Published 28 May 2009
Tales of tax evasion and phantom mortgages conceal a more profound venality in our political monoculture
The theft of public money by members of parliament, including government ministers, has given Britons a rare glimpse inside the tent of power and privilege. It is rare because not one political reporter or commentator, those who fill tombstones of column inches and dominate broadcast journalism, revealed a shred of this scandal. It was left to a public relations man to sell the “leak”. Why?
The answer lies in a deeper corruption, which tales of tax evasion and phantom mortgages touch upon but also conceal. Since Margaret Thatcher, British parliamentary democracy has been progressively destroyed as the two main parties have converged into a single-ideology business state, each with almost identical social, economic and foreign policies. This “project” was completed by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, inspired by the political monoculture of the United States. That so many Labour and Tory politicians are now revealed as personally crooked is no more than a metaphor for the anti-democratic system they have forged together.
Their accomplices have been those Westminster journalists and their editors, who have “played the game” wilfully, and have deluded the public (and sometimes themselves) that vital, democratic differences exist between the parties. Media-designed opinion polls based on absurdly small samplings, along with a tsunami of comment on personalities and their specious crises, have reduced the “national conversation” to a series of media events, in which the withdrawal of popular consent – as the historically low electoral turnouts under Blair demonstrated – has been abused as apathy.
Having fixed the boundaries of political debate and possibility, self-important paladins, notably liberals, promoted the naked emperor Blair and championed his “values” that would allow “the mind [to] range in search of a better Britain”. And when the bloodstains showed, they ran for cover. All of it had been, as Larry David once described an erstwhile crony, “a babbling brook of bullshit”.
How contrite their former heroes now seem. On 17 May, the Leader of the House of Commons, Harriet Harman, who is alleged to have spent £10,000 of taxpayers’ money on “media training”, called on MPs to “rebuild cross-party trust”. The unintended irony of her words recalls one of her first acts as social security secretary more than a decade ago – cutting the benefits of single mothers. This was spun and reported as if there was a “revolt” among Labour backbenchers, which was false. None of Blair’s new female MPs, who had been elected “to end male-dominated, Conservative policies”, spoke up against this attack on the poorest of poor women. All voted for it.
The same was true of the lawless attack on Iraq in 2003, behind which the cross-party Establishment and the political media rallied. Andrew Marr stood in Downing Street and excitedly told BBC viewers that Blair had “said they would be able to take Baghdad without a bloodbath, and that in the end the Iraqis would be celebrating. And on both of those points he has been proved conclusively right.” When Blair’s army finally retreated from Basra in May, it left behind, according to scholarly estimates, more than a million people dead, a majority of stricken, sick children, a contaminated water supply, a crippled energy grid and four million refugees.
As for the “celebrating” Iraqis, the vast majority, say Whitehall’s own surveys, want the invader out. And when Blair finally departed the House of Commons, MPs gave him a standing ovation – they who had refused to hold a vote on his criminal invasion or even to set up an inquiry into its lies, which almost three-quarters of the British population wanted.
Such venality goes far beyond the greed of the uppity Hazel Blears.
“Normalising the unthinkable”, Edward Herman’s phrase from his essay “The Banality of Evil”, about the division of labour in state crime, is applicable here. On 18 May, the Guardian devoted the top of one page to a report headlined, “Blair awarded $1m prize for international relations work”. This prize, announced in Israel soon after the Gaza massacre, was for his “cultural and social impact on the world”. You looked in vain for evidence of a spoof or some recognition of the truth. Instead, there was his “optimism about the chance of bringing peace” and his work “designed to forge peace”.
This was the same Blair who committed the same crime – deliberately planning the invasion of a country, “the supreme international crime” – for which the Nazi foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop was hanged at Nuremberg after proof of his guilt was located in German cabinet documents. Last February, Britain’s “Justice” Secretary, Jack Straw, blocked publication of crucial cabinet minutes from March 2003 about the planning of the invasion of Iraq, even though the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, has ordered their release. For Blair, the unthinkable is both normalised and celebrated.
“How our corrupt MPs are playing into the hands of extremists,” said the cover of last week’s New Statesman. But is not their support for the epic crime in Iraq already extremism? And for the murderous imperial adventure in Afghanistan? And for the government’s collusion with torture?
It is as if our public language has finally become Orwellian. Using totalitarian laws approved by a majority of MPs, the police have set up secretive units to combat democratic dissent they call “extremism”. Their de facto partners are “security” journalists, a recent breed of state or “lobby” propagandist. On 9 April, the BBC’s Newsnight promoted the guilt of 12 “terrorists” arrested in a contrived media drama orchestrated by the Prime Minister himself. All were later released without charge.
Something is changing in Britain that gives cause for optimism. The British people have probably never been more politically aware and prepared to clear out decrepit myths and other rubbish while stepping angrily over the babbling brook of bullshit.