We’ve finally gotten to the end of a road which has been decades in the making, in which politicians have slowly realised something that the direct action left has known for a very long time — noise is not a threat.
There’s been a conceit in Western politics going back generations that if a politician is caught doing something truly appalling they will of course fall on their sword rather than continue to embarrass their side. The theory has tended to go that the longer a known liar stays in their position the less the public will trust — and obey — their overlords and punishment will duly follow at the polls.
Examples of this position in practice are many, the most famous of semi-modern times being the Profumo affair of 1961, a sex scandal which not only ended the career of the Secretary of State for War (pictured above, in suit), but Harold Macmillan’s premiership and the Conservative government itself. It was held as a salutary lesson and regularly referred back to in the old canard about British political corruption that money brings down Labour, sex brings down Tories.
This assumption that if the scandal was big enough then resignation was inevitable carried through into the ’70s (the Thorpe Affair), Cecil Parkinson in the 1980s and Cash For Questions in the ’90s, among many others. Even in the 2000s Mark Oaten could be found handing in his notice after being caught paying for sex, and Peter Mandelson resigned his post (again) over misleading statements.
That (again) is important, however, as it points towards a trend which started to pick up speed around the Millennium. What politicians started to notice around this time was a distinct lack of public pushback over their misdeeds, something Tony Blair tested when he brought the wildly untrusted Mandelson back from the wilderness he’d been consigned to in 1998, following an undeclared loan from Geoffrey Robinson.
Whether Blair consciously identified what he was outlining with that stroke of his pen in October 1999 is hard to say, but with mere months to go before the 21st century began he arguably set the tone for the next two decades of politicians increasingly trying to brazen out their exposed indiscretions rather than “doing the honourable thing.”
After the prince of darkness got his second wind, followed by a second resignation in 2001 over influencing a passport application (he really is just vile) a slowing process of sword-falling occurred, until the late 2010s, where they were largely replaced by denial and, sometimes, suspensions. From Cameron and Gove’s alleged drug-taking to the expenses and Westminster abuse scandals, the willingness of MPs to walk through the media’s ire has been steadily rising.
But why is this? Well, perhaps because they’ve belatedly realised that in our modern political reality there is little threat to them in waiting out the outrage train.
In 1961, even in 1991, there were a number of factors which might make an MP (or their superior) think twice about keeping their finger in the pie. First was the length of the drubbing. In the age of newspapers and a slower daily news cycle, their shame would be the top story in a significantly less densely-packed field. It would last longer, the reporters would be more resourced to go after them.
Second was the social tone. Unlike today, where an affair (or being gay) is considered only semi-worthy of even mentioning and often a little unpleasantly invasive, it used to be a mainstay of titillating gossip — our “betters” being no better than we are. Social death and an embarrassment of the government consequently had greater weight.
And thirdly, there was a threat. The ruling elites of the day were in a constant state of struggle with a powerful working class, with the might of the unions in the sixties and the sting of a militant counterculture at the end of the ’80s. Mistakes which undermined the moral authority of the State were a weakness that was far less easy to tolerate in this atmosphere. In order to support the idea that you’re morally superior to your opponents you must expunge examples of this not being the case.
What Blair, intentionally or not, identified that rainy October 21 years ago was the oncoming collapse of all three factors. The advent of 24-hour television and the internet would do for the ponderous, thumping, in-depth news cycle of yesteryear. Changing social attitudes would render the common sex scandal all but obsolete (a change Boris Johnson himself has benefited from). And the truest threat of all, that scandal might mobilise popular consequences, had been largely doused — a fact illustrated on a mind-blowing scale just two years later when Blair’s own greatest scandal, the Iraq War, brought a million people to the streets, who then marched around in an entirely unthreatening fashion for a bit and went home.
In years to come there would be resignations here and there, but the option was laid bare that a politician with enough power and an ability to sit still for long enough could simply wait out a scandal. The “moral” action was no longer a requirement, as long as your support base was strong enough.
Which brings us to today, and Boris Johnson’s stolid support for Dominic Cummings, a man who is disliked by almost everyone, but who serves a purpose the PM finds important. Is it any wonder that Johnson, a man who himself has more scandalous skeletons in his cupboard than a morgue, is sticking up two fingers to the general public whose discipline, lawfulness and even support he has abused for years on end, failing upwards regardless? He’s got endless evidence in his life that no matter what he does or says he’ll still get what he wants.
Johnson doesn’t fear consequences, and that is the root of not only his problem but those of his colleagues, such as just a little bit of treason Priti Patel, who did resign and is now in charge of the police as Home Secretary. It’s at the root of Cummings’ entire ethos, and why he felt he could get away with acting as though the laws don’t apply to him. They are secure in their positions, secure in the support of their Establishment cronies, secure in the backing they have from a devoted following who will rubber stamp anything the government says, as long as it’s blue.
Things can’t go back to the way they were. The media’s former, longer attention span will not suddenly be regained in an era of nimble internet spectacle-mongering. The social conservatism of the past is far from its hegemonic heyday.
But there is one way in which the piss-taking of politicians can be brought back to Earth. They must be made to feel the cold wind on their necks when they pull this nonsense. If the media can’t do it, and as we know, the police won’t, then that knowledge of oncoming consequences must come from the public. It’s that which has already, at the time of writing, pushed whips and MPs to start tutting about Cummings. Just the hint of genuine public anger is enough to scare them. The possibility of direct public action? That’ll keep them awake at night.