Greasy Pole: All good clean fun?
Michael Howard will have been delighted that David Blunkett’s entangled difficulties pushed the Boris Johnson affair off the front pages. Sacking Johnson for denying his relationship with Petronella Wyatt enabled Howard to appear as a fearless guardian of moral standards. It would be churlish to entertain the idea that acting with such speed had something to do with Johnson being spoken of as the next Tory leader. Then there is the “morality” of why Howard appointed Johnson in the first place and what this says about the whole process of what is called politics.
The Tories have plenty to worry about right now, including the fact that few of their leaders are “recognisable”. It is assumed that workers are more likely to abuse the power of their vote by casting it for people they feel familiar with, regardless of what that person represents. A canny politician understands this and, on the assumption that there is no such thing as bad publicity, relentlessly courts media attention. John Prescott, for example, is one of the most recognisable of politicians, especially since he appeared on the nation’s TV screens chinning a bystander who threw an egg at him at a meeting in the 2001 election. But the Tories? Who recognises Prescott’s counterpart Michael Ancram? What London cabby boasts about having that John Redwood in the back the other day? Who queues to catch a glimpse of Oliver Letwin?
Even before he made it onto the opposition Front Bench, Boris Johnson was not one of the featureless, unrecognised Tories. Overweight, bumbling, rumpled, dishevelled and speaking with the plummiest of accents, he was ideally suited to play the victim on Have I Got News For You. The merciless verbal mauling he got on his first appearance on that show ensured him a place in the catalogue of eccentrics who do such an effective job of blanketing the realities of capitalism and its politics from the people who could, if they wished, put an end to the system. Johnson moved smoothly into the Tory candidature for the constituency of Henley on Thames, after Michael Heseltine had left the Commons.
Henley suited Johnson very well and he suited Henley, an excruciatingly posh, smartly ancient town on a beautiful stretch of the Thames. Howard, surrounded by tedious, but grippingly ambitious, shadows, may have seen Johnson and his effortless talent for attracting publicity as a vote-fertile gift. In all the circumstances, it was understandable that Howard should overlook some of Johnson’s little lapses, like being asked by a fellow Old Etonian, the convicted fraudster Darius Guppy, for the name of a journalist Guppy wanted to have beaten up in revenge for exposing his offences (typically, Johnson couldn’t put his hands on the information) and being sacked from a job on The Times for making up a quotation.
Petronella Wyatt is the daughter of the late Lord Wyatt, who as Woodrow Wyatt was a Labour MP during the 1950s and 60s. Wyatt always made it clear that he had no truck with all that nonsense about designing socialism for Britain, or allowing the workers by hand or brain to have access to the wealth they produced. He was notable for very little other than opposing the renationalisation of steel and carrying on a McCarthy-type campaign against Communists in the trades unions. In 1987 Thatcher made him a life peer – by which time he was thoroughly under her spell.
Petronella was a child of Wyatt’s fourth marriage and he was said to dote on her, to the extent of pulling many an influential string to get her to Oxford and then, in spite of her being notably unqualified, into media jobs. There were many rumours about her job as deputy editor of the Spectator relying on the closeness between her and Johnson the editor, and of Johnson’s readiness to buy the silence of anyone who got to know of their relationship with gifts of space in the magazine.
So in terms of her background and personality Petronella Wyatt seems to have been an ideal match for a man whose buffoonery is relentless to the point of tedium. Perhaps that was why there was such an upsurge of support for Johnson, which more or less advised Michael Howard that such a lovely couple should be left untroubled and that if he thought he had done the Tories a good turn by the sacking he was very much mistaken. According to the Guardian of 15 November a recent poll put Johnson as the third best known Tory, after Howard and William Hague. David Mellor (as if anyone pays any heed to anything he says) described him as “one of the few MPs with genuine charisma and a favourable public profile”. The Independent of 15 November raved that he “created a buzz around political life, making at least his portion of it attractive, youthful and entertaining . . . someone with a rare ability to bring politics alive”. And Norman Tebbit burbled that Johnson “added a lot of colour and fun and I suspect it’s that which has caused his downfall”. (Of course the last thing anyone associated Tebbit with when he was in the government would be “colour” or “fun” and the fact that he bestirs himself to use such words is a measure of the hysteria stimulated by Johnson’s sacking).
All of this was based on the assumption that introducing “fun” or “entertainment” into politics has to be a good thing. It avoids the question of what politics is, why political parties exist and what they do. To begin with, politics is peculiar to capitalism; it is all about the exercise of power over society, about the establishment, the rule and the running of states and units of them. Political parties are the expression of class interests and any differences between parties such as Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat only express varying views about the details of how capitalism should be organised, with a basic agreement that it must be in the interests of the capitalist class. With a classless society, without states, without government, there will be no politics and no political parties in the current sense.
Meanwhile, while capitalism exists, we have politics and it is no cause for fun. For example it was a political decision to start the war in Iraq, in which countless thousands have died (a recent article in the medical magazine the Lancet put the number at 100,000; Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said it was “only” about 16,000, which to any politician makes it all right). It is through political decisions that capitalism’s burdens of poverty, which means its burdens of mental and physical ill health, its social ailments, its human alienation, are administered. Poverty is a matter of class; according to a recent report by the Office for National Statistics the share of national wealth of the poorest 50 percent of the British population declined from seven percent in 1996, just before Labour came to power, to five percent in 2002. During the same period the portion of the national wealth owned by the top one percent increased from 20 percent to 23 percent. A survey in late 2003 found that the death rate of the poorest people are four times that of the richest. One informed opinion is that the biggest killer is social stress, with all that entails. Being poor means a greater chance of suffering a host of problems – like being ill, of being arrested for an offence, of a child being excluded from school.
Capitalism’s waste and destruction continue, whatever government exercises its political power in office. None of it is amusing and none of it is a subject of fun for politicians who think to demonstrate what they regard as their superiority by never having anything useful, or indeed relevant, to say.