Return to political swamp

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Arriving back from holiday is rarely much fun, but there was something particularly depressing about coming back to such a tawdry and unpleasant political scene this past weekend.

Catching up on the coverage of ‘McBride-gate’ – or ‘smear-gate’ – I was struck not only by the grotesque-ness of the planned Red Rag smears, but by how long the smearing had been going on, years by the looks of it, and all but the most recent directed not at Conservative politicians but at Labour. The Sunday Times identified attempts to rubbish Ivan Lewis, Stephen Byers, David Miliband, Harriet Harman, and Stephen Carter. Given that Damian McBride was a special advisor from 2003 there were also, presumably, others. That is six years of smears – longer even than a government’s term of office.

But of course that limits the smears and spin to McBride himself. Who, though clearly the source of the recent emails found by Guido Fawkes, must have been part of a wider culture that found them acceptable. Indeed, given that figures such as Charlie Whelan were copied in emails sent between McBride and Draper (according to the Sunday Telegraph), a number of people connected to No.10 were aware of what was happening yet felt no need to comment or object (though it should be said that some – within and outside No.10 – did object, sometimes with painful consequences).

Though McBride’s plans were of a particularly vicious and personal nature, it is difficult, from the perspective of the public, not to conclude that if such a culture of political conspiracy is prevalent and considered acceptable in No.10, it must exist elsewhere in government too. And if in government, why not in Opposition aswell? It was the Conservatives, don’t forget, who appointed Andy Coulson as their Director of Communications, shortly after he had resigned as editor of News of the World in disgrace following the conviction of one of his journalists for illegally accessing personal information about the royal family.

Neither do all journalists come up smelling of roses, given a bunch of political correspondents seemed happy to publish McBride’s attacks on politicians – as Alice Miles indicated last week and Peter Wilby commented today.

One must hope that, as the MP Tom Harris said on the Westminster Hour, McBride was a serious anomaly. It would be too easy – and wrong – to extend the extreme behaviour of one special advisor to politicians and civil servants in general.

However, it is also hard to see how either main political party will rid itself of the more general culture of spin and leaks that seems to so characterise modern government.

Even today, most of the newspapers and many of the broadcasts led with leaks about the forthcoming Budget. There were frequent reports about it yesterday too.

Jump back to 1947, and Hugh Dalton – one of Labour’s most successful Chancellors – resigned when news of his Budget leaked to an evening newspaper on the day of its announcement.

This is certainly not a nostalgic paean to a post-war political culture (though austerity is coming back into fashion), but simply an observation that the corrosive culture of spins and leaks extends far further than the emails that have dominated the news for the last week.

Written by Martin Moore

April 20th, 2009 at 4:05 pm

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