Who really cares about our politicians' sex lives? It's just trivial gossip...

This isn't about whether you like the Home Secretary or not. It's about a choice we all have to make

Johann Hari
Wednesday 01 December 2004 01:00 GMT

Forget all that trivial news about relentless global warming, a shattered Iraq and the historic peace in Northern Ireland. Finally we are discussing the questions that really matter: Did David phone Kimberly at 3am and play Metallica at full blast? Did Petsy abort one or two tiny Borises? Oh, and that eternal question: how are Tony and Gordon getting on?

Forget all that trivial news about relentless global warming, a shattered Iraq and the historic peace in Northern Ireland. Finally we are discussing the questions that really matter: Did David phone Kimberly at 3am and play Metallica at full blast? Did Petsy abort one or two tiny Borises? Oh, and that eternal question: how are Tony and Gordon getting on?

Britain is sliding towards an American style of politics, where we obsess about the "character" of our politicians rather than their policies. This is new. Just 40 years ago, we had a Prime Minister - Harold Macmillan - who famously said: "If you want personal morality, talk to a bishop, not a politician". Few British people disagreed. (It's probably just as well: Lord Boothby was having an affair in the Downing Street flat with Macmillan's wife, Dorothy, and also sharing young boys with Ronnie Kray).

For a fortnight our front pages have been dominated by private sexual matters that affect nobody - literally nobody at all - in the forgotten world on the other side of Westminster Bridge.

Look across the Atlantic to see where this approach to politics leads. While al-Qa'ida plotted a murderous attack on America, the twice-elected president was busy being impeached over a few bouts of consensual oral sex. After decades of relentless focus on politicians' personalities, more than 60 per cent of Americans now say that "the character of the president" and his "moral fibre" are important factors for them in the polling booth. A month ago, they elected George Bush and his much-lauded "faith" even though they disagreed - according to every opinion poll - with his policies on health, education, tax and, increasingly, Iraq. Does anybody in Britain think a focus on character made the US a safer, healthier and better-governed place?

Of course, political gossip can be fun. I find news about Peter Andre and Jordan weirdly compelling too; it all has a place in a balanced diet of serious and dumb news. But this reminds me of something the great film critic, Pauline Kael, said towards the end of her life. In the Sixties and Seventies, she had been an early promoter of the pleasures of trashy, camp movies. Yet in the Nineties, she said in a melancholy interview: "All that time I was promoting trash culture, I never imagined it would become the only culture we have." For a significant portion of the electorate, the only political coverage they ever see or read is gossip and ridicule. This relentless trivialisation of politics seriously damages our democracy.

Of course, character and personality matter to some limited extent - but only insofar as they shape policy. Margaret Thatcher's stubbornness, for example, matters because it made her incapable of reversing catastrophic policies such as the poll tax. But to suggest that David Blunkett is more likely to lie because he has slept with a married woman is to disregard even the most basic history. Does Franklin Roosevelt's adultery undermine the New Deal? Does Adolf Hitler's fidelity to Eva Braun tell us much?

Even if the worst charge against Blunkett - the nanny visa allegations - is true, it hardly matters. MPs are constantly trying to help their constituents jump ahead in visa queues. When you consider the really terrible things Blunkett has done with just a fraction of the press attention - reintroducing internment, attacking jury trials, abusing asylum-seekers - it looks pathetically irrelevant.

Yet British citizens who think this way - who want to vote on policy rather than personality - have to cut through dense thickets of trivia and nonsense before they get to anything real at all. Look at Jeremy Paxman's interview with Michael Howard on Newsnight - the BBC's premier up-market news show - last week. A 25-minute slot was dedicated to a film and interview with the Tory leader. This was a crucial opportunity for more than a million electors to have the policies of the main opposition party explained to them, so they can make an informed, democratic choice.

"My dog is a Conservative," one woman explained to Paxman as they waited for the Tory leader to arrive in Cornwall. "What does your dog think of Michael Howard?" he asked. When he addressed his questions to humans, Paxman focused for 15 minutes entirely on the insubstantial, impressionistic matters of "leadership" and "strength". Everybody was encouraged to treat politics as a shallow pantomime-conflict between personalities. Howard was trying to talk about a policy - on where travellers' sites should be based - but this was treated as an eccentricity. Anything Howard said about it was interrupted by a Paxman voice-over, making snide jokes. When he finally interviewed Howard, he spent four minutes - four - on policy.

Most ordinary voters have very little time to dedicate to politics. So if they make the effort to watch a highbrow show featuring an interview with the leader of the Opposition and they still don't learn anything that connects with their lives - if all they hear is a petulant sneer or lurid sex stories - they will switch off from politics entirely.

It doesn't have to be this way. It isn't a law of nature that Britain will slump from the mature, post-religious European model - where politicians' affairs are irrelevant and policies everything - to the US emphasis on personal morality. Britain is becoming Atlanticised by the decisions of a handful of unaccountable journalists who prefer these simple, sexy stories to proper research, and because our non-existent privacy laws allow this to happen.

Political sex scandals appear at first to challenge the powerful. David Blunkett has, presumably, been made to feel very bad. But actually, in the long term, they reinforce existing power structures, because the implicit message of these sex stories is simple and reactionary. Politics in the scandal-hungry world isn't about ideas or redistributing wealth and power. It's about who can control their sexual urges best while running a political show (which just happens to be rigged in favour of the rich). That is not an empowering - or democratic - message.

So why do our politicians put up with it? Most of them, believe it or not, really care about policy. They don't want to spend time arguing about whom their colleagues might be sleeping with. A simple privacy law - modelled on those of our European neighbours - could put this right. It could redirect our political discussion towards the things that really matter: health, education, foreign policy.

Talking about "a right to know" about affairs is silly. We no more have a right to know about Blunkett's sex life than we have a right to know what he looks like naked. The press will scream about how privacy laws protect corrupt politicians. In the real world, the French and German press have exposed massive scandals in the past few years, unhindered by laws that prevent the reporting of affairs and other trivia.

This isn't about whether you like David Blunkett or not. It's about a choice we all have to make: do we want our political debate to be conducted at the level of Heat magazine or does a democracy deserve something better?


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