It’s stink or swim

by Peter Phelps 

The old chestnut about how a frog will let itself be boiled to death so long as it’s heated slowly enough is a useful metaphor when trying to understand why the stench of corruption wafting out of Westminster hasn’t had us all clamouring for regime change. Some think kleptocracy of the kind seen in Russia couldn’t happen here because democracy is baked-in to our political system. It seemed so in 1995, when Lord Nolan set out the seven principles governing public service – selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership. But such faith in the system looks dangerously naïve now when ethical standards are routinely flouted with impunity, sometimes to a criminal extent, right under our noses.

The double-headed hydra of Brexit and Covid delivered a seismic shock that’s left us particularly vulnerable to social and economic manipulation. When you add together the EU divorce bill, the disruption to trade, and the negative impact on GDP and tax receipts, Brexit is already a costly failure that will take decades to overcome, dwarfed only by the calamitous cost of Covid, which has seen debt grow to the same size as the economy. The real costs, however, are human ones. Covid has left gaping holes in our communities, with almost 130,000 lives lost and twice as many set to be out of work than before the crisis. Social isolation has led to a rise in deaths from other causes and a tsunami of mental health problems. But the human cost of Brexit could prove even greater. Already, it has sparked off renewed violence in Northern Ireland and caused a meanspirited squabble with the EU over vaccines.

But our society has also become increasingly polarised, our views on everything from protest to pandemic, from new vaccines to new vaginas, now fair game for hysterical kangaroo courts conducted on social media that make many afraid to speak out.

Explaining last century’s tyrannies, intellectuals such as Erich Fromm and Hannah Arendt suggested that individuals in traumatised societies tend to exchange their freedoms incrementally for protection, reaching a point where the truth no longer matters so long as they are clothed, fed, and feel part of the herd. Poland and Hungary provide two modern examples of this phenomenon. But our society has also become increasingly polarised, our views on everything from protest to pandemic, from new vaccines to new vaginas, now fair game for hysterical kangaroo courts conducted on social media that make many afraid to speak out. If we support restrictions to the right to protest, or the mandatory use of health passports in ways that impact our civil liberties (see Alex McBride, p. 14), we become like prisoners cutting the keys for our jailers.

Perhaps this explains why the Government leads in the polls despite blatant evidence of corruption (as Simon Heffer sets out, p. 10). The Prime Minister’s politically suicidal row with Dominic Cummings and the David Cameron lobbying scandal grabbed last month’s headlines, but are little more than bagatelles, pimples on the boil of chumocracy. The real scandal lies in the lack of accountability regarding billions of pounds spent on pandemic-related contracts. It’s not just the health contracts awarded to jewellers, confectioners and pub landlords – those with the right ministerial WhatsApp contacts but no relevant experience – while genuine service providers languished in departmental inboxes. It’s not just the unlawful delay in publishing the details of those contracts. It’s the services paid for but not provided, the millions of pounds vaporised in a cloud of consultancy arrangements that are little more than a brazen form of embezzlement.

Westminster was once a colosseum where political gladiators might scale heroic heights, only to be felled by a single misstep. Take Tony Blair’s home secretary, David Blunkett, forced to resign for allegedly pushing through a visa application for his lover’s nanny; or his trade secretary, Peter Mandelson, brought down for failing to register a loan. More spectacularly, and pertinently, take Jonathan Aitken, Chief Secretary to the Treasury under John Major, run through by his own “simple sword of truth”: that is, imprisoned for lying about his dodgy dealings with the Saudis. Back then, political life was brutal, even unfair, but underlying it was a belief that integrity of character and purpose mattered above all else, was the cornerstone of public service. Remaining in power depended on maintaining the people’s trust, expressed directly at the ballot box or through their paid assassins on Fleet Street. The truth is frogs don’t stick around long enough to get boiled to death, and neither should we. We need to rediscover our sense of outrage. We need to get hopping.

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