The Laws affair: scandal ain’t what it used to be
When a minister resigns over paying rent to his secret gay lover, it is a sure sign that political life has slipped to scandalously low levels.
It seems that scandal, like much else in political life, ain’t want it used to be. Now that all the top-level weeping and wailing has died down over the resignation of David Laws, chief Treasury secretary in the UK’s new Lib-Con government, we can pose the unasked question: what the **** was that all about? ‘Newspaper reveals that closeted gay millionaire claims parliamentary expenses to pay rent to his long-term boyfriend – instead of, er, admitting they are partners (apparently because that would have upset his old mum) which would have qualified him to claim a lot more in expenses.’ Oh, the horror.
Yet this carry-on became the big national news story for several days, effectively halting the coalition government’s plans for major public spending cuts. Everybody in the political-media class said it was very sad, Laws the Liberal-Democrat was very good at making cuts, yet he would have to go, sniff. But don’t worry David, it would not be for long, he would soon be back in government; and in the meantime Tory prime minister David Cameron admits Laws could carry on ‘advising’ the bloke who took over his job, as a sort of backstreet driver in the Cabinet.
If this is the kind of pseudo-scandal that can now bring British political life to a halt, there is something very queer going on. The truly shameful aspect of this affair has nothing to do with any ‘homophobia’ in modern society. The embarrassing thing is how low our standards of scandal have sunk, and what this says about the pathetic state of politics today.
Scandal is often a reflection of the political mood of the times. Important periods of political history tend to bring forth big scandals with major repercussions. In Ancient Rome, scandals over sex or the appointment of the odd horse as a senator could get emperors assassinated. In Tudor England allegations of adultery or graft could cause the great and good to lose their heads. In Tsarist Russia in 1917, scandalous rumours about the influence of the ‘mad monk’ Rasputin over the royal family helped to spark a real revolution. The only US president to resign, Richard Nixon, was forced out in 1974 by the Watergate scandal involving burglaries of political opponents, secret tapes and cover-ups. (This was also the episode that apparently forced the media to put ‘-gate’ at the end of every scandal story since.) And so it went on.
Scandals in modern Britain, like British politics itself, have of course often appeared fairly staid and conservative by international comparison. But even here the political class has had its seriously scandalous moments. In the years before and after the First World War, Liberal prime minister and war leader David Lloyd George was personally caught up in scandals about insider dealing and the sale of peerages. In 1923 no less a figure than Winston Churchill was accused of taking a huge wad of oil company money to lobby the government for a monopoly on Persian oil production.
More recently, in 1972, Tory home secretary Reginald Maudling was forced to resign over his links with the corrupt architect John Poulson, jailed for bribing politicians and officials to secure state building contracts. The former Labour leader of Newcastle council, T Dan Smith, was sent to prison as part of the same infamous episode. In 1999 and 2001 respectively, Tory bigwigs Jonathan Aitken and Jeffrey Archer were each jailed for committing perjury by lying during libel trials in an effort to protect themselves from scandal.
Even when British scandals were ostensibly about nothing more important than politicians’ sex lives, there was usually something more than that going on. In the landmark scandal of the early 1960s, the Profumo affair, the Tory secretary for war was forced to resign, not just because he had sex with a prostitute, but because he shared her attentions with a Soviet spy and lied to parliament about it. A decade later Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe (who had also been invited to form a coalition government with the Conservatives in 1974) was forced out of politics, not only because he was revealed to have gay lovers, but because this revelation came in the context of his trial for allegedly paying a hitman to kill his homosexual lover, the male model Norman Scott. In the event, the gunman only shot Scott’s dog, Rinka (hence the scandal was inevitably dubbed ‘Rinkagate’). Thorpe was acquitted, with a little help from the judge, but destroyed.
Nowadays, by contrast, what do we have in the way of major scandals involving politicians? The endless saga over MPs’ expenses claims is all that passes for political scandal, with each revelation apparently seeking to outbid the previous one in a Dutch auction to see how low the price of political infamy can go. We knew these were deflationary times indeed in the scandal market when a New Labour home secretary, Jacqui Smith, was sunk by a £10 expenses claim for renting two ‘adult’ films. Three Labour MPs and one Tory peer are due to stand trial over their mortgage interest claims.
The petty and personal nature of contemporary scandals over sex and money has now reached something of a nadir in the (probably temporary) downfall of Laws over claiming expenses for rent he paid to his ‘secret gay lover’. Everybody knows he could legally have claimed far more by openly setting up home with his partner. Few outside the Westminster bubble cared about it, and fewer inside wanted him to go. Yet such is the low threshold for scandal these days, the need for politicians to go through the motions of public repentance, that his resignation was inevitable.
It seems that, just as politics has shrunk in terms of the issues and conflicts at stake, so political scandals too have diminished in scale. The Lilliputian politicians of the modern era can be laid lower still by little scandals, without it making any difference to the world.
The big scandals of the past tended to reflect the public standing of the leaders caught up in them, and the major political battles in which these scandals often became weapons. The personal financial scandals that hit British politicians in the early 1920s, for example, broke amidst the political turmoil of the post-war revolutionary era, at the same time as the political scandal of the infamous forged ‘Zinoviev letter’, supposedly from the Soviet regime, helped finish off the first Labour government. The Profumo scandal marked the downfall of the old Tory establishment and the start of the ‘Swinging Sixties’, while the scandals of the 1970s in the US and the UK broke against the background of intense political struggle over everything from the recession to the Vietnam War. These were times of all-out political battles and class struggles, and the major scandals reflected and reinforced the mood of the age.
Today politics appears a shrivelled and flaccid affair by comparison. As often discussed on spiked, there are no political principles at stake, no political leaders or parties worthy of the name. All is small and narrow and petty. In the absence of anything more substantial to stand for, the political and media class has declared that ‘sleaze’ and personal character are the benchmarks by which politicians should be judged. That is why relatively minor scandals can bring them down, whereas statesmen of the past such as Lloyd George and Churchill could survive because they counted for something more than their expense accounts.
The Laws affair reflects the political mood of the time just as the scandals of yesteryear did theirs. It reveals politics today as a small-minded matter of accountancy and image management and token gestures, presided over by characterless and interchangeable figures. It also confirms that politics is now considered an entirely internal elite affair with as little public involvement as possible. Laws was deemed to have breached the new etiquette of the elite, so sadly he had to stand down for a while (while still privately ‘advising’ his successor), rather as the monarch’s favourite aristocrat might temporarily be banished from a medieval court for some indiscretion. This is almost a pretend pseudo-scandal, with the elite going through the motions of a ritual sacrifice that means little to them and less to anybody else.
Yet some commentators are so deluded that they accused Westminster of caving in to ‘the mob’ by getting Laws to resign. Were there really crowds beating on the doors of parliament and baying for the blood of a minister who had been in office for all of 19 days? Hardly. The only ‘mob’ in evidence was the collective voice of the media. This highlights another important difference with the petty political scandals of today. In the past the media sometimes acted to expose high-level scandals, and often tried to cover them up. But either way it was only the messenger in a wider struggle taking place in society. Now, in the absence of anything else, the media has become the monopoly focus of politics – and the self-appointed judge and jury of what is considered scandalous.
The Daily Telegraph story about Laws’ financial and sexual affairs was hardly the product of fearless investigative journalism. Like the rest of the paper’s revelations about MPs’ expenses, it was handed to them on a plate some time ago, and then deployed when it suited the disgruntled Torygraph to get one over on the upstart Lib Dems. This use of scandal, too, looks more like the power-bitching between cliques at the royal courts of old than part of a genuine political struggle.
There is little need to feel sorry for David Laws; a middle-aged City boy brought down by his embarrassment over what his mum might say surely needs to grow up if he wants to be a government minister. Most commentators have agreed that he should not have had to resign over such a matter, because he was doing a ‘marvellous’ job implementing the coalition government’s first round of public spending cuts – cuts which, everybody seems to have forgotten, his Liberal Democrats opposed in the election. And no, perhaps he should not have been forced out over this issue. But that is because the entire Lib-Con government should be put to the test and held accountable for its austerity politics, rather than wasting our energies on the ins and outs of their pseudo-scandals.
A far more serious problem is the consolidation in power of the new isolated cross-party political elite of which Laws is only one interchangeable part, along with the Camerons and Cleggs and Milibands etc. Perhaps the only better example of a politician who has risen to power without trace is his successor, Danny Alexander, who has gone from acting as press officer of an obscure tourism organisation to chief secretary to the Treasury in about five minutes. They are trying to impose austerity politics from behind the drawbridge of their insulated five-year parliament, while the media ‘entertain’ society with more tales of MPs’ expenses. Now that is scandalous.
This is the end point of the process that some of us have warned about from the start, when the elite obsession with sleaze becomes a substitute for political debate. Some are now asking, in the wake of the Laws scandal, who would want to be a politician? An even more important question might be: if this is what now passes for an important scandal and government crisis, what price political debate?
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large.
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