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Demanding the impossible: why sleaze in UK politics will never go away

The UK political system is a history of scandal after scandal. If we look to just the recent past, we could mention the way Covid has been handled, the Grenfell disaster, MPs expenses, the Panama Papers, Windrush, Hutton, cash for honours, cash for questions, back to basics, Hillsborough, Orgreave, spycops… There’s a seemingly never ending list of abuses of power, judge led inquiries, whitewashed reports, ignored recommendations and calls for greater standards in public life.

In some cases, justice can take decades. In others, it never comes. In those scandals directly affecting the conduct of politicians, what often follows is tighter rules on what they can and cannot do. The establishment sees this as setting the bar higher for those in public life. In reality, things do not get harder for those in positions of responsibility. The goalposts aren’t higher to kick over; they’ve just been moved horizontally to cover different ground. They may be a little bit wider. The reason for this is that standards are not really the issue because they’re not really the cause of the problem. The cause of the problem is hierarchy, and nobody in public life is interested in dealing with that.

Not only does hierarchy offer sanctuary for abusers of power in many cases, but it is an abuse, in and of itself. The first person who ever took power and formed the rules to fit their new status, set in train a history of abuse. Modern, complex forms of hierarchy are seen by many as necessary and what we are left with is constant debates about the positioning of the goalposts, the wideness of the posts. The bar itself always stays low. We never get to discuss the source of the problem, so ingrained is it in our political system.

One of the major inhibitors to discussing an end of hierarchy in a meaningful sense, is the fact that those with the power to change the system have, themselves benefited from rising through the hierarchy. Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen members of the House of Lords demanding that Boris Johnson come clean about government contracts and donations to the Tory Party, without irony. Here we have people who see themselves as legitimate, despite their unelected status. They see themselves as suitable for public office, having been propelled to the office by a prime minister. They don’t see that as an abuse over the rest of us. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury (also in the Lords) called for kindness in politics over sleaze allegations. Welby just happens to have been educated at Eton College, like two of the people at the centre of recent allegations of abuses of power, David Cameron and Boris Johnson. In 2017 Welby was criticised by survivors of sexual abuse in the Church of England hierarchy for speaking out about failures at the BBC regarding Jimmy Saville. It has taken years for survivors within Welby’s ultimate care to get heard and their suffering acknowledged.

The people that rise towards the top of the hierarchy are intertwined and have no real motivation for making their lives harder by giving themselves more regulations. A tweak here and a tweak there will do. Tony Blair was tough on John Major’s government over sleaze when he was in opposition. He rued it a few years later as allegations over cronyism and cash for honours surfaced. He said he was sorry for giving Major such a tough time. He also regretted introducing the Freedom of Information Act, a set of provisions that allow the public to actually find out what public bodies have been doing in their name.

This is not to say that the discussions over standards are unimportant. Far from it. It has to be of importance that the UK has a prime minister that has told so many lies that it’s hard to keep up. Conservative journalist, Peter Oborne, has tried to do just that. He has collected just the lies that Johnson has said in parliament and presented them in book form to both Johnson and the Speaker of the House of Commons. The scale of the Johnson lies, and the cronyism, contracts and donations that go with it is new. People often assume that politicians are liars and we all get fed up of politicians not answering the questions put to them, which is as good as lying in some ways. Johnson is demonstrably different. He is not employing the spin of the Blair years. His style is to actively say whatever comes to mind at the time he is speaking, regardless of whether it has any shred of truth to it. Perhaps the scale of this is so large, it is a risk to the credibility of the hierarchy as a whole. In such circumstances it seems unlikely that it will go unpunished.

So far, the suggestion has been that the public don’t seem that interested. Johnson has been enjoying high personal approval ratings and the Tories are high in the polls. As I write this, there are signs that this is changing. Elections on Thursday (the biggest set of elections outside of a general election ever) could yet provide Johnson with a headache. In Scotland, the SNP look set to gain over half the seats in the Scottish Parliament. In English councils the Tories are expected to cling on to many seats but maybe that will change. They are also on course to win the Hartlepool byelection. The media is ready to present a narrative of ‘a bad election for Labour’ but I’m not so sure. These are unprecedented times. Opposition is an art form in the UK system. Opposition in a pandemic is an unknown. I’m not convinced that it is possible yet to fully understand the mistakes and style of Labour under Kier Starmer, although there have been plenty of mistakes to look at. Note, I’m not making judgements about Starmer’s political standpoint, just his political craftwork.

Whatever happens on Thursday, the issues of sleaze and standards will continue. The public are in the position of allowing the politicians to police themselves. Hierarchy is not under threat. Instead, the precise rules the hierarchy runs to could end up changing. Meanwhile, the common abuses of hierarchy will run wild, as normal. The Etonians will carry on rising to power, the judge-led inquiries will carry on taking years to produce anything, the whitewashes will continue. Things will settle down for a while, and then a new scandal will emerge and public discussions over what exactly is allowed and what is not, will ensue. More inquiries, with more recommendations, will follow and then, eventually, the goalposts will be picked up, moved, and the game will be allowed to begin again.

Jon Bigger

Photo: Matt Brown, published under CC BY 2.0.

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