Parties for the 1%, tight rules for the 99% – Boris Johnson and the Tories’ double standards

After a tortuous fortnight, civil servant Sue Gray has finally sort-of published the results of her investigation into the Downing Street festive season. Parties, parties in crowded rooms, ‘business meetings’, BYOB gatherings.

In its current – redacted – form, Gray’s report criticises the Downing Street culture that allowed ‘difficult to justify’ events and ‘failures of leadership and judgment’ that presided over such a culture. It is very true that this government has committed, and continues to commit, far worse crimes against democratic norms and human rights than a few Covid-prohibited Christmas piss-ups. It is also true that, in this particular scandal, the contempt for fundamental obligations which has characterised this government since day one is laid pretty starkly bare.

At the same time as the good times were rolling in Downing Street, the rest of the country was collectively struggling with the day-to-day anxiety of putting a foot out of line. From the weighing potential risks to family and friends to risking a crippling £10,000 fine for misdemeanours, in a country in which a majority are encumbered with personal debt of some kind. Fear, grief, guilt, isolation – this was the general atmosphere in which the country existed during that bleak Covid winter.

It is eyebrow-raising to say the least that those in and around government, endowed with more powers than had been entrusted to them in several generations, paid so little mind to the enormous trust the public were obliged to place in them. It speaks of a level of – perhaps literally – breath-taking disconnect and arrogance on the part of those elites.

The past week has seen the Metropolitan Police put their foot through the process by requesting that Gray redact substantial references to matters which they have suddenly taken the decision to ‘investigate. Such an intervention has already been described by various legal experts and ex-police officials as ‘absolute nonsense’ with ‘no legal standing.’

Met Commissioner Cressida Dick enjoys the solid support of both Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel, in the teeth of widespread and long-lasting calls from both the public and politicians of all parties that she resign – particularly in the wake of the Met’s appalling handling of both Sarah Everard’s murder and the vigil held in her memory. Whether or not we should ascribe the Met’s intervention to malice or incompetence, it will further a public sense that those in possession of power and privilege will continue to strive to find ways to evade objective accountability.

It is a sign of political ill-health when such a large measure of a society’s energies is given over to fascinated speculation as to what one specific, hitherto-obscure civil servant is or is not going to tell us. We saw this with Robert Mueller, an unknown and certainly un-progressive figure in American life up to that point, who became at the same time a liberal safe-word and the outlet for a prolonged anxiety attack on the part of many Americans while he was investigating Donald Trump for ‘Russiagate.’

‘Will Robert Mueller be fired?’ equalled ‘Will the USA’s norms of institutional and presidential accountability be permanently undermined by the actions of this particular President?’ The hope that some ‘sensible’ and ‘objective’ third party, someone, finally, with some disinterested ‘integrity’ might be coming to save us. But the idea of a single individual with the power to save or damn a nation’s future is generally not what democracies are supposed to be about. It amounts to an all-too-sudden reckoning with the slow disintegration of a political system transformed into a ‘will-she-won’t-she’ media spectacle.

Johnson’s reputation as a leader with an unhealthy disregard for the truth had been well established. If, in turn, he helped inculcate a more dishonest and unserious culture in and around his Downing Street office, one which viewed most of the population as rubes and gained a smug satisfaction from deliberately flouting the rules it was imposing on everyone else, this is also unsurprising. Contempt for the governed has been demonstrated repeatedly in the past 11 years of Tory rule, but perhaps, it is true, never quite so literally as in this current scandal.

The phenomenon that propelled Johnson into office – Brexit – was a single-issue imperative force. One that both expanded the Tories’ base of support and legitimised an increasingly contemptuous and combative attitude to the population. One that, historically-speaking, is baked into Tory political culture. Brexit was fabricated from genuine and legitimate feelings of powerlessness and alienation. Alienation from the political sphere and any genuine oversight of the processes or decision affecting ordinary lives. It would be naïve to assume that a pretty wide spectrum of the political class won’t continue to take the populace’s alienation into account when thinking – or not thinking – about the likely effects of their actions.

The general public’s response to this latest crisis is unlikely to take the form of anything so much as an ever-more widespread and apathetic withdrawal from whatever inadequate forms of participation and oversight remain to citizens of a liberal democracy today.

Conspiratorial thinking and distrust of objective truth continue to grow. And all this is good news for the oligarchical powers who continue to rely on just such a subversion of a genuinely democratic agenda. Only a resurgence of demos-directed grassroots politics, relying on interaction and contribution in pursuit of a participatory and democratic vision, will counter the true crisis – an enraged yet disaffected population, paralysed into spectatorship.

Despite reality being daunting, such a resurgence is possible. And it is already happening all around the world despite the limitations imposed by the Covid pandemic. DiEM25 and Unite’s campaign to save the UK’s National Health Service, for example, is one such example in the UK. Find out more about the Your NHS Needs You campaign and get involved.

Photo (c) Jacob King/AFP via Getty Images

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