It appears that, where our modern-day politicians are concerned, money is the new sex.
Fifty-two years ago, in 1963, John Profumo, the Secretary of State for War (we called a spade a spade in them days, none of yer cissy Defence euphemisms) was forced to resign after admitting to a brief dalliance two years earlier with a 19-year-old ‘model’, Christine Keeler. The issue was less that he was using prostitutes, than that another of her regulars was reportedly one Colonel Yevgeny Ivanov, a ‘naval attaché’ at the Soviet Embassy in London. It was the height of the Cold War, which in 1962 would turn almost terminally hot with the Cuban missile crisis.
Things took a nastier turn when ‘The Establishment’, that nebulous cronysphere of influential upper-class connections, scapegoated society ostoeopath, Stephen Ward, who had introduced Keeler to Profumo at a wild party given by Lord Astor at his riverside stately home, Cliveden. Facing prosecution for living on immoral earnings – pimping – Ward took an overdose.
Ward’s involvement was clearly sexed-up, both to deflect prurient public interest in members of the ruling class indulging in sexual orgies, and to draw attention away from the possibility that the British government might have been penetrated at a high level by Soviet intelligence – which, of course, it had been.
Thus, thanks in part to the launch that year of Private Eye magazine by a group of young graduates, members of the ironically named Establishment Club, 1963 became a year in which ‘Tory sleaze’ was the topical theme, as it is once again today – and the start of the British media’s satire boom. Today’s politicians, however, are beyond satire.
As if on cue, Keeler’s friend and former cohort, Mandy Rice-Davies died this December. Rice-Davies has gone down in legal history for the defiant reply she gave at Ward’s trial, when confronted under cross-examination with Astor’s denial of involvement: ‘Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?’ And once again, senior former ministers are under the spotlight.
This morning came the resignation of the Chairman of the Parliamentary oversight committee on Intelligence and Security, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, KCMG, QC, MP. Sir Malcolm, whom I have previously described on this blog as ‘Britain’s second most pompous man’ (leaving endless room for suggestions as to who might be first), has been brought low; not by sexual incontinence, but by what he has shockingly described as his ‘entitlement’ to grab as much cash as he can, while in office.
Rifkind, a former Defence and Foreign Secretary under Thatcher, has seemingly been caught on a hidden camera in a sting operation mounted by the Daily Telegraph and TV Channel 4’s Dispatches programme, slouching back in a chair in a sleazy-looking office, bigging himself up to some bogus Chinese business people, demanding fees of up to £8,000 a day to act as a prospective fixer.
Let me say straight away, that what he was proposing is not, in fact, illegal; nor is anything he has actually done. Having said that, there is nothing much one can add to take away from the ghastliness of the whole affair.
I could add that he was not alone. The same sordid little sting operation caught the Shadow Deputy Prime Minister, former Labour Home Secretary, former Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain, former Justice Secretary, The Rt Hon John ‘Jack’ Straw QC, MP. Up to ten other senior politicians found excuses not to be lured into the media’s web of deceit, but Straw too appears to have fallen for the stench of filthy foreign lucre.
His excuse was that he is leaving Parliament at the election in May, as a humble backbencher; and was simply exercising his right to fix himself up with a career thereafter as a £5,000 a day consultant; operating, as he graphically expressed it, ‘under the radar’ – by which he meant, he explained on the Today programme yesterday, that it is often better to have a quiet word in private with influential contacts than it is to campaign openly for your commercial interests.
There is an old maxim about ‘holes’ and ‘digging’ that springs to mind.
Rifkind’s kneejerk protestation that ‘scurrilous accusations’ had been made against him, over behaviour that is evidentially out there in the public domain; his hopefully disarming admission that what he did was ‘ill-judged’ (he would say that, wouldn’t he?), accompanied by grovelling self-referral to the House Committee on Privileges, and his pompous claim to have an ‘entitlement’ to screw huge fees out of the commercial sector for making representations on behalf of private clients, maybe possibly even while in office (which would be against the rules – paid advocacy is banned), all fall apart completely when one considers the security implications.
In addition to being the paid representative of the well-heeled voters of Kensington, this man is, or was, the Chair of a busy parliamentary committee having oversight of all Britain’s domestic and foreign intelligence agencies at a time of high controversy over their surveillance methods and possibly criminal involvement with CIA black ops. As such, he may be privy to operational secrets that are so top-secret they can never be revealed. The head honchos at GCHQ, MI5, MI6 – pick a number – all have to explain their actions to him.
Yet he is ‘entitled’, or so he believes, to lower himself into a potentially compromised position, being interviewed by some random Chinese woman as the prospective part-time employee of a fictitious company supposedly registered in the jurisdiction of a foreign power which, while not strictly speaking hostile, is known to be operating covert espionage activities against this country, its allies and its industries – a company which he has not even vetted for security before allowing himself to be enticed into preliminary negotiations with them to pay him large sums of money for ‘access’.
Had he instinctively used his influence to ask the security service to look into it before getting into the taxi, he might have discovered within a few seconds that the company was merely a fictitious front created by the Telegraph, the newspaper notoriously responsible for its relentless exposé of the 2009 parliamentary expenses scandal, and an investigative TV programme known for its crafty sting operations. Luckily for him – it might have been a real company, and a front for the Chinese intelligence agencies. He wouldn’t have known.
Instead, he seems to have been blinded by the lure of money. And he is already quite a wealthy man, by most standards (except, perhaps, his); his position and influence extend to the chairmanships of international committees on global security, non-executive directorships.
It is surely right, therefore, that he has stepped down as Chair of the Intelligence committee, as his judgement must now be in serious question. As must his claim, also caught on camera, that his parliamentary work allows him masses of spare time to promote the interests of private clients, quote: ‘I’m self-employed’…. And what of loyalty to us, his actual employers? Not really a Conservative preoccupation, sadly.
Middle-aged politicians fucking young women is nothing new. It keeps them looking and feeling youthful, as the septuagenarian Berlusconi will happily attest. Politicians exploiting their former office, their influence and their connections to feather their nests in the private sector, too, is a time-honoured tradition. Clinton, Blair have become multi-millionaires off the backs of their respective electorates.
In the wake of the 2009 revelations, Parliament has, it’s claimed, tightened-up on MPs’ extramural activities and sources of income; the basic £67 thousand a year – around three times the national average wage – being hardly enough to keep body and soul together. Why, in the 1910s MPs’ pay was SIX times the average wage! External lobbyists are obliged to register. Serving ministers are not permitted to hold outside directorships. MPs are not allowed to act as paid lobbyists, or to take cash for asking questions. All outside activities and interests (other than unearned income…) must be declared in the register of members’ interests. Serious corruption is unlikely in Britain.
But this is not an issue about MPs having outside employment, second and even third jobs. That is just a red herring. The scandal of ministers leaving for hugely well-paid sinecures with industries related to their former office continues, unfortunately. What Straw and Rifkind did was not illegal. It was probably not even a breach of privilege, since they hadn’t actually taken the money; only discussed terms, setting-out their stalls, nothing confirmed or approved.
No, what Britain’s ‘hardworking families’ have been treated to is a glaring visual record of influential, overweeningly self-satisfied grandees of the British Establishment, the Queen’s Privy Councillors, qualified barristers, people who have previously pronounced sonorous judgements on other people’s moral turpitude, acting like two spivs on the make: sucking-up to some seedy, anonymous foreign moneybags, touting for possibly shady business, hanging their arses out; then trying to bully and worm their way out of it like naughty children when they get caught.
It’s not a pretty sight. To be honest, it’s pretty fucking nauseating.