Politicians were once held to account – now nothing stands in their way

Most people in Britain were brought up in a country that offered the faint hope of justice. The police would investigate corruption, if only occasionally. Politicians would dodge and weave but avoid flat-out lies. Political parties had moral standards, however flexible, and if a minister disgraced himself or herself they could resign. Opposition politicians, journalists, satirists, charities and alliances of concerned citizens worked on the assumption that if they exposed wrongdoing there was a chance it would stop.

 Nick Cohen www.theguardian.com 

I don’t wish to romanticise the past. My small point is that we have not always been as shamefully governed as we are governed today. Countries change and not always for the better. Corruptions of public life in Britain that were once challenged now pass unpunished. The old codes that restrained the powerful have proved useless against politicians who say: “We can break them and no one can stop us.” Boris Johnson’s administration now lies as a matter of policy and a matter of course.

Do I hear you say that all politicians lie? Not like members of this government they don’t. Today’s ministers do not just avoid the question. They lie outright, loud and proud. To confine myself to the past week, ministers said the electorate “settled the argument” about a no-deal Brexit in the 2016 referendum and the 2019 general election. The record shows Leavers promised voters “the easiest deal in human history” in 2016 and an “oven-ready” deal in 2019. They were still telling the Leave voters they cozened that we should be able to enjoy the benefits of being in the EU after leaving. If there is chaos at the ports and job losses, it will be because the EU willed suffering on us as a punishment, rather than because Boris Johnson foisted a hard Brexit on his country, with predictable and inevitable consequences.

It may seem like a lost age, but not so long ago allegations of corruption warranted police investigations. In 2006, a Scottish Nationalist MP alleged Labour was selling peerages in return for political donations. The Met questioned Labour fundraisers and ministers in Tony Blair’s government, up to and including Blair. What makes the past seem almost rosy is the sequel. The Crown Prosecution Service said there was not enough evidence to prosecute. Labour did not turn on the Metropolitan police and force its chief commissioner out. Blair did not claim that the police were pursuing a political vendetta. He and his government took the investigation on the chin and accepted scrutiny as the price of governing in a democracy.

The police have prima facie grounds this weekend to investigate the billions in Covid contracts this government has sluiced out of the Treasury to friends and allies. Cronyism wasn’t a small error of judgment. It was such an accepted part of the spending splurge that the National Audit Office found civil servants had established a VIP fast-lane “to assess and process potential PPE leads referred by government officials, ministers’ offices, MPs and Lords, senior NHS staff and other health professionals”.

If Cressida Dick, commissioner of the Met, and Lynne Owens, director general of the National Crime Agency, were to investigate, they would do so in the knowledge that the Johnson administration menaces everyone who holds it to account. The Electoral Commission investigates allegations against Vote Leave and Conservative MPs. The government proposes to abolish it. The Supreme Court rules that Johnson cannot arbitrarily suspend parliament. The government proposes curtailing its powers.

You can guess how a police investigation would be dealt with. Tory newspapers and websites – probably the Telegraph and Guido – would look for the smallest piece of dirt to smear Dicks and Owens as Remainers or liberals. The courtier intellectuals at Policy Exchange would develop strategies to stop the “activist” police officers pursuing “political prosecutions”. Ministers would endorse them and before you knew it the police would be under attack. Even if they want to investigate, the police must have noticed that the Priti Patel case ended with the guilty minister staying in her job while the honourable investigator resigned.

Do you still think nothing has changed? Let’s see what else I have. Staying with last week, governments once believed manifesto promises were sacrosanct. On Wednesday, the Conservatives tore up their manifesto promise on international aid.

When Labour was in power, journalists deplored its reliance on spin. Johnson wrote in 2006 that Blair was “luxuriating in power, while all 3,000-odd government spin doctors… squander untold millions burnishing his image”. (It wasn’t true but back then no one thought it worth their time exposing Johnson. Britain might not be in such a squalid state if we had.)

Last week, the Open Democracy website revealed a government led by Johnson, the enemy of spin, had set up an “Orwellian” unit to obstruct the release of sensitive information requested by the public under the Freedom of Information Act and to compile blacklists of journalists.

In 2014, Ed Miliband forgot to mention the deficit in his conference speech. Johnson seized on the “Freudian slip” as proof Labour was unfit to govern. Last week, his chancellor, Rishi Sunak, issued a spending review and did not mention Brexit once, which certainly showed he was unfit to govern, The media did not pile into Sunak’s “Freudian slip” as they piled in on Miliband and not only because of pro-Tory bias.

Time is on the side of authoritarian rulers. The Tories know that, however furious the cries of anger, they have an 80-seat majority and the next election won’t be for years. The scandal will fade. They will endure.

I am not about to offer false optimism. People once believed the way they could win change was by shaming the double standards of rulers hiding behind masks of virtue. Now there are no easy ways of coping with rulers who have no shame, who feel no need to pretend to be virtuous because they can govern with impunity. The only answer is to tell yourself to keep pounding away in the faint hope that a kind of justice will come years from now. I accept this isn’t the most rousing of slogans.

• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist

7 thoughts on “Politicians were once held to account – now nothing stands in their way

  1. There’s no arguing with that Paul. Refocusing on the article and your original comment, and given that the “right wing” press fulfill their expected function, why are the supposedly “left” press so selective in what and how they choose to cover apparently taboo subjects? As examples obviously the Guardian has some excellent writers but in failing to properly cover the persecution of Julian Assange they are actually assisting in the crushing of journalistic dissent. Why also did they not cover the significant days of the Alex Salmond trial which might explain to many how the jury reached its verdict and why is there no coverage of the subsequent persecution of some blogging journalists who have tried to get truthful reporting to the public? These are dark times when honest journalism is being crushed even within the relatively honest media.


  2. Haha Paul.
    I don’t think anyone who knows me would have taken my Thatcher comment as praise, let alone worthy of a pedestal.
    She is different from say Bliar and Cameron because she wasn’t capable of pretending she was anything other than the nasty piece of work we all got. Don’t forget she was the blimps’ alternative to throwing their weight behind General Walker’s army when they used her to force out Heath.
    Surely it was always clear that she was on a mission to completely dismantle the welfare state, so the NHS was the logical extension, and the sale of council houses was indeed a transparent move towards coercive control. Add to this the destruction of British industry as it was better to have no fairly paid workers at all than ones who might strike. “Education for Leisure” anyone? Except that not everyone educated for leisure was likely to get a backhander from mumsy’s arms deal. It was never even surprising when she used police as her own private army, significantly at Orgreave and on Salisbury plain
    But compared with Blair, who had already outsourced his “new deal” even before he was elected, and sent all the wannabe Blair’s babes MPs back to their constituencies with the message to members “don’t worry about all this tory talk, once we get in we will govern as Labour”, we did at least know what we were getting with the witch. Ding dong.
    I don’t think that she ever tried to pretend we were all in this together, unlike a more recent successor who allegedly tried to claim his second pig behind the gorse bushes of Cornwall, a location where he has apparently been seen surfing with the rest of us in lockdown this last month.
    As for putting any belief behind Conservative policies, are you referring to my earlier comment because goodness knows where you got that from.
    There is something sinister in the contrast between the way Starmer chooses meticulous lawyerly detail when he dissects Pinocchio at PM’s questions and indeed in most of his actions and the blunt suppression of significant detail over the various antisemitism reports and the current Corbyn situation.


    • My point is that Thatcher was far, far worse than her public position because it wasn’t just the publicly stated nasty party policies of dismantling the welfare state and leaving the most disadvantaged in our society without a safety net, but also that she initiated a set of secret policies that are STILL underway and STILL denied by the Tory Party (aka Nasty Party aka Propaganda Party).


  3. It appears that the Guardian have followed my lead again, with this article published this morning:


    “The Conservatives are hollowing the state and consolidating power: democracy is at stake

    While Michael Gove quotes Marxist theorists, his party is undermining the liberal principles of truth, fairness and accountability”

    This article goes on to explain how Conservative Party policies since Thatcher have deliberately eroded democracy in order to keep power, avoid accountability and reward their friends with lucrative contracts.


  4. Without hidden agendas. When was that last the case?
    I believe it was predicted at the start of the Covid crisis that this would be exploited to shovel more money in favoured directions. They may be incompetent in most areas of our concern but have been wildly successful if that was their main goal. Just not so good about covering up.
    When they talk of paying off this new debt there is no talk of tax havens or a windfall tax on the failing profiteers. That must be our burden and touch our forelocks at the same time.
    Now we learn of “nice Rishi’s” huge wealth and use of offshoring, seemingly concealed from the normal declaration rules. The tories are even claiming that the recently resigned white knight of probity Sir Alex Allan approved the limited declaration. This would be in line with Private Eye’s freely expressed opinion from when he was first appointed.
    In which case how bad must Priti Patel’s conduct have been to tip this safe pair of hands into a principled resignation? In any case what agenda would bring such an intellectually limited basket case back to a ministerial position after being forced to resign over previous indiscretions? The same might be asked over the previous and possibly linked disgrace and recall of Liam Fox.
    Perhaps Thatcher was the last PM whose true agenda was not concealed, and I’m certainly not a fan. And maybe Major and Brown being more fundamentally decent than the alternatives since.
    Now the public don’t seem even to care if they are being told lies. Witness Johnson’s father accepting that Pinocchio was an appropriate nickname for his son but sneering that the majority of the public wouldn’t be able to spell it. And still they got in, with that ridiculous majority. So many just don’t care about the truth or their own families’ well being as long as they can parrot “we won” on social media.
    Who can we turn to currently with trust? Starmer and Sturgeon may be performing better at the pulpit but they are both severely compromised in certain areas, which may be linked.


    • Oh, please, don’t make me laugh.

      I am ashamed to admit that at the time I too believed that Margaret Thatcher was open about her policies whilst Labour’s were secretive. But with the benefit of hindsight, I am wondering whether that was really the case, and even whether I was the victim of earlier political brainwashing by the media.

      I have not generally been one for conspiracy theories or theorists – but over the past decade I have had to revise this viewpoint. If you had told me 40 years ago that Thatcher’s Conservatives had a secret agenda to dismantle the NHS, I would have classified you with the Area-51 UFO freaks – but once her Cabinet papers were published under the 30 year rule and the academics had dissected them and written both scholarly papers and more publicly accessible paperback books, it became clear that this was exactly what had happened. In her very first Cabinet meeting it was proposed to sell off the NHS, and when they decided that the public wouldn’t accept it, it became a secret agenda.

      The trouble is, once you accept that as fact, you start to wonder about other things. Was the sell off of council housing really about a principle that people should own their own homes, or was it more about the idea that: A) Home Owners are more likely to vote Conservative, and B) that mortgage payers are less likely to strike than council tenants? It doesn’t help that the Conservatives clearly didn’t consider the consequences of selling off council houses, as it undermined the entire foundations of housing prices – low council house rents meant low-ish private rents which meant no incentive to buy-to-let and low-ish house prices – no council housing meant rising private rents, a rush to buy-to-let and massive house price inflation – and UNAFFORDABLE HOUSING is probably the BIGGEST ECONOMIC IMPACT on ordinary people ever. When the Conservatives joked about Labour wanting to take us back to the 1970s, they conveniently forgot to mention that the Conservatives are actually taking us back to the early 1600s, the fuedal era when 95% of the population were renting their homes, from 1% of the population that owned them.

      Another factual indicator of the impact of Thatcher and her progeny – in 1979, when Thatcher came to power, the top 1% of earners in the UK earned 5% of GDP, with the remaining 95% split between the remaining 99% of the population. IN 2016, the top 1% earned 15% of GDP – becoming 3x richer over 40 years of neoliberalism – which means that the 99% of the population became c. 11% WORSE OFF.

      SO PLEASE, let’s not put Thatcher on any form of pedestal – nor put any belief in Conservative anti-socialist policies (and associated false propaganda about how socialism = communism = state control over everything = Corbyn = Labour).


  5. If only it was only this bad. Unfortunately it is far, far worse – democracy itself is at death’s door.

    Democracy – the right for the adult citizens of the UK to choose their own future – is at best in critical condition and at worse has been dead for over decade.

    Democracy only works when:

    A. Voters can make an informed choice – which means that politicians must explain truthfully and clearly and without hidden agendas just what the public is voting for, and after the vote those politicians need to deliver precisely what they have promised and not some alternative variation of it, and which means that the media also report truthfully and without emotional jingoism and with clear distinction between facts and opinion rather than propaganda.

    B. Politicians can be held to account for their decisions – which means having transparency so we know what decisions were made by whom and for what reasons, an unbiased investigative press who investigate politics and politicians without tainting it with propaganda, police who will prosecute without fear or favour, and a variety of affordable mechanisms by which the public can complain about politicians and have their cases heard.

    It is not simply about being able to vote – because if all your opinions are based on years of falsehoods and innuendo and emotional jingoism reported in the media as facts – your choices are not informed and your vote is not democracy.

    All of the things in the above article – and more that have not been mentioned like the abolition or weakening of bodies whose purpose was / is to allow the public to hold politicians to account – are nails in the coffin of democracy.


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