Diary

Conor Gearty

In September 1992, David Mellor resigned from the government after concern over an extra-marital affair and a free holiday in Europe. An affair also accounted for Mr Tim Yeo in early 1994. Soon after this resignation, Lord Caithness resigned following the suicide of his wife, which apparently was the result of an affair he had been conducting. In 1993, Michael Mates left the government after disclosures that he had sent gifts and messages of support to the businessman Asil Nadir. Norman Lamont caused an uproar over his use of public money to evict a tenant from his property. Other lesser Tories, such as Mrs Thatcher’s successor in Finchley, Hartley Booth, have left office under a moral cloud. Neil Hamilton and Tim Smith are part of a long Tory tradition. If we throw our minds back to the Thatcher age, various forms of sleaze are associated with the names of Cecil Parkinson, Nicholas Fairbairn and Patrick Nicholls. Leaving aside the proper ‘constitutional’ resignations of Lord Carrington, Leon Brittan and Michael Heseltine, and the not so proper ministerial non-resignations that cannot be mentioned for fear of the libel laws, we can still see that the rotten-apple theory of ministerial misdemeanours breaks down, since the whole barrel is infected by sleaze.

Next week, Parliament will once again be ‘opened’ by Her Majesty the Queen, having been ‘closed’ just long enough to allow MPs their mid-term break. Black Rod will be human for the day and there will be much toing and froing, loud door-banging and the like. A ‘silver stick’ will attend Her Majesty, ready to repel Catholics, as she journeys to one of Her Many Thrones, this one in the House of Lords, from where she will declaim for a while, like an expensive ventriloquist’s dummy in cheap glasses. The audience will include all the MPs, whose function it is on these occasions to walk from the Commons to the Lords in tandem with their political opponents in a display of false camaraderie, the Tories in particular looking with each passing year increasingly like a gaggle of white-collar criminals on day release for a family wedding.

Quite how this whole event is a triumph for British democracy is hazy to me. Perhaps the only people who know for sure are the tourists listening to descriptions of the event on their language-friendly walkmans in the ‘Palace’ of Westminster, or the drenched sightseers, peering into their guidebooks on one of the many open-top buses that the free market decrees must now congest the capital. To my constitutional law students, Parliament is where the fast buck is made, where the tricks of an unseemly trade are chanced, repeated and then passed on to new arrivals.

Recent events may yet prove the truth of this cynical interpretation of our body politic. But already – together with the party conferences that preceded them – they reveal a state desperate for change yet incapable of achieving it, a political culture in which form and style matter more than content, and a Parliament capable only of one unsynthetic passion: that relating to its own dignity, a cause long recognised as lost by all except those whose self-esteem is ballooned by belief in it. In this regard, as in most matters, the Liberal Democratic reaction is the most comic, and the most revealing. Two of the Party’s senior spokesmen offered totally contradictory judgments on the conduct of the editor of the Guardian, each speaking with all the gravitas and pomp of a man on the verge of power. It is this affectation of national leadership that makes Lib Dem frontbench MPs seem so unconnected to reality, even to their own grassroots, who cheerfully bested them at Party Conference in excellent debates on drugs and the monarchy.

That assembly showed clearly what has gone wrong with British politics. Here is a party that has been cheated for generations by a monstrously unfair voting system and which is about to be finally laid to rest thanks to the fatal ideological thievery of Tony Blair. Sensing the opportunity presented by their imminent irrelevance, the delegates held real debates on real issues, only then to be derided and ostentatiously ignored by a Parliamentary leadership determined to package itself in preparation for the political power that will never come. But at whom is all the packaging aimed? Not Liberal activists, whose votes the leadership were ignoring, nor Liberal voters, whose support they were taking for granted, nor even floating voters whose alienation from all parties was unlikely to be decreased by the Liberals’ decision to turn themselves into an ersatz version of the other two. The main beneficiaries were the leaders themselves, who were able by rejecting their own followers to boost their credibility in their small Westminster world by presenting themselves as responsible politicians, serious about government.

Labour’s response to sleaze has been careful, magisterial, every inch that of a cabinet in waiting. The Guardian is condemned, but so, too, is the minister whose dubious affairs would not have been exposed without the newspaper’s supposedly shameful chicanery. The Party no longer opposes government proposals as a matter of course. Rather, it makes its judgment on individual issues, with the test being, not whether something is right or wrong, but rather how it will look to the electorate. Refusing to oppose the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill may have been good politics in the narrow sense, in that it deprived the Home Secretary of an easy piece of cheap rhetoric with which to beat Labour, but it left a vast empty space in conventional politics where there should have been anger, argument and opposition to a pernicious authoritarian measure. Similarly, it is clever, no-risk politics to offer total bipartisanship on Northern Ireland, but the result is that it is simply not known in Britain that Mr Major’s dilatory approach to the IRA’s cessation of hostilities, his piece of post-imperialist pedantry in insisting for months that the IRA use the word ‘permanent’ to describe its rejection of violence, and his apparent disinclination to take matters further in tandem with the Irish Government, are thought by many to have seriously jeopardised the peace. The constitutional duty of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition is to oppose, not to win the next election.

Tony Blair may be correct in his judgment that a swing to the right is the only way to give his party a chance of victory. But in an important sense this hardly matters, since whoever wins the next election, it is already clear that Thatcherism will have triumphed. The bitter political battles of the Eighties, when Labour challenged the status quo on such fundamental issues as trade-union reform, nuclear disarmament and high unemployment, are almost forgotten, a thing of the past. A political campaign to attack Britain’s unequal society would be as unthinkable today as the idea of three million unemployed was to politicians in the Seventies. The next election will be a battle between rival sects of the same capitalist faith rather than the grand war of competing ideologies that we have seen in the past.

The Tories are of course the party of sleazeocracy, and in their willingness to be bought there is at present a genuine moral difference between the two sects. How much this is specific to the Tories and how much merely a consequence of their having been too long in power is open to debate. Long-term socialist governments, both in Britain and abroad, have also ended up attracting their fair share of moral opprobrium. What the Tory Party’s current state reveals, particularly when seen at its annual revivalist gathering by the seaside, is the true, awful extent to which 15 years of one-party rule have devoured the soul of the Party and confirmed the nation in its constitutional sclerosis. Michael Heseltine was able to describe his defeat over Post Office privatisation as part and parcel of ‘democracy’, when it was party politics that had brought him down, ‘democracy’ of any sort having had nothing to do with it.

The Conservative Party has always been only reluctantly democratic. It has opposed every important widening of the franchise, except that promoted by Disraeli, whose waffle about One Nation fooled enough of the lower classes into voting Tory – a feat unbelievable to Tory aristocrats, who knew the true extent of their successful exploitation, and one which earned the man an irremovable niche in the pantheon of Tory greats. The ‘Westminster model’ has been accepted on sufferance, more a retrospective justification for occasional electoral defeat than a reflection of the democratic health of the nation. To the Tories, the opportunity to trumpet a belief in democracy is the consolation prize for loss of power. It is therefore not at all surprising that, since 1979, the Party should have sought to consolidate its grip on power so as to end for ever its inconvenient periods in opposition. Its assault on the unions has been at least partly aimed at destroying the financial base of the Labour Party. Its refusal to contemplate reform of the law on campaign funding is intended to have the effect of making electioneering so expensive that only the Tories can do it effectively. What the poll tax achieved was to drive unknown numbers of potential Labour voters off the register. The quangos are just the latest piece of evidence to add to all the rest. (Who now remembers Sir Derek Rayner’s crusade against quangos in Thatcher’s early years?)

The other great driving force behind the Tories was evident last week in the terrible, passionate animosity shown towards the Guardian editor Peter Preston from all sides of the Party in the Commons debate on the now famous ‘cod fax’. What the Tories miss most in these years of victory and of hegemonic calm is the opportunity to express real hatred. Indeed, the modern personality of the Party is bound up in the capacity to hate: the unions, the Communists, CND and (more frequently, more satisfyingly) real people – General Galtieri, Arthur Scargill, Ken Livingstone, Gerry Adams, Colonel Gaddafi, even (though they were beginning to scrape the barrel) President Delors. Peter Preston may not be in quite this league, more a domestic Jean-Luc Dehaene, but at least he is unequivocally an enemy. So, too, are the travellers, the squatters, the animal rights activists, the environmental protesters and all the other puny victims of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill. Having seen off so many evils, the Tories are scouring the land for new opponents to vanquish.

A recent opinion poll of young adults revealed a disturbing alienation from the institutions of the state and a scathing contempt for those who work them. This goes deeper than mere dislike of politicians. Britain is always talked of disparagingly as a ‘class-based’ society, but such talk has obscured the unifying impact that class has had on the country and the debilitating effect of the new form of classlessness that now enjoys ascendancy. The old Tory myth of noblesse oblige may have been consciously rooted in the aristocratic classes and in deception practised on the lower orders, but what flowed from it was a rhetoric of social solidarity which led party leaders before Mrs Thatcher to think twice about the morality of impoverishing the poor. Labour’s class base in the trade unions had a similarly cohesive effect, providing a vital social bond for many millions of people across the country. Both parties have now disavowed these roots, and while each may be right to celebrate its consequent accessibility, the result is that both parties look culturally more vacuous than they used to.

Labour should be careful about believing that contemporary cynicism towards government can be propitiated by the enactment of a written constitution, or a Bill of Rights, or some other piece of institutional wizardry. If we did have a written constitution, it could probably provide that the monarch should not be divorced, that the Royal Family should never pay income tax, that the United Kingdom should never be split up and that the Committee of Privileges should always sit in private. The endless campaigns for amendment would constitutionalise every political issue and bring the nation to a halt, as in Canada, where the country is close to dismembering itself as a result of a wholly unreal series of constitutional crises. A Bill of Rights could well have the effect of preventing fair party-funding legislation and stop in its legislative tracks any action at all on private schools or a proper windfall tax on private utilities. In any event, such a Bill would merely transfer power to the law courts, and the answer to the democratic deficit is hardly to double it. Maybe all that is needed is a change of government, together with some well-targeted reforming legislation.

Beneath the surface of what appears at present to be political and institutional vacuity, new forms of civic order are slowly springing into life, though they share none of the unifying dimensions of what has gone before. Cynicism about public life has led to a retreat into ethnic identity, as different communities in this heterogeneous and cosmopolitan nation divide themselves into sub-groups of mini-nations. A pivotal event in this context was the Rushdie fatwa, when the state’s support for the writer was interpreted by some as an attack on the Islamic faith, a perception not helped by the fact that the blasphemy laws (on which Rushdie’s opponents sought to rely) were found to exist solely to protect the Christian faith. At the height of the crisis, an Islamic ‘Parliament’ briefly presented itself as the authoritative voice of Muslim Britain. But such a formal bid for politico-religious autonomy raises all sorts of questions about democracy, individual liberty and (particularly in the case of such an assembly) the role of women. The whole affair demonstrated the danger that exists in too willing an acceptance of cultural polycentricity.

Another new ‘limited membership’ society is youth culture. This is a self-referential world of music, partying and pleasure. But at its core is the paradoxical juxtaposition of an intense antipathy towards established politics with a strong commitment to ‘apolitical’ political issues. These are the people who have been disrupting motorway construction and protesting about animal experiments. The Government’s Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill is a quite explicit attack on this culture, and extra-Parliamentary opposition to it has been the most intense since the poll tax. The frequent marches and clashes with the police have helped to shape and invigorate the very groups that the Bill is seeking to destroy.

Believing themselves permanently inoculated against defeat, the Tories see no reason to allow serious thought to impede the exercise of untrammelled power. It remains to be seen whether Labour can redefine the civic order so as to compensate for the evaporation of the old inclusive symbols of nationhood. There is much talk of community and ‘social-ism’. Whether there is enough here to replace the old roots will be tested at the next election. It may well be the old politics’ last bid to occupy the national centre-stage.