It was a peculiar juxtaposition of programmes. First I watched the latest episode of Spooks, on BBC1 TV, and then I watched the BBC Ten O’Clock News, without pushing any buttons on the TV because that was on BBC1 TV also.
The News was dominated by David Blunkett‘s difficulties, largely self-inflicted, it would appear. There will be an independent inquiry into whether Blunkett fast-tracked a visa application for his ex-lover’s nanny, and the Prime Minister announced that he was confident of the outcome, which was an odd combination of circumstances. If the Prime Minister is so sure, why the independent inquiry? Why can he simply not say why he is so sure of the impeccability of his Home Secretary? And as another talking head opined, it would now take a brave independent inquirer to fly so completely in the face of Blair’s clear statement of what he wants the answer to be. Which means that if the independent inquiry does endorse the Prime Minister’s view, the suspicion will remain that this was because of the Prime Minister publicly demanding that answer instead of because the answer is true. So whichever way the independent inquiry goes, the stink will either be strong, or strong.
Spooks (a programme I have had cause to mention here before) was a even more lurid soap opera than usual – of junior Ministerial wrongdoing (he murders a girl, then resigns to spend more time with his family (sound familiar?)), of a famed rock and roll couple (she has her baby kidnapped to keep them in the news, but it goes wrong, the baby dies, and he finally murders her in a rage and then shoots himself). Downing Street was presented throughout as relentlessly manipulating a deranged state of public sentimentality (not least in calling in the Spooks to sort the matter in the first place, instead of leaving it to the Police), as in the grip of electoral desperation, as total hypocritical, and generally as a huge cover-up machine. If this show is any clue as to the state of public opinion, out there in Middle England, we have our answer to that question about why the Prime Minister does not want to explain why he believes his Home Secretary to be innocent of all wrongdoing. Middle England would not trust such pronouncements further than it could spit them. The Prime Minister is not trusted. It is perhaps worth mentioning that the actor who personifies this Downing Street ghastliness in Spooks is a man called Oliver Mace, who is played by Tim McInnerney. McInernney is probably most famous for playing Captain Darling in Blackadder Goes Forth. But since doing that he played a fixer for Sir Ian McKellen’s wonderfully fascist and scary Richard III, a virtually identical character to the one he now plays in Spooks. So the equation is inescapable. Downing Street is the haunt of Shakespearian villains. Whether the Prime Minister is one of them or merely the manipulated façade (Richard III or more like Richard II), is really a matter of individual taste in how you choose to interpret such things.
For my own part, I doubt the claim, also strongly made by the Prime Minister on the news, that a Cabinet Minister, just like anyone else, is entitled to have his private life kept private, and free from public criticism. The underlying implication is that, in particular, marital infidelity is a purely private matter. I know that this is a widely held view nowadays, what with so many people now cheating on each other, and then getting divorced, but I do not share it. I think that when people break their marriage vows by committing adultery, that impacts upon the public realm. Typically, married people have promised, often with just such words, not to commit adultery. And they did this, if not exactly ‘in public’, then in something a lot more open than complete secrecy. That half of the Cabinet, or whatever is the exact fraction, have dabbled in adultery, just as a massive proportion of the rest of us have, makes public life a lot harder to do. Yes, I lied to the wife about my infidelities, but no I am not now lying to you about public policy. (I can – see the comments on Perry’s recent Blunkett posting – be trusted not to abuse a compulsory ID card system.)
I just does not , to my eye, add up. I strongly disapprove of the whole principle of no fault divorce. Enthrone that principle, and the next thing you will get is no fault politics.
And if anyone mentions France, where, allegedly, they take a more mature and rational view of these things, my answer is: precisely. Cynicism about private life is directly to be associated, I would say, with cynicism about the more public side of things. French public life is relentlessly corrupt and cynical, and they are oh-so-rational about adultery. I do not think these facts are coincidental.
My telly has just shown me the front page of tomorrow’s Telegraph, which was something along the lines of: “Prime Minister says Cabinet Ministers should not be morally criticised for their private lives.” That would suggest that they think something along these lines too.
Some people, of the sort who confuse (or who like to pretend for propaganda purposes that they confuse) libertarianism with libertinism, might expect a libertarian like me to rejoice at any collapse in marital fidelity. But my libertarianism is about the right to choose what promises you make, not about the right to break them with impunity, to the point where you are not even to be criticised for such cheating.
And other more subtle-minded persons might expect a libertarian like me to rejoice that the state of modern morals (or immorals) is making politics so much harder to do with any dignity.
But cynicism about public life is one thing and the belief that the government should do a lot less than it now does – that public life ought to be smaller, so to speak – are two quite distinct matters. I wish they were not distinct matters, but sadly they are. Libertarianism is a strong and forthright attempt to see the affairs of the world governed far more in accordance with morally upright principles than it is at the moment. The sort of ideas I saw proclaimed on my television this evening are far more likely to lead people to believe that any such principles are either sentimental hot air or else an exercise in hypocritical manipulation and to dismiss them with a resigned shrug, than to believe that these principles are right.