Outrage, but no surprise. Jeremy Hunt’s close relationship with Rupert Murdoch’s empire is the subject of widespread disgust, nevertheless, genuine shock is rare. I was once told that each political party specialised in a particular type of scandal: the Conservatives’ corruption usually involved sex, e.g. David Mellor’s spanking activities while wearing Chelsea Football Club gear, and the Labour Party’s usually involved money, e.g. donations by Bernie Ecclestone to preserve Formula One’s exemeption from tobacco advertising regulations. This truism exists, perhaps, because everyone expects Conservatives to be on the take: look at their acolytes, whether dressed in chalk stripe suits or rolled up Armani shirtsleeves. The odour of privilege goes before them, stinking out the sensibilities of anyone who sees the love of money as pernicious. Jeremy Hunt, closely allied to Rupert & Co? Outrageous, disgusting, terrible, it shouldn’t happen: but is anyone really surprised? Without surprise, is it that much of a scandal?
Hunt will probably have to go; it won’t do to have him in place for the Olympics, during which he and his department are supposed to feature prominently. His departure may be a sad loss for the fans of Cockney Rhyming Slang, who hoped that James Naughtie’s botched but sensible introduction on Radio 4 would mean lasting infamy for the hapless Culture Secretary. No doubt Number 10 will push out a series of tiresome press releases and briefings which will lull the gullible or the ideologically motivated, like BBC Political Correspondent Nick Robinson, to say that the storm has passed. Life will go on, at least until the next scandal.
Is that it, though? Or is this a symptom of something more troubling? This may be an opportunity for one to gaze deeply into the soul of the Conservative Party, such as it is. Personally, I find nothing but a void. Hunt’s advocacy for News International points clearly to this soullessness. In fact, I think the question should be raised: is the Conservative Party dead?
I don’t mean that the Conservative Party has ceased to function as an organisation: throughout much of the land, there are the Conservative Assocations, party activists, the Blue Rinse Brigade, hangers on and the up and coming, all keeping the party machine ticking over. It also has plenty of wealthy donors willing to pay for images of badly drawn trees splashed onto glossy brochures. However, I recall a trip to Parliament I made as a student nearly 20 years ago. We were shuffled into a meeting room: I was impressed by the oak panelling, the green leather chairs, the musty odour of old books that seemed to pervade the place. We callow students were addressed by a Conservative MP whose name escapes me: one of the questions from my tutor related to the various ideological divisions within the Tories, in particular regarding how Britain should engage with Europe. The MP told us bluntly that the only principle which held the Conservative Party together was opposition to socialism. This seemed far-fetched at the time: after all, the afterglow of the Thatcher years still burned throughout the land, and regardless of her having to be taken out of office, her ideology was still in the ascendant. But look what happened once Labour stopped being socialist: they dropped Clause 4, the Conservative Party then surrendered itself to the violent passions stoked by membership of the European Union, Major presided over a fractured cabinet, the Tories were smashed in 1997. Some Tories, such as Shaun Woodward, found it relatively easy to walk across the floor and join a new, non-socialist Labour. Without the catalyst of opposition to socialism, the Tories fell apart and wandered through a dark wilderness which seemed to promise nothing but oblivion. Opposition to socialism had turned merely into opposition to the Labour Party: but as the Labour Party had apparently picked up many of Thatcher’s ideas, the Conservative Party was in essence ideologically opposing a reflection of itself: there were degrees of difference, not a particular contrast. No commanding heights of industry were nationalised during the New Labour years; businessmen were just as comfortable with Blair, if not more so, than they were with John Major. The Bank of England was made independent. The City was untouched. Mandelson was intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich. Don’t pay any attention to the inflating credit bubble: let the good times roll.
The saying goes, nature abhors a vacuum. Nevertheless, the Conservatives have hitched themselves to a vacuity, namely David Cameron, who was a public relations man. The ideological battles fought and won, what was left? The Big Society? Yes, that’s it, a slogan which requires the government to do little, but theoretically throws open the doors to self-improvement. My other half used to work in the Civil Service; not long after we met, I asked her the following question: “What do the Tories expect us to do? What are we supposed to be good at?”
She shrugged and replied, “They expect everyone to sort it out for themselves.”
This is as good a summary as any of Cameronism: schooling? Sort it out for yourself; open a free school. Benefits? Sort it out for yourself, there’s a cut on the way. Housing? You’re on your own, move out to somewhere cheaper. Health care? You’ll get choice, namely between Virgin Health and Serco, but it’s up to you.
Say what you will about Mrs. Thatcher, but as Andrew Marr rightly stated in his “History of Modern Britain”, there was a moral agenda behind her policies: she thought that deregulation and free markets would lead to a thrift-oriented, more hardworking mentality taking hold. Instead, it led to free markets running rampant on the back of get rich quick schemes which subsequently came undone to the impoverishment of us all; ask the question, is the nation more or less thrifty as a result of her time in office? Look at how personal debt has exploded for an answer. Are the British people working harder, or just working longer hours? Productivity growth has been a long standing problem although hours have increased. By Thatcher’s own yardstick, her ideology is a failure: but at least she had one. An ideology indicates a desire on behalf of those who craft it and those who believe in it that the world can somehow be made comprehensively better than it is at present. The Conservatives have abandoned ideology, shunned responsibility, soothed the remnants of conscience with drivel about the “Big Society” and now can be said merely a political lobbying group on behalf of the corporations and rich individuals who sponsor them. As a fountainhead of ideology, a defender of a political faith and a purveyor of a comprehensive point of view, it is effectively dead. Or rather, it is a zombie: it wanders in the land of the living, but it has no soul. It only holds power because the Labour Party faced a crisis of renewal: familiarity breeds contempt, mistakes accrue and once they threw in a leader untutored in the arts of public persuasion, the last Government more or less collapsed. Perhaps voters understood this on a subconscious level and chose not to give David Cameron a majority on his own: unfettered by Coalition, unencumbered by a particular programme apart from the naked achievement of gain, how much worse would the scandals be? Would we know about them?
Jeremy Hunt’s removal is almost a given. Even if his name doesn’t make into the lexicon of Cockney Rhyming Slang, he will have a good deal of infamy to live down. I have no doubt that Cameron in the end will present his loss as a burning sacrifice, which will serve as an example to other ministers and indeed act as a catalyst to cleanse the Conservative Party and politics as a whole. No one will truly believe this, but then again, in the dead Conservative Party, belief doesn’t matter: all that is worthwhile is taking the call from Richard Branson or Bernie Ecclestone or Serco or whoever paid to be at the top table, doing their bidding, and carrying on. Not to a bright future, nor towards a land of a free people, rather there is no destination, just continuance.