The Lord Sewel scandal makes me feel proud to be British. For here, thanks to some glorious John Wilkes-style dirt-digging by the Sun — in your face, Leveson! — we have a proper political scandal.
This ain’t no yawn-fest about MPs claiming the cost of a Kit-Kat or accidentally favouriting a gay-porn tweet: sad little pseudo-scandals which in recent years have tainted the good name of ignominy.
No, the fall of Sewel is a full-on, drugged-up, peer-and-prostitutes scandal, of the kind Britain used to be pretty good at before the square Blairites and cautious Cameroons took over. The disgracing of Sewel is a reminder of British politics at its saucy best. Sewel, I salute you.
Like our steel industry and pop music, Britain’s ability to do scandal has been in decline. The nation which gave the world the Profumo affair — call-girls! Soviets! Orgies! — has in recent years clutched its pearls over such non-stories as Peter Mandelson getting a loan off a rich mate and Jacqui Smith’s husband spending £10 on porn films. Please. If he had starred in a porno that would be something.
The naffness of British scandal was summed up in the juxtaposition of two newspaper front pages that went viral in 2013. There was the Toronto Star, whose cover featured notorious Toronto mayor Rob Ford next to the headline, ‘I have smoked crack cocaine’. And there was the Brentwood Weekly News, whose front page had an exasperated-looking Eric Pickles next to the headline ‘I did not spend £10,000 on extra biscuits’.
Look, no offence to my Canadian friends, but if that nation, which isn’t exactly famed for its vim, is beating you in the scandal stakes, you know you have a problem.
The smallness of scandal has become depressing. An MP built a duckhouse from the public purse? Fetch my smelling salts! A Tory MP sent naked photos of himself to someone he thought was a Tory activist but was actually a journalist? And? We’ve all done something like that. That a journalist had to tempt an MP into a pants-down scandal shows how desperate the press has become for filth in politics. In this era of the Third Way, when pretty much every politician is a PR-trained, think-tank-produced bore in a suit, the press has to badger them into doing something vaguely saucy.
Notably, in recent years we went from talking about scandal to obsessing over sleaze. Bereft of politicians who were getting up to any kind of serious, sexy, booze-fuelled no-good, we had to make do with shaking our heads over politicians who were just a bit self-interested or keen to make some cash. Where once we had ministers for war who shared young flings with Soviet attachés, now we have politicos whose greatest sin is to have once had lunch with an oil mogul.
Not only did the anti-sleaze movement of the 1990s and 2000s serve up dull non-scandals that would struggle to make a nun gasp — it was also worryingly anti-democratic. We saw the emergence of all kinds of committees and rule-books designed to curb what politicians could do and whom they could meet. The sovereignty of the electorate was watered down. And politicians were encouraged to become even squarer and avoid doing or saying anything that might startle the tee-total do-gooders (LOL) of the liberal media.
The shrinking of scandal speaks to the shrinking of politics. When politics meant something, when it involved a genuine clash of interests, scandals had more meaning and momentum too. The resignation of Tory home secretary Reginald Maudling in 1972, over his links to a corrupt architect who was jailed for bribing politicians to secure state-building contracts, spoke to the conflict between the private and public spheres, between the market and politics. The Profumo affair was shot through with Cold War intensity.
In contrast, today’s small-fry scandals, over biscuits or text messages, show how emptied of substance politics has become. Under the regime of the shallow politics of personality, you can be sent packing from the political sphere simply for your rent arrangements or for once having dropped your Y-fronts for a keen texter. When personality is everything, even the most minor misdemeanour can be used against you.
So, thank you, Lord Sewel, for reminding us what scandal really means. Snorting cocaine off a prostitute’s breast, badmouthing politicians before getting your end away — now that’s what I call scandalous behaviour. He has to resign as chairman of committees, of course, but let’s congratulate him too, for rescuing the ideal of ignominy from the easily shocked, sleaze-dodging dullards who now dominate politics.