Stop the world, I want to get off

By skepticlawyer

They used to tell jokes about John Major tucking his shirt into his underpants and painting himself grey before entering the Commons. It was an oddly innocent accusation to fling at a sitting Prime Minister. Now we’re learning that the rot goes all the way down (and up), with no end in sight. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner has now resigned, an old fashioned ‘falling-on-his-sword’ moment worthy of the Roman Republic.

Meanwhile, Britain’s ranking on Transparency International’s ‘Corruption Perceptions‘ index is no doubt diving as I write. Soon we shall be on par with those paragons of democracy and good governance: Berlusconi’s Italy, in combination with terminally indebted Greece.


For those who don’t know, or haven’t believed in, the tradition of tight, anti-democratic collusion in this country, all I can say is that it has been visible, close-up, since I started reporting politics in the 1980s. There were always in-groups, small parties and dinners for proprietors, cabinet ministers and perhaps the odd political editor, which the rest of us heard about but never got near. Up to a point it has always gone on. Churchill and Beaverbrook, Labour and Maxwell.

Yet it has worsened. Margaret Thatcher was greatly helped by the support of the Murdoch papers, who behaved disgracefully towards Neil Kinnock. But Murdoch and Thatcher were instinctive ideological soulmates and it was clear who was the senior partner. The idea of Thatcher paying court to Murdoch was absurd. It was the other way around.

The rot set in with John Major’s hapless attempts to stay in favour with Murdoch and Tony Blair’s shameless political flirting to win him over. Ideology was no longer relevant. Blair’s team regarded Murdoch’s support with an almost mystical awe. That’s when Murdoch’s summer parties became the most desired places to be seen.

Cameron merely picked up the strategy and pushed it further. It seemed risk-free. He comes from the world of PR and personal contacts, high-fiving Matthew Freud, hugging Rebekah and bringing Coulson into his inner office too. Who was in whose pocket?

We have been sleepwalking into a Berlusconied Britain, a post-democratic state of winks and nods. Suddenly there is a chance to break the spell. It won’t last for ever, and it needs brave, decisive action by MPs. A stronger democracy – whose authority comes from election, not from money? Too much to hope for. But actually, today, it isn’t.

I think she’s too hopeful, there at the end — the damage to our institutions may be too great. Worth a read, though, for neatly crystallising the outstanding shittiness of the last fortnight.


  1. Posted July 18, 2011 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    To get votes you need access to voters. Access they are going to pay attention to. That means media: having politicians dancing attendance on media barons is unfortunate. Media barons dancing attendance on politicians is not an improvement. (I am reminded of Jefferson’s comment that given a choice between government without newspapers or newspapers without government, he would choose the latter.)

    Maintaining some happy medium in the middle is difficult. Especially as political parties no longer operate as mass connectors to voters.

    The difficulty is intensified because who controls the state matters so much because the state now does so much. More official discretions mean more lobbying and corruption. The belief that you can expand the ambit of the state endlessly without cost to freedom, democracy or honest government is a mirage.

  2. Posted July 18, 2011 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    [email protected]: agreed on the difficult balance of power between press and politicians, but I’d note where there is a statutory charter of independence and quality defining a news outlet associated with the state, (BBC, ABC, but not Pravda in its heyday), things have not strayed too far from the happy medium. The successes of Four Corners (and the like) in bringing down governments, but never reasonably accused of rabid partisan counterfactuals. Indeed, I suspect over the years, the “Aunties” have shown themselves to be a more honest “loyal opposition” than the political parties.

  3. Posted July 18, 2011 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    It’s my basic unease about moving to an alternative vote system – I think Cameron is right when he says that first past the post keeps politicians even at the highest levels of government, anchored to their local constituency.

  4. kvd
    Posted July 19, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    This really is grand stuff. Here we have a finely balanced report of the best reason why popcorn will be in short supply in the UK in a few hours:

    “So was David Cameron’s consigliere Steve Hilton”
    – and –
    “The Labour figures in attendance included ….. and his shadow cabinet colleague Tessa Jowell, who reportedly arrived with her supposedly estranged husband David Mills”

    So, the page turns.

  5. Posted July 19, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    That’s an excellent piece, kvd (note to readers – although it’s in the SMH, it’s taken from a British paper and appears not to have been edited or cut). The assessment at the end of the long-term damage to Britain’s institutions is spot on.

  6. Posted July 19, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    Yes, it is a great piece kvd, though tying Blair’s foreign policy to Murdoch was a step too far: Blair was actually quite consistent, being a “liberal imperialist” well before Iraq.

    On New Labour making everything worse, the “let’s make a deal-networking culture” of progressivists has an inherently toxic tendency that meshing in with corporate interests makes worse, as intention justifies just about anything.

    They are the “anti-custodians”, systematically irresponsible for nothing is ever their fault or responsibility beyond the purity of their own intentions, which is why they make everything they get their hands on worse.

    [email protected] More “honest” only in a very specific sense. They are not honest about perspectives significantly different from their own. And they have helped along some truly toxic perspectives (most obviously, in indigenous policy.)

  7. kvd
    Posted July 19, 2011 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    You’re a hard woman LE. Motives modify penalty; the last word implying some sort of failure of goal. There should not be any sort of penalty attaching to ‘fail’, unless it is obvious that a more desirable alternative was available, and that it was ignored for no good reason.

    Judge not lest etc etc

  8. Davo
    Posted July 19, 2011 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    first response
    the damage to our institutions may be too great

    i doubt it. The “institutions” of law and justice remain.

  9. Posted July 19, 2011 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    But you can’t know what someone’s motives are without psychic powers, kvd. I’ve never understood why lawyers think they can do it.

  10. kvd
    Posted July 19, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    I somehow knew you’d say something (sensible) like that 😉

  11. Posted July 19, 2011 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

    Judging motives and/or intent is very hard. Courts do get it wrong. However, they also get it right more often than not. There is also strong empirical evidence that legal systems that draw no distinction between murder and manslaughter – a question of intent – run into difficulty (this was a major problem in the early Germanic codes, contributing to ugly cycles of vendetta that often lasted for generations).

    Bear in mind, however, what courts go through (when it comes to intent/motive) during the course of evidence. It’s a long and complex process. The problem with establishing and divining intent outside a courtroom is the lack of the same process. In those circumstances, valuing policy intent over policy outcomes is about as much use as determining monetary policy on the basis of, I dunno, astrology.

  12. kvd
    Posted July 19, 2011 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    Well before you go on I’d just like to say that this is the most humble day of my life.

    And i’m running out of (pop)corn.

  13. Posted July 19, 2011 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

    Poor old Rupert is struggling…

  14. kvd
    Posted July 19, 2011 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

    Why is he appearing with his son? Must have been the only way to get him there? That Watson fellow is doing a good job harping on ultimate responsibility.

  15. Posted July 20, 2011 at 1:24 am | Permalink

    And now, for our delectation, the inevitable Gap year anarchist and his faux custard pie. What a noodle.

  16. kvd
    Posted July 20, 2011 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    I expect the air is fairly dark in the UK with the threat of legal actions, so I’m not asking for any response from SL on this specific instance. More just a general question I’ve never had clear in my mind: Is there any recourse available whatsoever for anyone damaged/libeled/harmed/etc by deliberate or inadvertant comments made under parliamentary privilege? Or is it an absolute get out of gaol free card?

    I’m thinking maybe something like the ability for a citizen to request the claimed injury be investigated by the House Privileges Committee, or whatever it is called.

  17. Posted July 20, 2011 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    Nope, there ain’t. Parliament isn’t called ‘cowards’ castle’ for nothing. It’s known in the trade as ‘absolute privilege’ and has been formally enshrined in Britain since the Glorious Bloodless Revolution of 1688 (although in reality is much older).

    Of course, that doesn’t mean that people won’t hate and plot against you for what you said about them in cowards’ castle. One of the reasons a lot of otherwise law-abiding Romans went ‘meh’ when the Second Triumvirate killed Cicero (followed by Marc Antony’s ex-wife Fulvia desecrating his body) was the perception that he had made use of ‘cowards’ castle’ rather too much.

  18. kvd
    Posted July 20, 2011 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    Thank you SL

  19. Movius
    Posted July 20, 2011 at 11:51 pm | Permalink

    You’re all a pack of naughty billionaires

  20. Posted July 21, 2011 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    Methinks Wendi Deng probable knows a bit of Shaolin style. She’s very tall for a Chinese woman (5’11 I read somewhere) and height works in Kung Fu and karate the same way it does in boxing – gives you extra reach.

  21. Posted July 27, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    I believe that Adam Smith’s quip that “there is a lot of ruin in a nation” may be an appropriate corrective here.

    I was struck by how, of the top 10 countries to do business, 8 are former parts of the British Empire. Signs of good institutional heritage!

    The other two are Denmark and Norway, with all the Scandinavian countries being in the top 15. Which is one of the things people often miss about the Nordic countries: they are actually quite free-market. Just because one has a large welfare state does not mean one has lots of regulation. Indeed, the bigger one’s welfare state, the stronger the policy premium on economic efficiency.

    If one checks Transparency International Corruption Perception Index, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, all top 15 are low corruption countries. This goes together, corruption being the market for official discretions. Less official discretions tends to mean less corruption.

    On the other hand, the UK is rated notably lower than the Scandinavian countries, the Antipodes, Canada if still higher than most of the rest of Europe.

  22. Posted July 27, 2011 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    [email protected]: Fudge Current Account balance in there would be handy too. And, as an aside, there’s a difference between “doing business” and “getting things done”.

    Quite a few years ago now, The Economist came up with an almost Bernard Wooley “Red tape holds everything together” … under the right circumstances.

    Red tape good in low-corruption countries (bad stuff doesn’t get put in, need to be dismantled and rebuilt, so costs of the service are lower in the long run), bad in high-corruption countries. (the latter along the lines you indicate).

    But the key to low corruption is public servants getting a livable wage, so they don’t have to try and supplement their income with brown paper bags. (If a cop’s wage is below that needed to get a roof and feed the family, then there is only one thing to do to live – cosy up to crooks)

  23. Patrick
    Posted July 27, 2011 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    Not quite, DB, it is good red tape good, bad red tape bad.

    The kind of regulation which is endemic in poor countries with numerous stamps and approvals and documents is bad in every case. OTOH, a lot of good regulation is not possible in most poor countries since none of the skills institutions or checks and balances exist in sufficient quantity.

  24. Posted July 28, 2011 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    [email protected] There is a difference between regulation per se and official discretions. Germany, for example, has a constitutional barrier to official discretions stopping people do what they want with their property, but not bar on regulation doing so.

    That is, there is a difference between general rules and having to get official approval. In Germany, if you obey the rules, bureaucrats have no right to stop you. In the UK, you have to get explicit official approval to do almost anything with your property. The different levels of incentives for corruption is obvious.

    So, Patrick’s point about stamps and approvals is correct.

  25. Posted July 28, 2011 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    That should be ‘no bar on regulation’.

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