In British politics, intrigue emerges as king
LONDON — Sometimes it feels as though British politics is in a time warp. We might ostensibly be a liberal democracy, but our political landscape is starting to resemble the court life of kingly eras.
In those dark days, as so eloquently evoked in many of Shakespeare's plays, leaders tended to be toppled through gossip, intrigue, and backstabbing. In the absence of mass democracy, the preferred method of deposing one's opponents was through rumormongering in the backrooms and corridors of the court.
Now, in the 21st century, such scandal-mongering seems to be making a comeback. Barely a week passes without whispers that a British minister or official has done something dodgy and thus must be deposed.
Over the past month, Tessa Jowell, the secretary of State for Culture, Media, and Sport, and a staunch ally of Prime Minister Tony Blair, has been accused of knowing that her husband accepted loans from Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. She denied it. She managed to keep her job, but has since split from her husband.
Now Mr. Blair himself is feeling the heat of the "peerages for loans" scandal, where it is claimed that various wealthy individuals who made large donations to Mr. Blair's Labour Party were rewarded with titles such as "Sir," "Lord," and "Lady" and, in some instances, with a seat in the House of Lords.
Some of Blair's opponents seem to hope that this will be the scandal that - finally, after eight long years - breaks the prime minister's hold on power. It's certainly getting ugly: Now the police are investigating whether certain politicians have broken any laws in the "peerages for loans" debacle.
Over the past decade, the "politics of sleaze" has moved to the center stage of British public life. All of the big parties, and their supporters in the media, devote much manpower to monitoring the behavior of their opponents and leaping on anything that might be cited as evidence that this person cannot be trusted to hold public office.
Some argue that ousting duplicitous officials in this fashion is necessary to keep politics clean. To me, it smacks of opportunism and cowardice: Opposition parties are trying to get one over on their opponents through scandal where they have failed to do so through the ballot box. That's bad for politics - and very bad for democracy.
The scandalmongers cynically circumvent public debate, instead using rumor and revelation to knock down people in power. Our largest opposition party, the Tories, stoked the Tessa Jowell scandal in an attempt to dent the Blair government's prestige. Having failed miserably to oust Blair from power in general elections during the past eight years, the Tories go after his allies. They could not beat Blair through public debate, so they seek to edge him out of Downing Street by making accusations about his allies' private lives.
This politics of scandal and sleaze has been gathering steam for a generation - and not just in Britain. As Matthew Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg argue in their very good book, "Downsizing Democracy: How America Sidelined its Citizens and Privatized Public Debate," since Watergate in the early 1970s, both Democrats and Republicans in the United States have also relied on such methods to shift the balance of power:
"Today's tactics of political combat - revelation, investigation and prosecution - have moved to the center stage once occupied by electoral mobilization.... Both parties developed and demonstrated the capacity to drive their opponents from office without mobilizing or even consulting the electorate, which seemed a mere vestigial organ of the American body politic."
In short, scandal has become an actual mode of politics. Sleaze-hunting in Britain and "revelation, investigation, and prosecution" in the US are not so much about making politics more honest. Rather, they have become tools of the political class and sections of the media, a means of embarrassing one's foes out of office. In the US, for example, some hope that the question of who leaked Valerie Plame's name to the press will help to push President Bush from power.
And neither the Republicans in the US nor the Labour Party in Britain can complain about the scandals being wielded against them. Both of these parties came to power through this method - the Republicans by obsessing over the Clintons' private and business affairs, and Labour by attacking the former ruling Tories for being corrupt and by promising that their government would be, in Blair's words, "whiter than white." If you live by the code of the new court, you must expect to die by it, too.
Scandal busting is antipolitical and undemocratic. Politicians are ousted, not for their public beliefs or actions, but for things they allegedly did behind the scenes. And as Mr. Crenson and Mr. Ginsberg argue, the public becomes a group of "virtual citizens" who can only "watch political struggles in which we are not invited to participate." As politics becomes like the courts of old, the people once again become plebs who observe their masters bickering. Didn't we have democratic revolutions over 200 years ago to get rid of precisely these sort of antics, in favor of a better way of doing politics?
• Brendan O'Neill is deputy editor of www.spiked-online.com.