A typically English way of doing things

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Over the years, I have had occasion to point out several times how scandals are properly conducted in this country. Something terrible happens. It is usually not as terrible as all that, because (unlike recent events in Iraq) it involves sexual relations between more or less consenting adults, of no possible legitimate interest to anyone except the participants. Whatever the precise nature of the scandal, those set in authority over us - ministers, MPs, judges, newspaper editors - soon arrive at a consensus.

Over the years, I have had occasion to point out several times how scandals are properly conducted in this country. Something terrible happens. It is usually not as terrible as all that, because (unlike recent events in Iraq) it involves sexual relations between more or less consenting adults, of no possible legitimate interest to anyone except the participants. Whatever the precise nature of the scandal, those set in authority over us - ministers, MPs, judges, newspaper editors - soon arrive at a consensus.

The question, they say, is not whether such-and-such, universally deplored, actually happened. Rather, the question (sometimes varied to "the real issue") is whether so-and-so was entitled to tell us that it happened. It is whether he or she was behaving properly in drawing our attention to the events in question.

It is a typically English approach. It is not present in the United States, or to nothing like the same extent. Thus there is no argument at all about the identity of the thugs and harpies who abused Iraqi prisoners, or that the events of which they are accused took place. The question is what to do next: how and where they should be brought to trial, whether Mr Donald Rumsfeld should resign, what precisely Mr George Bush should say to the Arabs or, for that matter, to the Persians too, for Americans commonly make no distinction between the two races. In particular, there is no argument but that the American people should have had the matters complained of drawn to their attention.

In England, by contrast (for this is an English characteristic, rather than one that is typical of Scotland, Wales or Ireland), there is a lot of argument. Several politicians in private, and citizens more openly in letters to The Times and other papers, have argued that the Daily Mirror should simply not have told us about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by British troops.

Even a decade ago, politicians such as Mr Michael Howard and Mr Nicholas Soames would have been prepared to say so candidly. As it is, Mr Soames has come perilously close to saying that the paper concerned should have operated some form of self-censorship. He has certainly come down hard on the Mirror. Being sat on by Mr Soames manifestly counts as a cruel and unusual punishment, a clear breach of the Geneva Conventions. Alas - or, from the point of view of those being sat on, happily - Mr Soames is not a heavyweight in parliamentary terms. He is not exactly a lightweight either. He is more, perhaps, a political welterweight, with ambitions, rekindled under Mr Howard's managership, to fight in a higher division.

His attitude used to be common. In the late 1960s, I remember, The Times revealed several cases of corruption in the Metropolitan Police. The then Home Secretary, James Callaghan, said to me that he had enough faith in my public spirit to hope I should have come straight to him if I had found myself in possession of similar information. I refrained from replying that, in such an unlikely event, this is the last course I should have followed. I contented myself instead with murmuring that there were different ways of looking at these matters.

Today not even Mr Soames, still less Mr Howard, can get away with saying publicly that the information about Iraq should have been handed over to some higher authority or, in other words, suppressed. Instead the question - the real issue - is supposed to be whether the Mirror's pictures were faked or, if that is too strong a word, a reconstruction of what in fact happened. And the newspapers, ever anxious to do down a rival, are broadly content to follow the path hacked out by the politicians.

There is also a cultural phenomenon that is involved. It is the recent exaltation of the Army as representative of all that is finest in the British way of life. It was not always so. As George Orwell wrote in The Lion and the Unicorn, we are not a military nation. The patriotic songs which survive from the 18th century, "Heart (not, as in the common version, Hearts) of Oak" and, above all, "Rule, Britannia", are about the Navy, not the Army. It is the Royal Navy (as it is the Royal Air Force too) but, for reasons that go back to the 17th century, it is Parliament's Army. Certainly the Duke of Wellington held no high opinion of his troops. He said:

"The French soldiers are more under control than ours. It is quite shocking what excesses ours committed when once let loose."

Later:

"The French system of conscription brings together a fair sample of all classes; ours is composed of the scum of the earth - the mere scum of the earth ... The English soldiers are fellows who have all enlisted for drink ..."

As long as we had conscription too, as we did till 1960, so long was it difficult to romanticise the Army. In any case, there was no need to do so. In the 1950s we could plausibly claim to have the best cricket team in the world. In the 1960s, having won the World Cup, we could say with hardly less conviction that we were the best at football also. No longer.

In succeeding decades, other institutions that were intended to demonstrate our evident superiority melted away. The BBC became a joke. The Royal Family found itself a laughing stock. High Court judges (themselves a declining breed) suffered a collective nervous breakdown on making the belated discovery that the police did not invariably tell the truth in the witness box and were not above planting evidence on a suspect. Only the Army was left, together with the England rugby team - even though that team embodied distinctly un-English values, as the largely innocent feature writers who celebrated their triumph in the World Cup last year failed to realise properly, if at all. Now the Army is not, it seems, all we were told it was.

But then, the Daily Mirror is not what it was either. It is not that it is a better paper or a worse. It is no longer a part of the Labour establishment; that is all. The hostility, even hatred, which the Labour benches showed towards it last week equalled their feelings for the Daily Mail, of which, together with The Sun, they are genuinely frightened. Long gone are the days when Hugh Cudlipp, cigar in hand or between teeth - stooped, menacing, fast-talking, like a cross between James Cagney and Groucho Marx - would descend on a respectful Labour conference accompanied by a troop of minions, most of whom were shortly to find themselves in the House of Lords. No longer need Mr Neil Kinnock struggle with his conscience about whether to attend Robert Maxwell's party, and duly lose. We live in a different world. It is still, however, a world which plays the game of Hunt-the-Issue with unabated enthusiasm.

Comments