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10 November 2017

The shamelessness of Johnson, Salmond and the rest signal the decay of our public realm

Surely Britain can do better than this.

By Chris Deerin

It doesn’t feel like an exaggeration to say that our public realm is sick. Sick in a tumid, gangrenous, weeping-sore kind of way. If amputation was a possibility, the doctor would be urging us towards that end.

The Paradise Papers have yet again made clear that the rich are different from you and me, as we scrabble for life’s compensations and refuges. But in a way, financial corruption is the least of our worries. It is the corruption of power that should concern us most. That, and the death of shame.

The seemingly endless flood of accusations of sexual impropriety or worse has been as shattering as it has been necessary. From the male perspective there is an unshakeable feeling of gender-shame. I still can’t get over – am stunned by – the fact that so many men seem to have the instinct and the will to force themselves on women, to aggressively dehumanise and demean each other’s mothers and daughters and sisters. I knew there were bastards out there; I didn’t realise there were so many.

Moral corruption runs deep and has many tributaries. I was pleased Priti Patel chose to resign rather than be fired, and that Theresa May let her. I know she was for the chop one way or the other, and that by quitting leaves the door ajar to a comeback down the line, but nevertheless a resignation is a statement of culpability, an admission of wrongdoing. It says, “I accept my error and the price that must be paid.”

The contrast with the behaviour of Boris Johnson couldn’t be more stark. The Foreign Secretary has been a bum appointment from day one – an unserious man for whom personal advancement, profit and fame are the alpha and omega. It is heartbreaking, as Brexit unfolds and Britannia sinks (and Phil Collins nails it absolutely in The Times today) that we send as our tribune to the rest of the world a proven liar, a man of low moral character, a narcissistic hog who flaunts his flaming ambition like a nasty STD.

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There have been various points in the past year or so where Theresa May could justifiably have dispensed with Johnson’s services, but his comments about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe are on a different level of awfulness. He continues to brazen it out, to smirk and shimmy, where a bigger man – think Carrington, Howe or Hurd – would have understood the import and consequences and done the right thing (although it’s unlikely they would have made the blunder in the first place, stemming as it did from a lack of care for detail or facts).

Johnson sails on, seemingly unsackable and unshameable, and our national integrity dips that bit lower.

Similarly, Alex Salmond’s extraordinary decision to present a chat show on the Kremlin’s mouthpiece RT (formerly Russia Today) is a slap in the face to basic decency. I never expect much from the former SNP leader, who, like Johnson, is driven by personal status, but good God… This comes at the same time as Salmond has got himself involved in an attempted coup at Johnston Press, owners of The Scotsman, which, if successful, will leave the newspaper in the grip of one of the most partisan, confrontational politicians these islands have seen. Salmond as chairman of Johnston Press (which is the aim) would be like putting Taylor Swift in charge of Katy Perry’s next record.

Salmond, like Johnson, has decided that the norms, society’s received parameters, do not apply to him. Only the little people need observe the rules. Too many SNP politicians, as with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, seem to view RT as an acceptable platform, despite its close links to the Putin regime, which is intent on destabilising our continent and the broader Western Alliance. Perhaps that’s the point.

It’s easy to scoff, but this stuff matters. The old Chinese saying “the fish rots from the head down” has a basis in political science. Research shows that if those in positions of authority and influence cheat, if they put their personal interests ahead of the national interest, if they seek to subvert institutions to their own narrow ends, then wider society comes to ape that behaviour. Corruption on high breeds corruption down low.

Wherever one looks across the public sphere today, one sees moral pygmies in charge. It has of course become unfashionable to demand personal integrity from our betters, but our liberal laissez-faire, our principled and in its way noble moral relativism, allows the line demarking what is acceptable continually to be pushed further and further back. When is enough enough?

If character is destiny – and it is – then the whole man, or woman, must be taken into account. Perhaps it’s time to get a bit old-fashioned on their asses and demand a higher level of integrity and accountability, personally and professionally, from those who would rule – whether in the City or at Westminster or in any office of influence – than we do from those who lack that unsettling ambition. Perhaps anything doesn’t go. Perhaps it’s time to reclaim ownership of our public realm, to set some firm rules and deal harshly with those who break them.

Our society gives every impression it is rotting from the head down. Do we not care? Are we not angry? Surely Britain can do better than this.