Jowell: when the political gets too personal

Tessa Jowell should not be judged by unelected quangos for what she did in her personal life, but by the electorate for constantly intruding into ours.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

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Tessa Jowell, the UK culture secretary, should not be forced out of public office because of her personal financial affairs, or her husband’s questionable Italian connections. But neither should she be allowed to win the sympathy vote for leaving her husband.

Jowell should be judged on her record in government. And by those standards, she is one of the most objectionable New Labour leaders – an accolade won in the face of some pretty stiff competition.

She has championed what she refers to as the ‘new politics of behaviour’, which preaches that government must intervene to save the disgusting, obese, tobacco-raddled, binge-drinking masses from themselves. Two years ago, Jowell became the first leading politician openly to champion the concept of the nanny state, although she said she preferred to call it the ‘enabling state’ (1). On spiked we have long thought it more accurate today to talk about Jowell and Co presiding over a therapeutic state, with the public cast in the role of helpless, vulnerable patients on the couch.

Any of this might be grounds for wanting Jowell out of government. Yet none of it has been mentioned during the recent furore. Indeed, the politics of behaviour and crusade on personal health is one area where New Labour enjoys a consensus of support across parliament and much of the media.

The Tessa Jowell affair reveals how blurry the line between public and private life has become. To justify their rather obsessive interest in the New Labour cabinet minister’s financial and emotional affairs, some serious commentators have taken to parroting the old feminist slogan, ‘the Personal is Political’. That was supposed to be about elevating matters of personal lifestyle and identity to the level of political issues. Today, however, it looks more like public politics has entirely sunk to the level of petty personal backbiting, where government ministers can be judged on gossip rather than policy.

So Jowell’s feet have been held to the fire over her complicated domestic finances, with critics from both inside and outside the Labour Party demanding to know how many thousands her international lawyer husband received from which Italian source and why, and how much she knew about it. What has any of that to do with the arguments we should be having about, for instance, the many millions her government department is spending on politically-motivated re-education programmes for the great unaware?

It was a sign of how low the debate has sunk when one ‘senior Labour source’ was quoted as saying gravely that Jowell must be hauled over the coals because she had either lied to the cabinet secretary about what she knew, or had lied to her mortgage company. If stretching the truth in mortgage applications is now to become grounds for dismissal and public disgrace, then how many home-owners can consider themselves safe? People who live in glass houses (especially those on which they take out self-certification mortgages) should surely be wary of throwing stones.

But, they say, somebody like Jowell is a public figure, and so must be treated differently. Indeed she is different. She is an elected representative and a member of an elected government, and she can be held accountable by the electorate. Objecting to the Standards Board of England’s attempt to suspend him from office, London mayor Ken Livingstone recently argued that elected politicians should only be removed from office via the ballot box, unless they have actually broken the law. No doubt that was a self-serving statement of a new-found principle; I do not recall Livingstone making similar objections to the targeting of Tory politicians in the sleaze scandals of the 1990s.

Nevertheless, he has this one dead right. Let us judge whether people are fit to represent us, not these unelected, unaccountable standards quangos, committees and commissioners.

The elevation of sleaze into the biggest issue in politics has handed unprecedented power to such bodies. As analysed elsewhere on spiked, the latest Italian scandal involving premier Silvio Berlusconi and Jowell’s husband David Mills shows how this process has gone furthest in Italy (see The biggest scandal in Italian politics, by James Heartfield). There, the collapse of the old political parties of both left and right at the end of the Cold War left an authority vacuum that the sleaze-busting magistrates attempted to fill. In Britain we have not (yet) reached the point where zealous prosecutors can effectively lock up elected politicians without trial – but under the banners of fighting sleaze, and with the withering of real political debate, things have gone plenty far enough in a similarly anti-democratic direction.

There is no reason, however, to feel sorry for New Labour figures such as Jowell who are now falling foul of the sleaze police. It is always important to remind ourselves who created this state of affairs in the first place. Who was it that turned allegations of sleaze and questions of personal character into the defining issues of contemporary politics? New Labour and its media allies, who used sleaze as the biggest stick with which to beat the last Tory government out of Downing Street, and pledged that the new regime would be ‘whiter than white’.

And once New Labour were in office, who was it that self-righteously lectured the nation about how ‘it is important to remember that in public life you are a role model, for better or worse’. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport herself. Now, having made a rod for their own backs, the biters have been bit, hoist with their own petards, etc etc.

Yet there is little for New Labour’s critics to get excited about either. As the political becomes increasingly indistinguishable from the personal, and one sleaze ‘scandal’ inevitably follows another, the level of public life sinks ever-lower and it becomes, if anything, even harder to engage in a serious debate about the future of society. Thus those who immediately announced that Jowell’s separation from her husband must be a spin operation masterminded by Alastair Campbell unwittingly revealed the extent to which cynicism and conspiracy-mongering now poison our political culture.

Of course, everybody is entitled take a view on the personal behaviour of public figures, and we should no more seek to stop the gossip than to turn back the tide. Some of us do find it remarkable that nobody has criticised Jowell for apparently deserting her husband in the midst of a crisis – something that might colour our view of anybody’s future trustworthiness. But marital relations and domestic finances are not what should make government ministers fit or otherwise for office. They should not be sacked for blindly signing a mortgage, anymore than they should be given the prime minister’s endorsement for leaving a spouse.

If Tessa Jowell deserves to be judged and found guilty by the electorate, it is not because of her own private life and family affairs; it is because of her public attempts to intrude upon how the rest of us conduct ours.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

Read on:

This is no way to bring down Bush and Blunkett, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) House of Commons Hansard Debates, 24 March 2003

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Topics Politics


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