Ruled by accountants who can’t do their accounts
On the donations scandals, one question remains: apart from denying it did anything wrong, what has Gordon Brown’s government actually done?
What, I wondered here last week about the Northern Rock crisis, could be worse than being known as a dull bank manager of a prime minister who, it becomes clear, cannot even manage a bank? (See They couldn’t run a credit-spree in a bank.) Well, now we know. It is to be a government of boring accountants who, the world discovers, cannot even keep their own accounts.
Peter Hain has resigned from both his government jobs, as UK secretary of state for work and pensions and secretary of state for Wales, after the Electoral Commission called in the police to investigate his late declaration of personal donations. Another cabinet member, Alan Johnson, the health secretary, has effectively also had to take on a second job as a full-time refuter of allegations about the mystery of his campaign accounts. Meanwhile, a third New Labour minister, Harriet Harman, is still twisting in the wind over questions about a £5,000 political donation.
All three of these slapdash, slow or ill-served accountants got into difficulties through their campaigns to be deputy leader of the Labour Party, an almost meaningless election won by Harman. It seems so New Labour that they should have invested so much energy, time and money (in Hain’s case, an unbelievable £100,000) in pursuit of a job title that carries purely symbolic media value, and made such a mess of it. Brought down not by political opponents, but by empty personal ambition.
The endless, monotonous round of rumours, revelations and scandals about party funding has already become the defining characteristic of Gordon Brown’s government. (And let’s not forget the Scottish Labour leader Wendy Alexander, still trying to save her career and reputation over a dodgy donation of just £650.) It is now being predicted that these donation embarrassments will continue to cast a long shadow over Downing Street for years to come.
Still, that would at least give them something to talk about. What else has Brown achieved, or even attempted, since becoming prime minister last June? There is an old saying about a government being in office but not in power. With Brown it is more like he is in office, but in denial. His ministers seem to have spent all their time, not doing things in the world, but denying stories in the media – denying that there is a crisis, denying that there was going to be an election, denying that Northern Rock was a disaster, and most of all denying that either they or Brown did anything amiss in relation to political donations.
Their denials might all be true, they may all be entirely innocent. But any government surely ought to be guilty of doing something. Instead the paralysed Brown administration has initiated nothing of note, avoided every crunch, delayed doing anything decisive. Some have recalled the famous Winston Churchill description of Stanley Baldwin’s cabinet as the Second World War loomed: ‘Resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity and all powerful for impotence.’ That comparison rings true up to a point. But Baldwin’s government was at least crippled by the major international crisis of the twentieth century. What is it, by comparison, that has Brown frozen in the headlights? Faltering house prices, some mislaid donations, TV pictures of pensioners queuing outside a bank to get their cash back. Not exactly apocalypse now.
It is a measure of how little of political substance Brown has to fall back on that his government could lose its dynamism and authority so fast in the face of relatively little. Sympathetic supporters are now calling for him to draw a line under the donations affair and get back to his ‘real’ agenda for change. And what might that be? To judge by those recent policy pronouncements that ministers have managed to squeeze out between denials, it involves compulsory cookery lessons, officially renaming Islamic terrorism as ‘anti-Islamic activity’, and announcing that New Labour is opposed to knife crime. Oh, and hoping, with everything crossed, that the economy does not go too bad until after the next election. That’s leadership.
As some of us suggested would soon be the case, Brown has now achieved the result of making the scandal-prone administration of Tony Blair look good – and even politically principled – by comparison. Blair’s New Labour, with Brown at its helm, sowed the seeds of the current debacle by turning sleaze and corruption and personal character into the central issues of British political life. Having beaten the Tories on an anti-sleaze ticket, Blair set himself up as ‘whiter than white’ and imposed new codes and rules about political conduct. It was inevitable that this moral posturing would soon return to bite New Labour in the backside, as it has been doing ever since.
However, nobody could deny that the Blair years were about more than the party funding scandal that dogged his last months in office. Blair made the historic achievement for a Labour Party leader of winning three consecutive general elections, redefined the centre ground of British politics, and made his mark as a leader – for better or, usually, worse – from Clause 4 to Iraq. He could also be ruthless when required in dumping liability government ministers; he even sacked his friend and confidant Peter Mandelson from the cabinet, not once but twice.
By contrast, Brown’s government to date has been defined by the donations scandal. When the opportunity arose to try to look like a leader by acting firm and sacking Hain, Brown bottled it again. He effectively left it to the police to force his cabinet colleague to resign. Maybe the prime minister should just ask the Met to vet all his future government appointments in advance.
The last time the deputy leader donations scandal dominated the news, about 15 minutes ago, I noted how spiked’s criticism of the sleaze obsession had begun a decade ago by objecting that politics ought to be about more than these petty financial irregularities (see Mr Bean meets Little Britain, by Mick Hume). It is still true that they ought to have bigger and better things to worry about. But it is also clear that they haven’t really. This has become the stuff of mainstream British political life, and Brown’s ‘legacy’ (stop that laughing) may well be defined by nothing more than how much of the shit flying around he manages to avoid.
Yet perhaps the most remarkable ‘revelation’ of late has been that, with New Labour frozen, mired and moribund, the Conservative Party’s lead in several opinion polls has actually appeared to be shrinking. The flaccid character of David Cameron’s alternative remains the one thing that Brown has going for him. The way that the polls can swing around when nothing is really happening in politics well illustrates the empty, unstable and arbitrary state of the contest between the major parties today, where nobody can rely on any dedicated support and ‘success’ is as easy come, easy go as some of those dubious donations.
Some of us could not really care less about the tardy or messy bookkeeping habits of politicians, and think that the obsession with sleaze (a rather dramatic name for the small-scale British ‘scandals’) has done more damage to British public life than any irregular donations to Labour Party candidates. It has helped to reinforce public cynicism not only towards individual politicians, but also towards the very ideas of political action and leadership.
For us, perhaps the only real question in the donation disputes is: why would anybody give money to these empty shells of political parties anyway? What do they stand for that could inspire us to support them? And don’t get me started on the idea of giving them a life-support machine of state funding. They are already far too much like civil service functionaries rather than fighters for political causes as it is.
Is this how politics as we know it ends? Not with a bang of clashing visions, but with a whimper of elected politicians being chastised by the Electoral Commission quangoites and grilled by the sleaze police?
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
Mick Hume saw the previous donations scandal as a case of Little Britain meets Mr Bean. He also saw the end of the media’s love affair with Brown as he loses it in the Mail and looked at how Tony Blair dealt with allegations of New Labour sleaze. Brendan O’Neill commented on the arrest of Lord Levy while David Chandler asked why does Gordon Brown hate politics?. Or read more at spiked issue Politics.
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