Neither the idiot-abroad UK defence secretary nor scandal-mongering critics seem able to separate important public issues from personal sleaze.
There are, apparently, still a lot of ‘unanswered questions’ about the precise details of the Fox affair, involving UK defence secretary Liam Fox, his man-friend Adam Werritty and some murky meetings at the ministry and with foreign dignitaries. So, here are a few more to add to the list.
How could an allegedly senior Tory statesman be so unworldly and moronic as to imagine that it would be alright to take his bestest friend along on diplomatic jaunts pretending to be an official adviser, as if they were two little boys playing ministers and aides? And then to imagine, rather like that rugby-playing royal lackey, that if he simply denied it all, the video evidence would just go away?
On the other hand, the question is: how could the Labour opposition be so pathetic as to imagine that the way to criticise the Tory defence secretary is not to attack the international policies he is pursuing, but to trawl through his diary and Google photos for evidence of meetings with his chum at the MoD and elsewhere? Don’t they know there’s a directionless, disastrous war on – in fact two, in Afghanistan and Libya – with Fox as defence secretary in the political frontline? Did it never occur to the spineless Labour Fox-hunters that attacking the conduct of those foreign adventures might be more important than tracking his jollies around the world?
One possible answer for all these questions emerged when Fox, having insisted that he had done nothing wrong, came forward over the weekend to issue a half-hearted apology for, umm, doing nothing wrong but allowing others to imagine that he might have done. The defence secretary’s statement began by acknowledging that he had mistakenly allowed ‘distinctions to be blurred’ between his professional and personal affairs. Or as Conservative prime minister David Cameron put it, in attempting to defend his defence secretary on the TV news yesterday morning, ‘the personal and the political had become too entwined’.
Truer than they imagine, those statements describe not just Fox and his shenanigans with Werritty, but the entire British political class and its conduct today. Across the board, the line has become blurred between the proper public-political sphere and the sphere where things are private and personal, with damaging effects for both. This can help to explain both Fox’s bizarre antics and the opposition’s shrill reactions to them.
Spiked has often commented on the trend for public bodies and authorities to interfere in private matters, most recently through the politics of ‘nudge’. The flipside of this is the way that private and personal concerns have often come to dominate public debate.
As the horizons of political vision and debate have shrunk, public figures have come to stand not on their beliefs, but on their personal behaviour, PR image and ‘character’. Sleaze and scandal have replaced politics, with politicians more likely to be judged on their expense returns and mortgage applications than election manifestoes. The slogan ‘the personal is political’, once the preserve of the feminist fringe, has gone mainstream. All parties and leaders now try to give the personal touch (whether we want it or not) and sell themselves on their alleged integrity rather than their ideas.
The Tories are far from immune from this erosion of the distinction between the public and the private. Even the death of Cameron’s disabled young son in 2009, a personal tragedy, was turned into a public event with political consequences. Parliamentary democracy was suspended for the day, some Tory commentators claimed that this experience would give opposition leader Cameron a special insight into running the health service, and the New Labour government worried over whether the media coverage of his bereavement might boost the Tories.
So perhaps it is not surprising that even somebody like Fox, supposedly a traditional Tory right-winger, should apparently have lost his bearings and all sense of where the public stops and the personal starts. His admitted failure to distinguish between his personal relationships and professional responsibilities is symptomatic of a wider loss of a proper sense of statesmanship in Whitehall, where British leaders these days seem to have trouble understanding that they are supposed to be serving a greater cause than their own advancement.
Of course past statesmen and diplomats have been involved in far bigger scandals than Fox’s mundane meetings with his best man, but they still tended to retain more of a sense of who and where they were in the world. In 1963 John Profumo, the Tory secretary of state for war (the equivalent of Fox’s post today), was infamously forced to resign after he was revealed to have lied about his relationship with a call girl who also had an affair with a Russian attaché. But one cannot quite imagine Profumo thinking it was reasonable to carry on his private liaisons over his desk at the ministry. Yet Fox imagined it would be okay for his chum to drop in at the MoD without security clearance when he liked, and tag along to meetings with foreign dignitaries and businessmen at home and abroad, as if the secretary of state were a parish councillor visiting old dears in draughty church halls.
So Fox looks like an idiot abroad who apparently does not know the difference between a former flatmate and a serving official. However, the way that this less-than-earth-shattering idiocy has been turned into the biggest story in politics is a sign that the opposition has little more idea of the proper relationship between the public and the personal.
Ever since Tony Blair launched New Labour on a crusade against Tory government sleaze in the mid-1990s, scandals and issues of personal probity have become the basic stuff of opposition politics in the UK. Lacking any political alternatives, opposition parties have retreated to personalised scandals. This culminated in the all-consuming scandal over MPs’ expenses, which benefited no party and should have taught them all that democratic politics will be the loser when debate is reduced to the swapping of scandalous and sordid allegations.
Yet here is Labour, having learnt nothing, trying to make allegations of personal sleaze a main plank of its attack on the Lib-Con coalition government. If the left wants to get Fox – widely seen as a standard-bearer for Thatcherism – there is no shortage of weapons to use against the defence secretary. Apart from the mishandling of the defence cuts, there is the small matter of two wars that should be opposed. Afghanistan has been a 10-year disaster, going nowhere slowly. Libya, despite the government’s recent bravado over its ‘triumph’, is a misguided mission that should never have been started and the end result of which remains unclear (see The barbarism of buffoons).
Yet this week, on the tenth anniversary of the launch of the failed US-UK Afghan invasion, Fox was having to dodge questions, not about all of the spurious justifications governments have offered for the war, but about his pal’s bogus business cards.
Of course Afghanistan was New Labour’s war in the first place. And in opposition the party has backed Cameron over Libya, sharing the government’s delusions in the ability of Western intervention to save the world. With a stale consensus on such big issues, political conflict can be reduced to the relatively petty public-personal morass.
Hence for the Fox-hunters, it’s a case of ‘Don’t mention the wars – take aim at his appointment books and wedding photos’.
The end game for Fox remains uncertain, and who cares either way? In proper political terms it does not matter much whether he stays or goes. The more important damage has been done by the elevation of this petty scandal into a national furore, reducing the scope and scale of public debate still further, and further blurring the political line between important public issues and inconsequential personal affairs.
This sort of thing can no longer be seen as a distraction from parliamentary politics. In the absence of anything of more substantial, scandals and scandal-mongering have become the real stuff of British political life. If this is allowed to carry on, the writing is surely on the fake business card for the future of meaningful democratic debate. Shoot the Fox if you want, but haven’t we got bigger wars to fight?