When I was at sixth form, a school friend of mine went down for an admissions interview to read PPE at Oxford¹. During the course of proceedings he was asked about the Rule of Law and whether it applies equally to everyone. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve thought about this moment a bit, as it seems to encapsulate quite a lot of what’s going on in our political culture.
Most of us know, deep down, that the mighty sword of justice is not wielded blindly, yet we maintain a pretence that all stand equally before it. We’ve had a decade of the erosion of legal aid and redress for most people, and chronic underfunding of the criminal justice system to seal it. So why do we accept it? To live in any kind of society, one must have common bonds of interest and trust. Societies are founded on the most primal human urges for shelter and protection. The economics of specialisation and scarcity came a little later, but the simple act of banding together has run like a thread through our primate ancestors all the way through to us. We share common values, adopt common rituals and customs, develop cultures as an act of collective stability and safety. Part of this is accepting the small lies that go with living with other people, the little white lies that grease the wheels of sociability. This is healthy, and a key part of a culture of common consent. A culture of complete, total transparent honesty would be a route to carnage; saying “yes, actually, your bum does look a bit on the chunky side in that” is not going to end well for you. But at the same time, we accept lies which are bigger, and not necessarily healthy at all, lies like:
- If you’re poor it’s your own fault. Successful people did it all through the power of hard work and will power, and it’s your own fault if you can’t.
- You can, and should, look physically perfect, and it’s perfectly achievable if you follow the right diet and fitness regime. If you don’t, it’s not because you don’t have access to expensive facilities, help, and even surgical correction, but that you are lazy and lacking in will power. And this applies doubly if you’re a woman.
- If you don’t go to a school that charges more² than most people earn in a year in fees , and you find that you don’t get as many life chances or opportunities as someone who did, it’s your fault for not working hard enough.
Even though these unhealthy lies persist, the majority of people still cleave to them, for the sake of stability, and the promise of some kind of order to things. To question that is to peer over the edge of a yawning abyss, and see a terrifying dark void below. We mostly pretend, for example, that the legal system is open and transparent and fair, when in fact we understand that someone with enough cash, or the right connections, can have a quiet word, or throw a bit of money in the right place, and the problem will be fixed. We tell our children that if you work hard enough you can achieve anything, but most of us know that, barring a huge amount of luck, or a very niche interest, the majority of those opportunites will go to a very select stratum of people in our society. In essence, we know the system has an inbuilt level of corruption, but we try to comfort ourselves with the thought it’s discreet, and relatively rare. But of course, none of these things are unconnected. Two thirds of senior judges are privately educated. And three quarters are educated at just two universities³. Senior civil servants are not that far behind. Basically, the machinery of government and the law is a fairly incestuous one, and it helps if you have a huge amount of social capital banked to be able to navigate it to your advantage.
And nowhere is that more obvious than in Parliament and Government. Today, Andrew Rawnsley writes an article in the Observer talking about an amoral Prime Minister creating a party, and Parliament and a Government entirely in his own image. It concerns me that in the country at large, which has spent the last decade being ground down by austerity, Brexit and the ongoing mismanagement of the pandemic, the levels of outrage may not be as widespread as some in the media imagine, simply because of the demand for some sort of of certainty in amongst all the confusion. But the fact that enough outrage exists is both worrying, and perhaps counter-intuitively, encouraging.
It’s worrying that we have arrived here. Worrying that the levels of corruption that mostly existed on a nod, a wink, and a quiet drink in a club somewhere have now been replaced with the most blatant grinding of our faces in it, in such an unapologetic and even triumphant fashion. It still angers me that Owen Paterson, even in the midst of his own resignation, claimed to have done nothing at all wrong, even though a committee partly made up of members of his own party declared that he very definitely had, then tried to blame them for victimising him. And how did the Government respond to this weapons-grade self-delusion? By insisting he take this deserved, though in the circumstances rather lenient, punishment?⁴ No, they decided that they were going to change the rules to exempt such behaviour, and prevent him from facing sanction.
But the encouraging thing was the reaction to it. Enough people still care. Within twenty four hours, even the Prime Minister⁵ could see endorsing a man unrepentantly taking a hundred grand a year of backhanders from a company who conveniently been given lots of lucractive COVID contracts in a closed process where records of communications had been destroyed⁶, only to demonstrate that they were not really competent to handle them was not a good look. Not even for him, with a relationship to truth and honesty about as quantum and probabilisitic as it’s possible to be. Even he looked around and wondered whether, for now, they’d gone too far. After Oven Ready Bollocks, Build Back Bollocks, and latterly Levelling Up, this time even he may have realised it was possible that there were some lies that are just too hard to swallow for the everyday proles. Even supposedly tame (such as the BBC) and onside sources (such as the Mail and the Express) were performing at least some kind of angry morality jig. He has made his party in his own image: entitled, sneering, self-satisfied, amoral and lying⁷, but you can only do it for so long before all the people you’ve lied to start to tot up the scores, and want payback. There is only so long that his party will continue to stand for it. The Conservatives sniff the need for power more than anyone, and as soon as he is even perceived to threaten that, he will be (metaphorically) quickly taken out back and shot: it’s the Tory way.
Societies work on the steady lubrication of small lies, but you have to be careful. once the lies start getting too big, people start to get uncomfortable, and even begin to question some of the bigger lies that hold everything together. Maybe Johnson has crossed a bullshit event horizon now. One can only hope so, and that soon, he’ll be pulled beyond all help, and will vanish into the type of black hole reserved for those who used to be important.
- Spoiler: He didn’t get in. But he did come back talking about some of the other applicants he met, including Mahboob, in his £800 Armani suit (this was 1987, remember), banging on about the school squash courts. He was apparently at Denis Thatcher’s alma mater, Mill Hill. Anyway, hi there, John!
- About 30% more, roughly. Currently (November 2021), basic school fees for Eton College are around 44k per year (14.6k per term). According to The Office of National Statistics, UK median income is currently around 30k
- We know which two, don’t we? That’s not the headline figure here though. https://www.lawgazette.co.uk/news/senior-judges-most-socially-exclusive-of-all-professionals/5070720.article
- Rawnsley’s article says, “In the normal world, bringing your employer into disrepute is customarily a sackable offence”. This is part of the problem with regulation: MPs are not the employees of Parliament, and there really isn’t an easy way to square this particular circle without some significant thinking and reform. Don’t hold your breath, but Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? is one Latin phrase that really should be burned into the minds of the most self-professed lovers of the language on the Government front benches right now.
- It still pains me to say that the priapic haystack is the holder of that office. And he’d done all of this following a rather jolly dinner with a connected donor after a cheery private flight home from a climate change conference where he’d blathered inconsequentially to an almost empty room. Just after a holiday paid for by a chum he’d had punted up to the House of Lords after losing his seat. And whose father was a chum of Lord Lucan.
- Ah, yes. Lord Bethel’s WhatsApp account. How terribly convenient that was, eh?
- There’s a moment in the movie The Wedding Singer where the protagonist Robbie’s friend, Sammy, who’s a bit of a ladies man, admits that he’s not happy and , “no one likes to see a fifty year old guy hittin’ on chicks.” Every time I watch that now, I think of Boris Johnson and his number of children subject to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, and I can’t help but feel just a little queasy.