Leading Article: Please calm down and concentrate on the real issues

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The Independent Culture
A LEADING Tory grandee has suggested that this newspaper should hand back the awards it was given last week because it has failed to cover the furore about the Home Secretary's weekend break in France. This pathetic outburst is a depressing reminder of just how infantile politics in this country has become. So is Norman Fowler's call for Jack Straw to "consider his position", especially since he had earlier denied that there was anything wrong with Mr Straw's trip.

Sir Norman has made himself look silly, which is all the more surprising for such a normally shrewd politician. He has allowed Labour to counter- attack with the allegation that the Conservatives are a sloppy and amateur opposition - which they certainly appear to be, given their disarray over Europe, and the invisible men and women who have been awarded most of the shadow portfolios.

Others have behaved in just as silly a manner. A press frenzy has developed, and not just in the tabloid newspapers. One newspaper has referred to Mr Straw "sneaking" back into Britain; another offered rewards to find him. Yet another seemed to think that Mr Straw had jetted off to the type of sunshine holiday that many ordinary citizens cannot afford, rather than a prearranged budget break in cloudy Nice, which is at present basking in temperatures of only 59 degrees Fahrenheit.

Ministers don't deserve more sympathy than executives in other walks of life. But they don't deserve less. They work long hours for relatively little pay compared with the private sector. They carry heavy responsibilities, with their every move subject to intense scrutiny. Never was this more true than during Mr Straw's last week at work, when he had to deal with the explosive issue of racism and the police. He deserved a holiday after that. Ideally, perhaps, he should have been present in the debate over the release of witnesses' names in the Lawrence report, but in his absence Paul Boateng is a competent minister, fully able to apologise on behalf of the Home Office for mistakes in the report. What is the point of ministers of state, if they are not able to deputise for their superiors?

We are tempted to agree with the Prime Minister's spokesman, Alastair Campbell, and his recent complaints about the "dumbing down" of national political debate. Unable to focus for more than one or two days on the real policy details of any story, opposition politicians and newspapers seem to have got their comment ideas stuck in a groove, continually expressing outrage and calling for resignations.

There are understandable reasons for this, including the arrogant obduracy of ministers in the last government, who seemed to be temperamentally unable to resign even when their policies were utterly discredited.

But the desire to inflict harm at any cost to figures in public life is now becoming unhealthy. There are a number of recent examples of this. Robin Cook's private life has elicited more attention than the issue of Sierra Leone, which is a matter of real public concern rather than prurient gossip. The sexual orientation of Nick Brown, the agriculture minister, was awarded more yards of newsprint than were his farming policies. Some people seemed to think that the main issue raised by the Lawrence report was the future of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Paul Condon, rather than the problems of racism and police accountability.

The laudable objective of holding ministers to account, and making sure they cannot get away with their mistakes, has been forgotten in a melee that has now become so absurd that it would be laughable if it were not so depressing. Opposition politicians, and over-excited journalists, should take note: calm down, concentrate on real issues, and leave ministers' private lives alone.