One thing you can guarantee about life in Britain is that there will be a good scandal soon. Chris Smith explores the peculiarly British need for a scandal.
Observing the current scandal engulfing News International expand day by day, along with debate in the media about whether life as we now it will ever be the same again, the thought occurs: Why in Britain have we seen scandals affecting numerous different sections of society? What does this tell us about modern Britain as a whole?
The first large scandal I can remember is the Iraq war; the dodgy dossier, the death of Dr David Kelly and the question of whether Tony Blair was a war criminal or not. The Vietnam of our generation as perceived by many; a horrific comparison by any measure, but particularly worrying because it implies that not enough was learnt by the first Vietnam to avoid the second.
After the exit of Blair from the political stage came the banking crisis. I remember thinking: “I bet Blair ducked out when he did so Brown had to deal with this”. An assumption that became more plausible the more we learned about why this crisis happened. Bankers lent vast sums of money to people with no ability to repay it, and held insufficient capital in reserve in the event of defaults. Defaults which were far more likely than they gave credit for (pardon the expression) because they assumed (as did everyone else) that debtors could all keep on borrowing from other creditors indefinitely or against assets, such as houses, which turned out to be chronically over-inflated. The most galling thing to come out of this crisis was that it exploded under a Labour government. Labour was supposed to be the party of regulation and big government but it effectively said to the City of London “We don’t want to know what you get up to, just generate and pay taxes so we can spend it on social programs and we’ll leave you be.”
After this perhaps justifiably came the MP’s expenses scandal – At least there was some explanation to why they were not regulating incredibly risky global financial institutions with world-shaking power, they were having too much of a good time. As this scandal endured into the 2010 general election the Liberal Democrats, the only party not seriously affected by the previous scandal and clearly feeling left out of the spotlight, decided they needed a scandal all of their own.
The Third Party proved their credentials as serious politicians by ripping up their election manifesto and every Liberal tract, treatise and speech in their ideological tradition. All this was done under the leadership of Nick Clegg who willingly admitted this whilst refusing to apologise to those who voted for him under the illusion they were voting for a politician who believed in what he promised.
The general ineptitude of the majority of Britain’s trade unions when they called for strike action, reduced most of us on the Left to wishing If only the other side could be so good at driving away all potential sympathy. From calling strikes on minority ballots and even smaller proportions of votes for industrial action (BA cabin crews); to calling strikes on days you would not be at work anyway (teachers unions); to being caught living in a council house on a six figure wage (Bob Crow).I do not think I am too far out on a limb to suggest British trade unionism is joining the club of institutions garnering little but scorn from all but their most dyed-in-the-wool and blinkered of supporters.
To return to the questions posed at the beginning of this piece, how do scandals aid our understanding of British life?
I think that the British instinctively distrust authority from were ever it comes. We demand accountability as a prerequisite for anybody who wishes to exercise power over us. The individuals and groups that have been mired in scandal are those who, for too long, seemed to the British people to have gotten away with their wrongdoings. Revolutions are processes not events so we can safely predict another scandal will break, and we will probably feel better – and that some sort of justice will be done – soon after.
To read Chris Smith’s other articles visit Chris Smith’s Politics On Toast blog. This article is (C) Politics on Toast and Chris Smith.