Do we want a healthy party-based democracy any longer in Britain? The bigger parties struggle for cash while smaller extreme parties flourish in local elections. Meanwhile, senior politicians are accused with casual complacency of being corrupt. No wonder the fanatics in the BNP and elsewhere rub their hands with glee. They must sense that their time has come.
Political leaders are partly culpable for the wildly uninformed cynicism that undermines democratic politics. As I have written many times, Tony Blair has made some colossal misjudgements as he sought to escape from the politics of the 1980s and lead a centreleft party with a doomed managerial pragmatism. But, boy, do we know about the errors. We hear about his culpability most hours of every day. The dangerously simplistic background assumption is that Blair and other wretched politicians alone undermine democracy. It is much more complicated than that.
Viewers of 24, the compelling and addictive television series, will know part of the appeal is that the hero, Jack Bauer, faces impossible choices in each episode. Quite often they come down to this: do I choose to save the world, even if that means my new girlfriend will be killed by her kidnappers? We sympathise with Bauer because we understand the agonies of the decision-making process.
With political leaders there is no wish to understand any more. Yet, like Bauer, political leaders face no-win decisions all the time. That is politics. They are in a continuing battle with political opponents. They face complex decisions that have to be agreed by their parties and then presented to the electorate through the prism of the media. The Bauer-like dilemmas are rarely highlighted.
The BBC's one-sided coverage of Blair's interview with the police last Thursday was a classic example. There was little attempt to explain, place the event in context or question what the police were up to. Instead the assumption was that the day had been simply another disaster for Blair.
Newsnight described the police interview as a "bombshell", although the exchange had been inevitable once the police inquiry had begun. It was a bombshell only in the sense that ChristmasDay is a bombshell to some young kids. Parts of the BBC had been waiting for this day so long that when it arrived they could not contain their excitement. The normally sober World Tonight ran an overexcited report followed by an interview with Roy Hattersley, who is a Blair critic, and then an interview with a columnist who is well-known for believing that Blair is corrupt.
That was it. At five o' clock News 24 ran several breathless reports ending with an interview with the MP Gordon Prentice, who has been a big critic of Blair's for years. Nowhere was there any reference to this fact. I am a great fan of Hattersley and the anti-Blair columnist, but they were never going together to present a full picture.
Even more surreal, in each of the long BBC sequences there was a separate discussion on how outrageous it was that Downing Street had made the announcement on a busy news day, therefore burying bad news. This must have been the noisiest burial in history. Also imagine the alternative discussion in Downing Street: "Tony, why don't we hold the police interview on a quiet news day so we can be kicked around even more than we will be already?"
Finally, and with a bleak symmetry, on Thursday night the BBC review of the political week with Andrew Neil ended its programme with a long monologue from the actor Michael Gambon about how much he hated politicians. At first I thought it was a joke. Gambon can be a brilliant comic actor. But after a sentence or two it was clear he meant it, given pride of place as the climax of the programme: a sweeping attack on democratic politics, unquestioned and unchallenged. The anti-politics extremists would have given their thumbs up to that use of licence-fee money.
Of course, it is a big news story when the police interview a prime minister, even if it was inevitable and predictable. But the much bigger twist of the day was that he was interviewed as a witness rather than under caution. Here is the figure that leads the Labour Party and alone has the power of patronage. Surely the BBC could have raised a few more questions about what this tells us about the nature of the police investigation.
Could there have been also a bit more context as to what happened in the build-up to the last election, when the main parties were battling it out for funds in the equivalent of a naval arms race? Are the police behaving with appropriate propriety or are they leaking selected snippets of information? Uncritically, BBC reporters quoted "police sources" while criticising Downing Street for spinning the news. Why is the BBC asking no questions of the unelected police officers while describing without qualification the events for the elected Blair as one of his darkest days?
The BBC did the same with John Major. While I worked at the BBC I wrote a detailed essay on how it added to the turbulence around Major in the mid-1990s as well as reporting what was going on. The same is happening with Blair now. The BBC is not anti-Labour or pro-Tory, but unable to take a stand on policy issues, and, wanting to make waves, it has inadvertently become anti-politics. I know this to be a view held also by some senior Conservative politicians as well as those around Blair and Brown.
I stress again that politicians are culpable. Major ran a split, tired administration and there were a few crooks in his ranks. Blair has been a rootless political leader in which too often wily means were justified for what he hoped would be worthwhile ends. I stress also that I am not anti-BBC. I want a publicly funded media organisation to thrive. But I cite its thoughtlessly clichéd output last Thursday as symptomatic of the way as a country we have lapsed into a complacent view of politics, assuming the worst, unable or unwilling to understand the dilemmas politicians face.
On Any Questions at the weekend, the journalist Charles Moore got the biggest cheer of the night by arguing that it was outrageous of politicians to demand money from the taxpayers to help them fund their parties. Probably Moore spoke for Britain. But think about the implications. It is no longer possible for wealthy people to make donations without being regarded as crooks. Membership of political parties is declining fast, so they cannot rely on individual subscriptions. Yet Moore gets a huge cheer when he argues against state funding. So what is left?
Enter the charismatic extremists, unburdened by the apparently contaminated bigger political parties. Major left amid overblown claims of sleaze. Blair will leave with even noisier allegations. Slowly the stage is being cleared.Reuse content