During the slow news period which characterises the British summer, we’re treated to an increase in the amateur Kremlinology that passes for journalism in today’s news-on-demand culture. A quick glance at today’s Times shows up articles on how Obama may be too thin for US voters,* on how to interpret the books that Tory MPs are reading on their holidays, and on Boris Johnson’s distant blood relation to the royal family (not online yet). This fascination with the lives and personalities of our politicians is perhaps symptomatic of the representative system we live in. What is interesting is how it translates into a facination with personal scandals.
Political conversations have become dominated by shock and outrage at the latest corruption or sex scandal. Whole books and careers are dedicated to exposing and condemning such activities. There’s nothing inherently wrong with condemning politicians (or indeed anyone) for blatant disregard for moral conduct. However, when we focus on the personalities, there is an implication that our political system would be fine without these corrupt politicians. Such thinking obscures the fact that such problems are a natural sympton of the society we live in.
The latest scandal is always shocking. Commentators are appalled that Blunkett used ministerial privilege, and that Ian Blair gave the contract to a friend. When it happens constantly (as it has over the past fifteen years) the problem is presented a downturn in moral conduct in modern society, and poor delegation by those appointing the offenders. Boris Johnson, who has been involved in his fair share of scandals, was quick to fire Ray Lewis because of “financial misconduct”, to show that there can be no impropriety under his watchful eye. This is highly misleading; if the likelyhood of being found out were a sufficient deterrent, then corrupt practice would be a thing of the past. Instead, malpractice, ranging from a councillor skimming a few quid, to Berlusconi rearranging a country’s legal system to suit himself, is endemic.
This is not because of a few bad eggs. New Labour, and the Tories before them, have shown that payoffs and privilege can corrupt an entire government. To find the answer we have to go back to Lord Acton and his observation that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, and to the namesake of this blog Percy Shelley, who said that “power, like a desolating pestilence, pollutes whate’er it touches”.
When individuals rise to the top of the hierarchy, there is a feeling, well explained by C. Wright Mills in The Power Elite, that they occupy a higher plain than those below them. Their actions are inherently justified. Those around them are doing it anyway, it’s the way things are done at the top, why get left behind? Such arrogance peaked with Richard Nixon, who famously insisted that “when the president does it, it’s not illegal”. We can criticise these people all we like, but the reality appears to be that they are products of an elite plateau which teaches its members that they are special, and that they are powerful. Power corrupts, and people start believing their own myths.
Barack Obama was criticised this week for being arrogant. Assigning such a term to any man who believes they have the capacity to be President of the USA is an impressive way to understate a situation. If we insist on having humble, loyal, honest and moral leaders, then we are begging for deception. The powerful are rarely any of these things, and never all of them. Our political system elevates some individuals into positions of great power, and from here they can and will do terrible things. Whenever we are shocked at the individual, we have missed the point. The focus should not be on achieving a system of pure leaders, but on abolishing the hierarchies which produce corruption and contempt for the voters. Anything else is a waste of time, a red rag which directs attention from the structural problems of modern society. It creates an obsession with personalities that has little or nothing to do with making the world a better place. We should criticise corruption, but through a broader critique of the system which produces it.
* The Andrew Marr show assured us that all may not be lost; he’s a heavy smoker, which apparently plays very well.