Scandal has a smell. It is meaty, spicy – and eventually nauseating. In these torpid, energy-draining summer days as parliament prepares for recess, the stench has been everywhere. While those at the centre of the stories shiver in private nightmares, for the rest of us it has felt, very much, like the end of days.
Take the evening of Thursday 6 July in Westminster. As on the previous day, when Labour MPs, much of the cabinet and most well-known political journalists had been mingling at the Spectator summer party, the sound of the Bands of the Household Division was echoing across St James’s Park. It was all scarlet tunics, William Walton and the thump-thump-thump of big bass drums. Meanwhile, round the park, at least three other parties were starting simultaneously.
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One was a leaving do for Christopher Hope, the widely liked Telegraph journalist, in a crammed upper room at the Albert pub in Victoria – a lone, highly decorated Dickensian galleon among the glass and concrete towers of the area. A stone’s throw away, Prospect magazine welcomed politicians, hacks and actors to its garden, backing on to the park. To the north, in St James’s Square, the London Library was holding its summer party, featuring ragtime music and a very funny, quite rude address from its president, Helena Bonham Carter.
And at each of these, simultaneously, mobiles began to ping and the same conversation spread below music and speeches. Ricocheting around was a “poison pen” email attempting to slaughter the personal reputations of George Osborne and Thea Rogers immediately before their glamorous wedding in Somerset. Within minutes, the only question anyone was asking, desperately or swaggeringly, was: “Have you seen the email?”
By that weekend, that story had already almost vanished, smothered by lawyers and replaced by a guessing game about the identity of a male BBC broadcaster who had, according to the Sun’s front page, become entangled with a 17-year-old (and who, since the story broke, has been accused of sending abusive messages to another individual after they hinted they would name him).
The two scandals shared a few important features. They were both about settling old scores. In the Osborne case, they seemed private ones – although many still loathe him for austerity, and so resented his entitled, centrist, self-congratulatory “dad dancing” in the small town of Bruton.
In the case of the BBC presenter, the parents of a young person were unwittingly playing a role in ancient score-settling between Rupert Murdoch’s journalists and the publicly funded corporation, a grudge match that’s gone on for decades.
Both stories caused intense pain to different families. Neither is funny. But for the general public they were baffling and infuriating. For all the hints on social media, they were about privileged, insider knowledge. As with the parties, the media-political elite were “in the know” while the rest of the world was excluded. For days, the mainstream media even made a piety of not telling the public what it wanted to know – your correspondent is as complicit as anyone – and doing so, repeatedly, on front pages and at the beginning of almost every bulletin.
There are overwhelming legal reasons for this. But it must have upset those who pay, via licence fee or corner newsagent, to understand the world. In this, the BBC and its main tormentor, the Sun, behaved identically.
By now you may very well be shrugging and asking yourself, so what? This summer of scandal, although fuelled by the newer technologies of social media, harks back to the Eighties and Nineties, when the all-powerful tabloid press fed Britain’s appetite for gossip and sleaze. These recent stories involving Osborne and the BBC presenter are about private behaviour. Scandals are. But whether it was the goings on of Marie Antoinette or the Prince Regent, Hollywood stars or paedophile rings in New York, private behaviour destroys, and always has, institutions of all kinds.
In the case of Osborne, and many retired politicians, there is a sense that there exists a financially swaddled uber-class, rewarded by elite banks before they swan off to the most exclusive nooks in the countryside to live a glorious life while the ordinary unwashed are left behind to fight and sweat to pay the bills.
The BBC is different, but is also a case of us and them. It’s less about the relationship between presenters and management, or even the organisation and its enemies in the rest of the media. The crucial question is about the corporation’s relationship with the public.
For the BBC is where the country still goes for the big occasions, from royal events to Wimbledon. Like some oversized, coaxing parent, it requires to be respected and trusted. On-screen names are inextricably linked with that: perhaps bizarrely, we project on to them. Every scandal knocks the trust on which the BBC stands. Just because it has survived so many before, doesn’t mean it can carry on blithely through this one.
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Ministers are already briefing that they will stop linking the licence fee, currently £159 a year, to inflation, perpetuating the long squeeze on the BBC’s finances. Morale inside its newsroom, where many of the best journalists in the country still work, is at rock bottom. Experienced reporters and producers, paid less than their rivals in the commercial sector, do not believe that senior management understands what they do or fully appreciates it. By allowing so many well-known names to be hung out to dry in the gale of social media, the managers are turning irritation to anger.
Beyond the BBC, with the growth of GB News in particular we see the stirrings of an entirely different broadcast ecology, one in which the right has its own pulpit, virtually unregulated. These are dangerous times in broadcasting: the cage-fight between the BBC and the Sun is about much more than a personal story.
For there is such a thing as a political-journalistic elite – and more and more people cordially loathe it. A new book by the Pulitzer Prize-winner James Ball, The Other Pandemic, charts the rise of the QAnon conspiracy theory from obscure message boards in the US. It may have got going as an anti-Hillary Clinton wind-up, but its influence spreads from shootings in New Zealand to last year’s monarchist plot in Germany. It combines paranoid right-wing politics about a genocidal new world order with theories of child-molesting elites, chemicals in aircraft vapour trails, and a deep strain of anti-Semitism.
QAnon may represent the wilder edge of contemporary populism but the populist instinct itself is rooted in economic failure and decline. While the champagne and gossip flows at the parties (and, by the way, why does anyone drink champagne? Filthy stuff), parliament itself is strangely quiet and empty. The heart of democracy is barely beating. The Prime Minister has put so little business on to the floor of the House that early rising has become routine. The terraces and cafés that a year ago thronged with rival Tory leadership groups are now almost devoid of MPs and of journalists. Well before recess, the life’s gone out of the place.
For those MPs still in and around parliament, the trivia of who’s up, who’s down is crowding out the more urgent politics of economics, defence and reinvestment. Tories, yet again, are plotting post-election leadership moves: I watched Suella Braverman and her friends ducking into a basement restaurant in Westminster this week for what did not look like – on balance – an impromptu karaoke evening. Labour frontbenchers talk only of a coming, overdue reshuffle.
Rishi Sunak’s five pledges – from halving inflation to stopping small boats in the Channel – are in disarray, and his party is too busy squabbling among itself to care. Keir Starmer has not yet translated his five missions into an overarching vision for post-Brexit Britain. Where there should be a vigorous and urgent debate about our nation’s future there is a void. Scandal is filling it.
Beyond Westminster, as mortgage rates continue to rise and food inflation remains intolerable for many families, faith in the ability of conventional parliamentary politics to improve daily lives is waning. Parallels with the interwar period – its cynicism about the ruling class, its desperation, its episodic examples of decadence – are becoming unmistakable. As then, the reality of British fragility in a dangerous world can’t be shut out. This is an atmosphere that breeds the politics of hate and division. And these are problems too big to be swiftly resolved by a general election.
I don’t want to subside into a bog of utter negativity. In Whitehall, Jeremy Hunt is fighting a dogged and rather brave battle against increasingly shrill Tory demands for unfunded early tax cuts. My guess is he will offer the prospect of cuts, not the reality, in an election manifesto, and dare Labour to match them.
Which Labour, in the short term, will not do. Opposition thinking is focused, rightly, on growth. It continues to evolve about Europe. But, while the need for maximal access to that huge market is unchanged, the politics of Europe is changing fast. Not long ago, in the Remainer mindset, the EU was seen as a warm, welcoming refuge for liberal values – a virtuous political huddle against the vagaries of America and the more obvious threats of totalitarian regimes.
With the rise of nationalist, xenophobic parties across the continent, this no longer looks sensible. The fall of Mark Rutte in the Netherlands (see page 9) is the latest episode in the populist wave that embraces Poland, Italy, Hungary and Scandinavia. The French riots promise, as the New Statesman has reported (Slavoj Žižek, 7 July), a new phase in racialised right-wing politics. A Britain under Starmer might begin to look less like the shamefaced exile from European liberalism, and more like its last example.
There is more than a year before all of that. In the meantime – below the brass band music echoing around St James’s Park, and the tinkle of champagne glasses, and the tittering, knowing thrill of insidery gossip, and the Westminster plotting, and the empty chamber – British political life needs to get real. What am I saying? No parties? That people shouldn’t get married? That we can somehow exterminate both jealousy and human sexuality?
Of course not. But these are serious, dangerous times – more serious than the current feuding, elitist culture seems to appreciate. The writer Joyce Cary once said that “the only good government is a bad one in a hell of a fright”. Right now, the thought applies – in spades – to British politics itself.
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This article appears in the 12 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Tabloid Nation