Sleaze, scandal... Isn't this where we came in?

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The Independent Online

Maybe it's the rain, or a touch of seasonal affective disorder, or simply those good old February blues, but something strange and a depressing seems to have happened to public life. Suddenly, it is as if we have slipped back in time.

Maybe it's the rain, or a touch of seasonal affective disorder, or simply those good old February blues, but something strange and a depressing seems to have happened to public life. Suddenly, it is as if we have slipped back in time.

Open one of the trashier newspapers and the same faces are at the centre of the same kind of stories, provoking the same feelings of weariness, as they were five years ago. Jeffrey Archer has been snapped through a long-lens camera in his naff, bottom-hugging shorts, hand in hand with a dodgy blonde.

Then, over the page, there's Esther Rantzen. Is she really a caring, generous-hearted public figure whose husband took off his oxygen mask to give her one last passionate kiss as he lay dying (her version), or has she used her memoirs to discredit his first wife within months of her death, thereby upsetting her family (everyone else's version)? I suppose these stories must be new. Why then does it feel as if I have been reading them for the past 20 years?

Away from the domestic traumas of middle England's favourite celebrities, the news feels just as familiar. It is the old, old story of political misbehaviour and arrogance. The problem, perhaps, is that we had allowed ourselves to become hooked on the idea that we are living in a time of change, that things, indeed, were getting better.

Even before the arrival of a new century, with all the newness and excitement that it was going to bring, there was that bright new morning which dawned on the day after the general election in 1997. The size of the Labour majority, and the intemperate rejoicing which greeted it, were not so much reflections of any genuine political sea change, or even of a swing to the left, but a great, nationwide expression of relief.

At last, there would be change. A knackered, discredited bunch of second-rate politicians had been removed from our lives. For a while at least, we would not have to awake to the sound of Michael Howard hectoring us in those prissy, nanny-knows-best tones on the Today programme. The distinct and unsavoury whiff of self-interest, of trimmers and mediocrities on the make, would fade, maybe even disappear altogether, from public life.

Most people who voted Labour four years ago were not expecting nor even wanting an earthquake of change in public life. Many of them were simply looking for a break with the past. They wanted to be able to care about politics once more. It takes the imminent prospect of another election to see how pathetically naive they - we - were.

It is not the policies of this cautious, ingratiating government that remind one how little has changed, but the way they behave. Over the past month, one minister has been bounced out of office after he had become a PR liability; when he attempted to fight his corner, it was leaked - a low, sleazy trick - that he had become "detached", unstable, possibly even suicidal.

Then there has been the sight of the Lord Chancellor busily whipping in members of the legal profession, of which he is the highest officer, with a view to raising money for his party's election fund. Far from acknowledging that he had abused his position, or at least shown a lack of judgement, Lord Irvine has delivered a sneerily dismissive defence, full of specious, legalistic sophistry, arguing that his office has always been political, that there is no difference between campaigning and fundraising (huh?) and, of course, that - all together now - it was all much worse under the Tories.

It has happened. This is where we came in. There may be different voices on the Today programme than there were five years ago, but their confident, truculent voices are delivering the same, depressing message, in the same bullying tones.

terblacker@aol.com

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