I can’t remember a time, except for the Suez crisis of 1956, when people were so worked up and angry about politics and politicians. The recent stream of scandals and smears – the greedy bankers, the clumsy policing of the G20 demonstrations, the infamous ‘smeargate’ tapes, the damp squib of the Manchester ‘major terrorist plot’ arrests, the hyped up swine ‘flu panic, the debate on the blogs (though not in parliament or the mainstream media) about ‘legitimate’ use of torture, revelations about MPs’ expenses claims, and the accelerating decline of the prime minister from Stalin through Mr Bean to Mr Has-been – has induced a growing public mood of disquiet amounting to disgust at how our public affairs are being conducted.
The anger is compounded by feelings of helplessness. People are saying “but what can we DO about it? How can we get rid of them without a revolution?” Clearly the wheels have come off the New Labour ‘project’, but it keeps rolling on under its own failing impetus. It is a government of presumptuous incompetents deluding themselves that they are our indispensible National Nannies who always know what is best for us however loudly we kick and scream and tell them to get lost.
The ex-diplomat Charles Crawford has made an interesting suggestion on his ‘blogoir’ – namely, that the Civil Service should go on strike and refuse to work any more for this prime minister and his team. That would indeed set the cat among the pigeons, and make government unworkable. But it is a moot point whether the mandarin top brass, however restive they are at the sleaze, incompetence, and other shenanigans, have got the bottle to rebel.
What we are confronted with in contemporary government, not only in the UK but also in the USA and in many other countries around the world, is not merely a moral malaise – the collapse of morality, a moral slump, or even amorality: it is moral nihilism. As Craig Murray and others are pointing out, the only issue which concerns politicians, whether over matters of deep import such as launching a war or sanctioning torture, or over trivialities such as their venal attitude to their own pay and expenses, is not whether the thing in question is right or wrong, but whether it is in accordance with “the rules”. If the answer to the latter is ‘yes’, our rulers feel free to sanction behaviour which most ordinary folk find abhorrent and all too frequently dishonest. When they are caught devising excuses for invading Iraq or Afghanistan in the name of the Hitlerian doctrine of ‘liberal interventionism’, for inflicting cruel and unusual punishments such as waterboarding and prolonged deprivation of sleep (which most of us would describe as torture) on captives, or for paying their personal shopping bills out of the public purse, all they come up with is “well, it was within the rules”. There is no consideration of ethics.
Thus, President Obama has excused from prosecution all those agents of torture under his predecessor’s regime who honestly believed that what they were doing was sanctioned by the government – regardless of whether it was right or wrong. Unconscionable lies have been told to persuade the British public that the invasion of Iraq was essential because Saddam Hussein posed a real and imminent threat. The Americans invaded Afghanistan because the Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden (who may not actually have been there) until the Americans provided evidence that he was responsible for the Twin Towers atrocity of 11 September 2001, which they were either unable or unwilling to do. The MPs currently scurrying around seeking to justify their insatiable greed plead that they haven’t broken any rules, even though the prime minister has repeatedly said that the rules are defective and must be changed.
All these people have completely forgotten the Nuremberg International War Crimes Tribunal's judgement which definitively laid down that following orders was no excuse for committing criminal acts. They deploy the 'Nuremberg Defence' which failed on that occasion, and which decent people hoped had been swept into the dustbin of history. Alas, far from it. We are wallowing in the mire of shameless excuses for wrongdoing. Public morality has collapsed, and until it is restored we shall not retrieve our tattered honour.