F.F. Ridley and David Wilson
    Oxford, 188 pp, £10.99, September 1995, ISBN 0 19 922238 X

The abject surrender of Neil Hamilton, the ‘envelope man’ who changed the law so that he could sue the Guardian for libel, deprived the nation of an exhilarating and informative court case. When the Guardian alleged that Hamilton, Tory MP for Tatton, had taken money from Mohammed AI Fayed, chairman of Harrods to lobby Parliament against a Department of Trade inquiry which eventually denounced Fayed as a liar, the cocky MP announced that he was at last going to get even with the liberal press. He sued for libel, but the case ran into the sand because any allegation in court of corruption against an MP is technically a breach of Parliamentary privilege. Hamilton untied that knot at once. Supported by Lady Thatcher, Lord Archer and the entire Parliamentary Tory Party, he conspired to force through Parliament an amendment to the Defamation Act which allows MPs to waive their privilege in order to sue for libel. Backed by his new law, Hamilton charged back into court and, a few months later, hit more solid buffers: the facts. The Guardian insisted on discovery of all relevant documents from the Government and the Tory Party. A huge flow of paper about Hamilton and his paymaster/co-plaintiff, the lobbyist Ian Greer, emerged for the first time. The decisive revelation was a tape-recorded conversation between Hamilton and the First Secretary to the Treasury, Michael Heseltine, in which Hamilton denied any ‘financial relationship’ with Ian Greer. Greer knew he had paid, and realised his fellow plaintive would be exposed in court as a liar. He told Hamilton he wanted to fight the case separately, with a new set of lawyers. The unity of the plaintiffs was broken, and the towel, plus a £15,000 contribution to the Guardian’s costs, was thrown sullenly into the ring.

Though the chances of full judicial discovery and the public process of a court hearing are, sadly, gone, the Hamilton case cannot end there. Bit by bit, either injudicious leaks or as a result of a secret inquiry by the new Parliamentary Commissioner on Standards, yet another sleaze story will emerge to haunt the Tory Party in the months before the general election. By now all talk of sleaze should have been buried, and a determined effort underway to remind the population that, whatever the mistakes and greed of a few individuals, the men in charge are honest fellows, who know right from wrong. Alas, the carefully-planned Tory agenda now lies in ruin.

Cometh the hour, cometh the word. In an intriguing piece of research for Sleaze, Stuart Weir and Patrick Donleavy have counted the appearances of the S-word in British national newspapers. In 1985-6, it appeared 21 times; in 1994-95, 3479 times. The word still has no precise meaning. Often it refers to politicians’ sexual behaviour, which has probably changed very little over the centuries. The adulteries of a few, mostly junior ministers which led to what became known as the ‘back-to-basics resignations’ hardly account for the staggering increase in the public awareness of the dire state of British politics. The introduction of ‘sleaze’ into the British vocabulary in the mid-Eighties and the astonishing growth in its use ever since is only marginally connected to the sexual adventures of top Tories.

The word ‘sleaze’ may be new, but the concept is not. British political history this century, from Rufus Isaacs to Horatio Bottomley to Maundy Gregory to John Poulson, is littered with great corruption stories. The explanation for the increase in sleaze under Thatcher and Major is not to be found in any particular scandal, nor in the sudden susceptibility of certain individuals to corruption. Contemporary sleaze derives from the systematic removal of the props – the checks and balances – in modern capitalism which previously kept its excesses under control. Mrs Thatcher and her allies never made a secret of their aim: to break the power of the trade unions and the influence on ‘business’ of long years of postwar social democratic government. The result has been a proliferation of bureaucracies and monopolies far more powerful than the most powerful trade union or government regulator. In the matter of making money, the new monopolists and bureaucrats have shed embarrassment, shame and self-discipline.

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