As published in The Daily Telegraph:
Holding the elites to account is one of Britain’s greatest virtues;
Other countries envy our media’s scrutiny of the political classes – so why put it at risk?
George Osborne likes to tell the story of the time he was returning from a distant conference and boarded a flight with his French counterpart. To this day, he cherishes the look of surprise as he turned right and headed for his business-class seat, while the Frenchman – along with all his officials – settled into the plushness of first. In fact, the Chancellor was lucky in his arrangements: austerity means his junior colleagues usually have to make do with economy. One minister, who should get a medal for the amount of time he has to spend at European summits, is frequently teased for relying on Easyjet by a European counterpart who has an official plane at his disposal.
Accompany British ministers just about anywhere, and you are reminded of the glaring differences between how we treat our politicians and how they expect to be treated elsewhere. These are most obvious in countries where the views of the taxpayer don’t get a look-in. China, which I visited recently, is a particularly monstrous example: influence is wielded in secret, and membership of the Communist Party comes with such perks that even middle-ranking officials never have to worry about carrying their own luggage, travelling in economy, or paying for their lunch.
It’s the same not just in Russia or Saudi Arabia, where power is held (and never let go) for the benefit of a few, but also in would-be democracies such as India or Brazil, where influence and wealth go hand in hand. Even in established powers, such as Japan, senior civil servants live a life of sumptuousness that the demigods would envy. Then there’s France, whose more lavish rewards for government service often leap to British ministers’ minds when this topic comes up. The recent discovery that the finance minister himself thought it perfectly reasonable to hide his money from the taxman in a Swiss bank account surprised even the most cynical of citizens.
Other countries, of whatever stripe, seem to accept a level of abuse by their elites that we now find intolerable here. A common refrain among visiting reporters is envy at the way the British media picks away at the entitlements of the political classes. Indeed, Britain wears the embarrassment of its diminished politicians lightly. Having killed off the plans he initially approved for a publicly funded set of government jets capable of flying the Prime Minister or the Queen to foreign visits, Gordon Brown was happy to park his borrowed planes – with pictures of giant tangerines on the tailfins – next to Barack Obama’s Air Force One on the tarmac. Even the original idea that Her Majesty and her first minister would share the jets was a form of national modesty that few other countries would countenance.
In Britain, politicians have been taught to live in fear of popular displeasure. Elsewhere, they have learnt to exist in comfort and safety. So sometimes, when the urge to complain that they are all the same and not worth having becomes overwhelming, it is worth considering our success in putting politicians in their place – as well as the reputational violence we threaten against elites of all sorts. Not just politicians, but sportsmen, TV celebrities, bankers, civil servants.
Whatever perks, wealth, influence and power they enjoy, that enjoyment is tempered by the knowledge that at any time, the popular jury might point its thumb earthwards. We have become adept at deploying what Churchill called “a little of the radical democratic sledge hammer” against “so many fat, insolent class and party interests”. Admittedly, he was talking about the Egyptians, and was himself prone to defending class interests, but his point was the right one: we like to put the stick about. And boy, do they complain when we do. So much of the moaning we hear from the supporters of greater control of the press has its roots in the resentment felt by those who want the trappings of celebrity but can’t stand the scrutiny.
The broader point, though, deserves to be made: the zeal with which we persecute our politicians – and, in fact, anyone tempted to use their position or wealth to lord it over the rest of us – looks increasingly like one of our strongest assets. In a world where openness terrifies the elites, we have embraced it with an alacrity that is rare among nations.
The greatest recent example remains MPs’ expenses. When the Telegraph’s revelations reached their height in the spring of 2009, senior figures took to telephoning to ask – strictly entre nous, you understand – whether it was really necessary to cause so much trouble. Might we not like to back off rather than risk, ahem, compromising relationships?
Thankfully, we declined, and relationships were duly compromised. MPs still wince at the pain they were caused, and their conditions of service remain a sore point. They have been under permanent scrutiny since, including this past week with the publication of figures showing that roughly half claim often considerable sums to pay their energy bills. An expectation has been created (and nurtured) that whatever an MP claims, even if it is wholly legitimate and fair, is too much. While there remains an interesting debate to be had about whether the damage done to politics was necessary or excessive, all have had to adapt to this savage new reality.
That same hostility is felt even more strongly by politicians who are judged to have in some way got above their station and abused their position. Chris Huhne experienced the full force of public contempt when he denied making his wife take his speeding points, then admitted he had lied about it and pleaded guilty on the morning of his trial. The arrogance of his attempt at self-justification – that it was a minor and private matter – had a particularly Continental feel to it.
It speaks volumes about the particular thickness of his brass neck that he is able to write, as he did in yesterday’s Guardian, about the need to restrain the press. The more troubling example is actually that of Andrew Mitchell, whose political career was interrupted by a sweary encounter with a police officer. The detail remains uncertain – and his downfall owed a large part to a surfeit of Tory enemies willing to brief against him. But it is clear that the police fitted him up; so it must be some comfort to see them now being put through the same process of public shaming and relentless criticism that politicians must endure.
The ferocity we reserve for the Establishment is directly linked to Britain’s long tradition of a free and ill-behaved press. It is often the first thing that visitors remark on, and certainly one of the issues that preoccupies foreign governments. David Davis, who knows something about troubling those in authority, was right on Sunday when he wrote: “At its worst a free press can be intrusive, cruel and unfair. But it is also the best weapon we have to hold the Establishment to account.”
Around the world we can see that impunity is one of the greatest obstacles to the spread of democracy and the fulfilment of the individual. It is a credit to Britain that we have taught ourselves to challenge impunity wherever we find it – and a moment of shame that politicians have reversed that process by giving themselves powers over the press.