23 March, 2006

...corrupts absolutely

I've just finished a book entitled The Liar, a history of the events surrounding the former Tory MP Jonathan Aitken's attempt to sue The Guardian and Granada Television for libel, only to be unmasked as a serial dissembler who was prepared to lie on oath (and get his wife and daughter to do the same) in order to safeguard his reputation, and subsequently get sent to jail.

It's been fascinating reading, not least for the way it vividly evokes those arid days of the mid 90s when the Conservative Government was staggering to the end of its 18 year life and when almost every morning seemed to bring fresh word of duplicity, corruption and sleaze at the heart of British politics. One of the best bits of the book is the minute by minute account of the day when Aitken was finally proved to be the fibber The Guardian always suspected he was, thanks to the sudden and near-simultaneous turning up of some credit card receipts in Switzerland and some archived travel documents at Heathrow. Aitken's libel action collapsed in a matter of hours, ultimately leading to The Guardian's wonderful and historic front page banner headline:


I remember at the time wondering whether this was the moment the Tory Government would give in to the inevitable and just bow out for good. Yet John Major and his coterie of where-are-they-now hangers-on, about whom I've already written, appeared determined to cling to power as long as constitutionally allowed, which meant a full five-year term after the 1992 General Election: five long long years of utterly tired, nauseous and rotten politics.

It was a bleak and barren time. The number of ministers who ended up resigning soon totalled over two dozen, but still Major remained, his rationale implying the longer he could cling on, the more he could put behind him the litany of scandal, and the more chance there was of catching out Labour and Tony Blair. Britain seemed to fossilise into a paralysis of self-defeating normalcy. Scalps were won, such as Aitken, but still the status quo remained in place.

Ultimately, of course, the establishment decided their interests were best served by a change of personnel (though not a change of culture), and threw their lot in with the opposition, reasoning correctly that New Labour would be better safeguards of Thatcherism than John Major's Tories. And as it has also turned out, better safeguards of the kind of backroom financial skulduggery and business patronage which so flourished in the 1980s and led to the likes of Aitken strutting about the place mixing ministerial office with shady dealing and gigantic money transfers.

Political sleaze is as old as politics, and will never go away. Those that do their best to unmask it, just like The Guardian did back in the mid-90s concerning Jonathan Aitken, can but press on in the hope that their efforts will mean one day everybody who holds power in this country is properly and electorally accountable to everybody who lives in this country.


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