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From the NS archive: The Great Stink

4 November 1994: Like some grotesque boatman of the underworld, John Major paddles around on a Stygian pool, apparently oblivious to the stink of sleaze that has the rest of the nation retching.

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Following an investigation by the Guardian and the now-defunct Granada TV, questions were raised about who picked up the £1,000 bill for the former Conservative MP and cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken's Paris Ritz hotel room in 1993. Aitken, a government minister in charge of defence procurement at the time, allowed aides of the Saudi Arabian royal family to pay for his hotel room a clear conflict of interest. Strongly denying the claims, Aitken sued the Guardian and Granada for libel, but was proved to be lying and was later jailed for 18 months for perjury and perverting the course of justice. Writing at the time of the first details emerging, the writer of this editorial sees the case of Aitken as a small part of a greater "rot" endemic within the Conservative Party, likening it to the "Great Stink" of 1858. It is a rot many people still see today, following accusations of Conservative Party cronyism.

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On 30 June 1858 the House of Commons was beset by what became known as the "Great Stink". Disraeli made reference to a "Stygian pool", and the windows of Westminster had to be hung with sheets soaked in chloride of lime to take away the stench.

Then, the smell came from the River Thames, an open sewer overloaded with the excreta of a city that had been allowed to grow without provision for the necessary public services, regulation or infrastructure. Within a year of the Great Stink, the funding had been found for Sir Joseph Bazalgette' s sewage and drainage system for London; MPs never again had to suffer such a smell coming from outside their debating chamber.

Today, the stench comes from inside. The Stygian pool laps at the door of No 10; and like some grotesque boatman of the underworld, the Prime Minister paddles around on it, apparently oblivious to the stink that has the rest of the nation retching.

This is perhaps the most abhorrent legacy of Thatcherism, and of 15 unbroken years of Tory misrule: they do not believe they are doing anything wrong.

Taking money for asking questions in parliament; accepting directorships, gifts and favours as a perk of an MP's job; using your mother's influence as prime minister to make yourself a millionaire; appointing your mates and people who give money to your party to run quangos you've created in place of democratic institutions; dishing out knighthoods, peerages and gongs on the basis of services rendered to the Tory party, not to the nation; shunting out Labour voters and bringing in Tories to make sure your "flagship" councils stay Conservative controlled; preaching one sort of "back to basics" while putting your back into another; and always making money, making money, making money what's wrong with any of that?

Wednesday's debate on Guardian editor Peter Preston's use of House of Commons notepaper for a cod fax to the Paris Ritz was not merely an attempt to distract attention from the accusations of sleaze against the government. A lot of those Tory MPs who were baying for Preston's blood really do believe that what was, at worst, a minor misdemeanour is somehow worse than the endemic sleaze and corruption now oozing out of every pore of modem Conservatism. Like Alan Duncan MP, the man who made getting on for a half a million pounds by using loopholes in the right-to-buy legislation to buy up Westminster council houses on the cheap, they really believe it when they say, "I have done nothing wrong."

It is not that all sense of moral probity has disappeared from the Tory benches though it may sometimes seem like that. Rather, it is that the whole Conservative ethos of the 1980s, having been built around the precept of the pursuit of private profit and self-interest, fails to recognise ethical boundaries that others might still take for granted. People who have been elected to parliament on the back of a philosophy that says that self-interest is the sole driving force in a society that is no more than a collection of individuals are not going to miss out on the chance of personal enrichment when it comes their way.

The question of whether or not Jonathan Aitken enjoyed a freebie at the Ritz, which cost more for a few days than a single person on income support gets in four months, is not the central issue here. It is the rot in standards of public life that it represents.

And that rot has infected more than just the paid-up apparatchiks of our one-party state. Take Sir Robin Butler, the supposedly neutral head of an impartial civil service. You would think from his exchanges with the Guardian over the Aitken affair that he was employed as a propagandist for the Conservative Central Office machine rather than as a disinterested civil servant.

Yet we should not be surprised. The politicisation of the higher echelons of the civil service is another of the legacies of the Thatcher era. Was it not, after all, Sir Robin who said of Michael Mates last year, before the public outcry over his association with Asil Nadir forced John Major to sack him, that Mates had "done nothing wrong"?

John Major, pootering about in his Stygian pool, dismisses all of this as "tittle-tattle", "trivia" and "artificial fusses". Well, he would say that, wouldn't he? Hang up the sheets soaked in chloride of lime; won't someone save us from this stink?

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).