The case of the Labour MP Keith Vaz, who resigned this week as chair of the Commons home affairs select committee, raises issues different from those of the usual political sex scandal. Vaz, accused by the Sunday Mirror of paying rent boys for sex, was not obviously guilty of hypocrisy. He does not issue finger-wagging homilies against sex and drugs. On the contrary, he and the home affairs select committee he chaired supported the decriminalisation of the sex industry. Vaz also opposed a government proposal to ban “poppers”, a “party drug” that he invited the rent boys to bring to what newspapers call their “tryst”.
Some critics argue that he should have declared an interest. Should the chair of the transport committee therefore declare that he drives a car or the chair of the culture committee that he goes to the opera?
The Sunday Mirror, however, has no need for such box-ticking pedantry to defend its invasion of Vaz’s privacy. MPs – unlike, say, the bosses of private companies – are not chosen for their technical or managerial expertise but for more intangible reasons to do with the kind of people they are. They share chosen details of their private lives, hoping to convince voters that they are much like them and therefore capable of representing their interests. It is hard to imagine any candidate confiding that “of an evening, I like to party with rent boys”. Voters may be happy for their MP to enjoy such pleasures, but they are entitled to sufficient information to make up their own minds.
In an interview with the Guardian, which is serialising his memoirs – published under the don’t-read-this title Politics: Between the Extremes – Nick Clegg makes one perceptive comment. “The skill of tossing off 800 words on one subject and then on another a week later,” he says, “is completely different to governing.”
He was referring in particular to Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, a former Times columnist who became education secretary in the coalition government. Gove, according to Clegg, adopted “a series of throwaway poses about our kids’ futures”, suddenly announcing, for instance, a return to O-levels, a proposition that the Lib Dems rightly blocked. Johnson behaved in similar fashion as mayor of London – think of his little-used cable car over the Thames and his “garden bridge”. He gave up his column in the Telegraph only when he became Foreign Secretary.
Writing a weekly column requires emphatic opinions and ideas that, if not original, have a new twist or new packaging. You
should avoid acquiring too much information about your subject, or even understanding of it, because, as the late Sunday Times journalist Nicholas Tomalin observed, “tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner and tout pardonner makes dull copy”. You must not clutter your column with caveats, practicalities or potential objections to your ideas.
This is a poor preparation for politics. Unfortunately, Gove and Johnson are not alone: increasingly, obsessed by the need to command tomorrow’s headlines, all politicians adopt the columnist’s approach. That is why Britain is now so badly governed.
Are cinemas going the way of Premier League football stadiums? According to the Financial Times, multiplexes are moving upmarket, introducing luxurious reclining seats, premium drinks and fine food. The focus, one chain’s chief executive says, is on “the entire experience, not just the film”.
But the point of “going to the pictures”, as we Britons used to call it, is surely to experience something cheap, cheerful and not quite respectable – “a vacation”, as the great New Yorker critic Pauline Kael memorably put it, “from proper behaviour and good taste and required responses”.
Sound and fury
Restaurants may also be changing but, in this case, certainly for the better. It is reported that pressure is growing on them to reduce noise levels and turn off the music. The problem is created by modern designers who do not like tablecloths, carpets, curtains or any other soft surfaces that muffle the noise. A restaurant with high levels of laughter, chatter and music is thought to denote a buzzing place, where everyone is having a wonderful time. On several occasions recently, I have left restaurants because of the intolerable noise. Admittedly, my hearing is poor but even friends with perfect hearing make similar complaints.
Action on Hearing Loss has written to 70 restaurant groups but had no response from any of them. Aren’t they interested in their customers’ comfort? No, they are interested in their money. As any restaurant owner knows, people drink more when they can’t hold a proper conversation and restaurants make most of their money from overpriced alcohol. Besides, for the staff, loud music dulls the pain of working long hours for miserable wages.
The European Commission proposes to allow news publishers to levy a fee on internet services such as Google News that show snippets of their stories. It remains to be seen whether it can win a battle against such powerful opponents. If it does, I await with interest the reaction of the Daily Mail and the rest of the pro-Brexit press crew when publishers in the EU become entitled to income denied to them.
At the launch of Strictly Come Dancing, Ed Balls looked like a bemused elderly uncle unexpectedly invited to a wedding party with young relatives he hardly knows. Two things would help him. First, he should lose weight and, if he can’t, he should send the horizontally striped shirt he wore for the final group dance to a Labour jumble sale. Second, after years in politics working with Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband and similar folk, he should accustom himself to being the least glamorous person in the room.
This article appears in the 07 Sep 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Three Brexiteers