Vince Cable has been caught on tape by some extremely disreputable right-wing journalists. His claim that his resignation — which might come sooner now than he’d intended — could bring down he government has rightly been ridiculed, but it isn’t so very far from the fantasies of many journalists and interested citizens.
We tend to think that embarrassing government ministers, or otherwise making their lives uncomfortable, is an important part of our democracy. This principle is the basis of the BBC’s interrogative style. John Humphrys, Jeremy Paxman and the like consider that they are giving politicians a hard time when they ask pointed questions. When Wikileaks shares embarrassing secrets from those in power, the left is excited by the very fact of the discomfort it causes politicians (the fact that the ‘secrets’ are already well known is immaterial).
I’m not disputing that these are good things. It’s a pleasure to see the powerful squirm, but we must reflect on what this actually achieves. If Cable resigns, he may be replaced by David Laws, and the rightwards movement of the Tory-led government will be aided considerably. But even if we could somehow embarrass the entire cabinet into resigning, what would be the effect? We would still have a Tory government, still be plunging into the abyss. We still would not have an opposition party willing to oppose the liberal market ideology that has long been our parliamentary consensus. Even if we embarrassed the entire House of Commons into resigning, who do we think would replace them at the next election? Saints? Or more politicians with an investment in so-called free markets, the myth of the perpetual economic crisis, and so on.
The mode of attack against our politicians works perfectly well within the confines of the system. It threatens nobody (how many times did Peter Mandelson return from the grave?) and certainly does no harm to the political setup. It is not, in a word, violent enough to change anything. Journalism of this kind, on telly or in press or other media, is a handy tool of the status quo. We feel empowered, but we are not. It’s as if we think we’ve turfed the royal family out of Buckingham Palace when all we’ve done is a shit on the doorstep.
Julian Assange’s interview with Humphrys on the Today Programme this morning was a classic example of our asinine public discourse. Humphrys tried to undermine Assange on the basis that he might have had lots of sex. Assange revealed himself as a rank misogynist in his suggestion that women get into ‘a tizzy’ about rape. This was of course play day for Humphrys, a scratching stick for him to idle away the time until a real politician came along (though the political abilities of Assange should not be underestimated). But this is the model: embarrass the interviewer by lobbing undermining accusations at them. This was Ben Brown’s tactic when interviewing Jody McIntyre, the man with cerebral palsy who the police twice dragged from his wheelchair (Brown’s accusation was that McIntyre was rolling towards the police).
Outrage at Brown’s interview, with which I have total sympathy, should also be directed at the standard journalistic response to power, not because it is too violent in that case (as was the case with McIntyre) but because it is not violent enough. It doesn’t change anything.
Another revealing element of Cablegate is the idea that dear old uncle Vince has revealed his true nature as a critic of the government’s nasty right-wingery. Secretly, behind the scenes, he’s fighting a just cause, we are to believe. Yet again this is false. We are generally committed to the idea that what happens in private is more real than what happens in public — more really reflective of our true soul. The opposite is the case. What is public is true. A man who beats his wife but says deep down he loves her is a wife-battering misogynist bastard, not a tender lover. An extermination camp guard who committed genocide by day but listened to string quartets by night is a genocidal murderer, not a sensitive music lover. It is on the basis of their public, not private, behaviour that we should judge people. Vince Cable proposed and voted for a staggering rise in tuition fees. What he said in private is immaterial. His actions in government make him right-wing. Less of the uncle Vince rubbish.