Tuesday, 9 August 2016

The moral vacuum at the heart of British politics

I cannot help but enjoy the writings of Janan Ganesh in the FT today.
Britain is not corrupt, as such. Laws on bribery and embezzlement are not routinely broken. The country does well in transparency rankings.

But what it lacks in venality, it makes up for in cosiness. Insiders look after each other and mediocrities fail upward, or at least sideways. The elite is only half-porous: it is possible to get in but not to fall out. There are plenty of second acts in these British lives. There is always a commission to chair, a university to head, a seat to take in a second chamber that now has almost 800 members keeping London’s livery tailors in profit. This is public service as a parallel welfare state for good eggs.

Unlike a system of hard corruption, there is no cynicism among the players. They do not think they are getting away with anything. This makes the problem all the more insidious and hard to define let alone fix, until you remember who the prime minister is.
This is broadly what we call the establishment. Ganesh goes on to draw our attention the more egregious flaws of the House of Lords and the honours system. But why single out the House of Lords? Everywhere you look this "gongs for mongs" dynamic exists, not least with Robert Oxley being awarded a lucrative spad role for DfID despite not knowing a solitary thing about foreign aid or international development. The toryboy bratpack has an iron grip on the right of the conservative party.

Apart from their shrinking band of admirers they are liked by few, not least since they are a bunch of plagiarising self-referential, shallow narcissists - often followed closely by political interns and PPE students on the make, with no particular political agenda so long as it gets you invited to all the right shindigs. It's no different on the left either. As the odious Francis Carr Begbie remarked of the late Jo Cox:
"Hers was the typical smooth career path of the modern political cog. From her grammar school, where she was the Head Girl, she seamlessly moved onto an extended period at two universities before emerging as professional aid worker for Oxfam and Save the Children. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was another fashionable international development outfit in which she managed to wangle a position as “advisor.”

She certainly travelled extensively, but to what extent did she get her hands dirty? Rather than mopping sweat-covered brows, her role as a policy consultant seemed to revolve swanning around seminars, conferences and committee rooms in Brussels and London. Networking, rather than counselling, seems the main skill in this field.

The safe Labour seat seems to have been a reward for acting as a bag-carrier for prominent political wives such as that of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and a former Labour leader and Euro aristocrat Neil Kinnock. Her constituency seat had been represented by local white men for decades so an all-female shortlist had to be imposed on the local party to ensure an acceptable candidate could be given this plum.

It was a gilded lifestyle with a houseboat on the Thames beside Tower Bridge at which she hosted networking events for important left-wing women. There was a second house in her constituency which was a venue for a huge Solstice party each year.

The role of international aid worker is highly valued among a section of shrewd university-educated females. It offers a particularly attractive combination of a good salary in an expanding sector, frequent foreign travel and high status among the do-gooding circles."
And then on the right there is a sordid den of parasites who formed the rump of the Vote Leave campaign. Toryboy bottom sniffers and their hangers on. All the Tufton Street cronies who are all too happy to connive and steal their way to lucrative posts. This is why the theft by Ben Kelly and Roland Smith is so deeply offensive.

It all turns on prestige and sucking up to the right people in the pecking order. Perhaps this is just human nature and perhaps this is just how high end politics gets done but it is a sad reflection on all of us if that is true.

But then Ganesh himself belongs to an equally dismal and snobby little clan who award each other prestige. The "transmit only" bunch extending from the LSE to the Financial Times who have displayed a breathtaking willingness to lie through their teeth in defence of an EU establishment whose wholesale larceny is unrivalled. This blog is certainly no fan of the FT's moral and intellectual corruption.

You'll get no argument from me that the House of Lords is increasingly difficult to defend in its current form, but we will need a more fundamental purge of the establishment if we want to remove the soft corruption that exists within it. That starts with removing many of the political structures that support and finance it. The EU being one of them.

That said, I don't think there is a cure for our system that rewards obedience and sycophancy. What matters is the public have a means to hold our rulers to account for their excesses. That means bringing the decision making closer to home - from Brussels and from London. This is something Janan Ganesh did his level best to prevent.

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