Britain is enduring one of the most fraught periods in its postwar history. The economy is on the edge of recession, average real wages have fallen to their lowest level since 2005 and public services are being ravaged by strike action and funding crises. Meanwhile, a politically and intellectually exhausted Conservative government is staggering towards three potential by-election defeats on 20 July.
Into this combustible mix has come a dizzying array of allegations, rumours and intrigue. On 6 July a scurrilous and anonymous email – a so-called poison pen letter – was sent to the invitees of the wedding of the former chancellor George Osborne and his former aide Thea Rogers. It briefly dominated political and media conversation even as its contents – for legal reasons – could not be divulged.
The following day attention moved swiftly to another story as the Sun alleged that a male BBC presenter paid a young person £35,000 over a three-year period in return for explicit pictures, starting when the individual was 17. An unseemly succession of events followed: several BBC presenters – Nicky Campbell, Rylan Clark, Gary Lineker, Jeremy Vine – were libelled by Twitter users as the unnamed individual. Then, on 10 July, lawyers for the young person in question stated that “nothing inappropriate or unlawful” took place and described the account given to the Sun by the young person’s mother as “rubbish”.
The story, it became clear, was more complex than it first appeared. But by this time many had already rushed to judgement, damning or vindicating the BBC according to ideological preference.
Who can we trust? In an era of establishment scandals, political polarisation, posturing multibillionaire tech barons, fake news, unregulated social media platforms and AI imagery this is becoming a defining question.
We should avoid nostalgia for a supposed “golden age” of political integrity. Humans have always thrived on gossip and rumour. But an accumulation of institutional impropriety has created profound mistrust.
To take only the past six months: in March a report by the crossbench peer Louise Casey concluded that the Metropolitan Police was institutionally racist, misogynistic and homophobic; in April the BBC chair Richard Sharp resigned after he failed to declare his link to a £800,000 loan made to Boris Johnson; in June the House of Commons Privileges Committee found that Mr Johnson deliberately misled MPs over Partygate. Over the same period, Nicola Sturgeon, the former first minister of Scotland, and Peter Murrell, her husband and the SNP’s former chief executive, have been arrested as part of the police investigation into SNP finances.
The Confederation of British Industry, the UK’s most eminent business lobby group, has been roiled by allegations of sexual misconduct by staff. Sixteen MPs have now had the whip suspended over various scandals, making them the de facto fourth party in the Commons. In this environment it is not surprising that cynicism proliferates. As Andrew Marr writes on page 18, “These are serious, dangerous times – more serious than the current feuding, elitist culture seems to appreciate.”
Democracy depends on trust between MPs and constituents. But it is in perilously short supply at present. To stop the rot, our political parties must first do no harm. This means not pandering to conspiracy theories in pursuit of short-term advantage. One thinks of Mr Johnson’s declaration that Keir Starmer “spent most of his time [as the director of public prosecutions] prosecuting journalists and failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile”, or of the Labour posters that implied Rishi Sunak does not believe child sex abusers should be imprisoned.
But more than this, profound reform is required to rebuild trust in public institutions. The House of Lords, which successive governments have stuffed with party donors and stooges, should be replaced by an elected senate. Power should be devolved from Westminster to ensure decisions are taken closer to the people they affect.
Above all, the age of private affluence and public squalor – from which civic alienation flows – must end. If voters ultimately conclude that there is no one they can trust, demagogues and conspiracy theorists will rush to take advantage. As scandals – real and alleged – accumulate, Britain’s political class must recognise the lethal threats to our democracy before it is too late.
[See also: The algorithms quietly stoking inflation]
This article appears in the 12 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Tabloid Nation