This week has been a seismic moment in British politics and public life. Not just for Rupert Murdoch and News International, but for much deeper and serious issues about the condition of British democracy and about who has power and influence in contemporary society. In short, this goes to the heart of what the British state has become and to the role of our political classes in all of this.
This may seem like a schadenfreude moment for many who have despaired at the profound influence of the Murdoch empire across British life, and who are feeling a little spring in their step upon seeing Andy Coulson, former editor of the ‘News of the World’ and Downing Street Head of Communications charged by the police, while David Cameron and his Tory-led Government struggle to deal with events.
The Cameroon Conservative project is now in major crisis. It had a clear-cut logic and sensibility. After three election defeats the party could no longer go on with its own obsessions, comfort zones, talking to itself and lecturing us like a pub bore on tax, asylum and immigration, law and order and Europe.
This approach drew explicitly and openly from New Labour, realising that the Tory brand had become the problem and had to be detoxified and then, the whole edifice modernised, renewed and reconnected with voters. This is what led to Cameron’s famous opposition moments, ‘hug a hoodie’ and the husky photo shoot, along with his brandishing his green credentials.
The results of this have been mixed to say the least. They haven’t produced New Labour-like dividends with the voters. In 2010 with the wind and political mood (and Murdoch press) blowing in favour of the Tories, the party managed an uplift of a mere 3.7% of votes. That’s more Neil Kinnock in 1987 and 1992 than Tony Blair in 1997. And yet because the press and mood so much wanted Cameron to win this is seldom pointed out.
The Conservative failure in 2010 saw the Tories fail by 20 seats to win an overall majority, and only defeat Gordon Brown’s self-destructive, self-obsessed, divided, fag end administration by a mere 48 seats.
The Con-Lib Dem coalition initially played into the long-term strategic positioning of the Cameroon project and the detoxification approach, while also drawing on the wider Tory tradition of seeing the middle ground and claiming the mantle of ‘the national interest’. It also played into the Tory habit of eating up and devouring your centrist, liberal opponents and posing Labour as a party of sectional, narrow interests.
In office, the Cameron Government hasn’t developed a convincing way of doing or explaining what it is doing. Is it about the ‘Big Society’ or influenced by ‘Red Toryism’ or ‘progressive Conservatism’? All of these ideas have the echo and feel of the Blairite search for a credo: ‘the third way’ one week, ‘the progressive century’ the next, all of which got nowhere.
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The narratives which have stuck with the Cameron Govermment have been the ones born of the crises it finds itself facing. Thus it has repeated ad nauseum until it has become cliché and sounded like dogma that ‘the money has run out’, ‘we have no option but to cut the deficit’, and that ‘we can’t live beyond our means’; as an alternative ‘we are all in it together’ is trundled out by Cameron and Osborne but already is met with incredulity.
This has exposed the ill-formed nature of the Cameroon Conservative project. Cameron hasn’t convinced a large part of his party of the need for change. Many of them think their problem is that he has not been conservative enough or is not even ‘one of us’. It is the same old zealotry which used to inhabit Labour with Bennism.
It is more serious with Cameron because Blair leaving aside all his faults took most of Labour with him. The Conservative journey post-Thatcherism is still trying to work out whether to appeal to the good old hymns the base and the committed love to hear. Or whether to try to flesh out a post-Thatcherite reforming Conservatism. They are caught between the ghosts of a myth of Margaret Thatcher and the shadow of Tony Blair and his bug eyed, delusional late phase of ‘public sector reform’ that he laid out in his memoirs.
That brings us to the state of Britain and the Murdoch News International scandal. It isn’t an accident that in the last three years there have been three seismic crises of the new forces of power and privilege in the new British establishment. In 2008, we had the crises of the banks, followed by the political classes and the expenses crisis, and now, the escalating revelations of the amoral, out of control nature of the Murdoch press.
All three crises are important because they are parts of the pillars of Britain’s neo-liberal state: the reconfiguration of the British political, public, economic, social and cultural life of the UK, and the collusion of our politicians and wider political classes with all of this.
David Cameron is but one person who has lost any sense of moral compass in this. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown bear a heavy responsibility. One unintended comic aspect of the last few days has been seeing Alistair Campbell and John Prescott touring the TV studios feigning their moral outrage at what has happened. The publication of Campbell’s recent unabridged diaries reveals dozens of entries for Rebekah Brooks (re Wade) when she was deputy editor of ‘The Sun’ and then editor of the ‘News of the World’: six in the most recently published volume covering 1999-2001 and eight in the period 1997-99 (Murdoch count 10 and 29 respectively).
Such people have got some soul searching to do. Campbell, Prescott, Blair, Brown, Cameron and numerous other Tories. And it is no use Labour people taking succour in the fact they never appointed someone like Andy Coulson to the heart of government; they have got enough explaining to do.
It may be heart-warming to see the attention of media, politicians and police investigation turn on the inner workings and abuses of the Murdoch empire, but we will need to ask much more penetrating, far-reaching questions if we are to take back British public life from the vulgarians, fellow-travellers and apologists for Murdoch’s empire, the marketisation of our society and development of Britain and the British state into an outlier for corporate power.
Two public inquiries into the phone hacking and media ethics are only the start. We need our politicians, media and wider political world to begin asking what kind of Britain have they colluded in creating? What kind of nomenklatura have they allowed to evolve and what have been its consequences? And given the forces of power, privilege and status which exist in the UK, and of which Murdoch is but one manifestation, how do we row back against the world they have created?
It isn’t an accident that London is the playground of the world’s rich and famous, the UK and its offshore arrangements the tax havens of choice for so many, or that the UK is the fourth most unequal country in the advanced capitalist world. But we can now at least begin to imagine that we might be able to challenge and change all of this. Such a turnaround marks this as a truly momentous week.