What does political accountability look like today? Certainly not like it used to. The rules and conventions that are designed to regulate behaviour, both legal and moral, seem to be ignored or have simply been abandoned by this generation of politicians. They have decided to play the game differently and are – figuratively, if not literally – getting away with murder.
There has been a rich and diverse series of recent examples to illustrate the point. Priti Patel, found guilty of bullying her staff and breaching the ministerial code of conduct by the government’s independent standards adviser, remained Home Secretary with Boris Johnson’s full support. The standards adviser quit instead.
Last March, with the rest of the country in government-imposed lockdown, Dominic Cummings drove his family nearly 300 miles from London to County Durham in order to be near his parents after his wife contracted Covid-19. Infamously, the family also tootled along to the nearby tourist town of Barnard Castle – not for a spring day out, Cummings insisted, but so he could test his eyesight before the drive back to the capital. Exposed, embarrassed and under intense pressure to resign, the PM’s then senior adviser held a quick press conference in the Downing Street garden and blithely carried on. When he did leave his job, it was because he fell out with Johnson and his fiancée.
As the pandemic has progressed, more and more details have emerged of lucrative government contracts awarded outside of the usual public procurement rules, with some going to “friends” of ministers and advisers, making them very rich in the process despite a previous lack of expertise. Allegations of cronyism have, of course, been dismissed.
[See also: How Priti Patel became unsackable]
In Scotland, there is a striking example of this new orthodoxy. The devolved government’s handling of the Alex Salmond affair has been catastrophically incompetent. It lost a civil action over its botched handling of the investigation into the former first minister, at a cost of more than £500,000 to the taxpayer. Salmond was then acquitted by a jury of all the sexual misconduct charges against him.
The government and the powerful SNP leadership have performed miserably in front of the Holyrood committee currently probing the affair – withholding evidence and legal advice, contradicting their own stories, insisting vital meetings went unminuted and exposing law officers to charges of bias. Details of the allegations against Salmond were leaked, and it is claimed that names of some complainers were too.
It is now three years since the first women made their complaints. As yet, no one has resigned or been fired and it’s not at all clear that anyone will ever be. It is at least debatable whether Leslie Evans, the permanent secretary, should still be in post. There are continuing calls for the heads of Nicola Sturgeon’s husband Peter Murrell, who is the SNP’s chief executive, some of her closest advisers, and even James Wolffe, the Lord Advocate.
A separate inquiry by a QC into whether Sturgeon breached the ministerial code by misleading parliament is also under way. Even if she is found to have done so, few expect her to stand down – after all, Patel didn’t. And, perhaps more importantly, there’s an election to win in two months.
This last point gets to the heart of the problem with modern accountability. Political expediency is now the engine of decision-making. Honour, integrity and doing the “right” thing are outmoded concepts. Winning, it seems, is all.
Why is this so? In a sense our politics has never been more transparent. There are freedom of information laws, registers of interest, transparency data, public petitions, the option of constituency recall of errant MPs, talk of citizen’s juries and democratic reform of the Lords. There’s a public appointments commissioner and a public sector transparency board.
There’s the traditional feral press and 24-hour news channels, websites dedicated to exposing corruption and social media, where every issue and incident is scoured for wrongdoing. From one view, it’s quite impressive that politicians think they can get away with anything.
But they do, and perhaps the climate has something to do with it. The inflation-outrage that has accompanied the rise of social media ensures that every mistake or error is treated with the same intensity as genuine corruption. The fanatical tribalism that is daily displayed on Twitter, with its accompanying fake news, abuse and even threats of violence, only makes it harder to judge what should justly be censured and what should be excused.
Politicians know this, and have made a modern-day art of the vague excuse and of playing to their crowd. The example set by Donald Trump, while he was president, has been a useful one. Accused of malfeasance or incitement, he barely bothered to hide his guilt. His brazen refusal to play by traditional rules and conventions, even when twice facing impeachment, has licensed others to behave in a similar fashion. Johnson and his administration, for one, have behaved abominably at times with little concern for the consequences.
For all the media frenzy, newspapers are less powerful than they once were and therefore carry less moral weight – the leader columns, once scanned fearfully by embattled governments, often now seem curiously outdated and lack the impact they once had. Legitimate accusations of wrongdoing are quickly spun away through Twitter, either by unleashing the hordes or by tossing a dead cat on the table. And every narrow escape, every convention openly ignored, sets a precedent for next time, and for others. The bar is constantly being raised, or lowered, depending on how you look at it.
They say a fish rots from the head down – that a corrupt and self-serving leadership class acts as an example to wider society. If so, we are in trouble. And there doesn’t seem to be very much anyone can do about it.