Daytime nightmares are the worst kind because you can’t wake up from them. All week, I’ve been haunted by an image that lodged in my brain on the day the Conservative MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, Nadine Dorries, was evicted from I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here. It is of a parliament entirely composed of neurotic self-publicists.
Nadine Dorries would lead the front bench of course, where she thinks she ought to be. The Leader of the Opposition would be George Galloway, the member for Big Brother. Louise Mensch, the Corby Tory, whose sudden departure to America plunged her party to by-election defeat, would be foreign secretary. Lembit Opik – of Cheeky Girls – would be there for the Libdems, and Sally Bercow, the Speaker’s wife, would of course sit on the cross benches as the member for Twitter and Libel.
Scotland would be represented by Mssrs Pot and Kettle: the education secretary Mike Russell and his accuser, the Labour MSP Michael McMahon, who was suspended from Holyrood last week for telling the Presiding Officer that she was “out of order”. They’d be having a square go on the backbenches, over lies, lies, lies. Meanwhile, Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks would be guffawing from the press gallery while paying private detectives to gather news by hacking into members’ phones.
Don’t laugh. The way things are going, this could be what parliament will look like in future, once Twitter takes over from the stuffy “old” media and our parliamentary coverage comes to us by virtue of YouTube. Politicians are able to justify almost any bad behaviour on the grounds that it gets them noticed. As she emerged from the jungle, Mad Nad was not only unrepentant, but bitching about the Prime Minister for suggesting that MPs ought to be doing their job in parliament rather than peddling their dismal egos and baring their boobs on reality TV. “But I was doing it for ordinary people – to connect with them”, insisted Dorries on breakfast TV after being evicted from the show so fast she hardly had time to digest her ostrich anus.
The Conservative MP claimed that becoming a celebrity “known to millions” would make it easier for her to promote her cherished causes, like reducing the time limit for abortions. What a sad delusion. Doesn’t she realise that she can only damage any cause stupid enough to let her represent it – though I suppose it couldn’t happen to a better cause. Dorries has earned the contempt of her leader and her party, but far worse she has treated her voters with contempt. She is a ludicrous figure and the sooner she is out of politics the better.
Another deluded narcissist, the Speaker’s wife, |Sally Bercow, finally committed twitricide last week by naming a runaway schoolgirl protected by a court order. She had already been targeted by Lord McAlpine’s lawyers for naming the former Tory treasurer on the day of the Newsnight paedophile report. Not only has Ms Bercow shown no remorse, she initially said she was being targeted by Lord McAlpine’s lawyers because she was a Labour supporter. Er, no Sally, you were targeted for identifying an innocent 70-year old man as a paedophile. She is now complaining that she wouldn’t be treated so harshly if she were a man. Er, no Sally, you’re being treated just the same as George Monbiot, the Guardian columnist who had to deliver a grovelling apology for spreading the same libel.
The Dorries and Bercow affairs are in one sense trivial, but they do tell us something about how the worlds of politics and celebrity are becoming blurred, and standards in public life further debased as a result. This trend has been in play for the last couple of decades, but it has been accelerated by the coming of social media, which has turned into a happy hunting ground for every self-publicist and paranoid obsessive. I know it sounds very po-faced to talk about trust and standards – we don’t do standards any more. Many believe politicians lost all hope of being held in high regard when they started fiddling their expenses. And it’s true that many have only themselves to blame.
But in a democracy you have to detach the post from the person who happens to occupy it at any one time. The dignity of office is important, if only to stop politics degenerating into an unruly and unending argument. We see this in the Scottish parliament where MSPs have started behaving like schoolchildren in detention without any teacher. First Minister’s Question time has degenerated into an unpleasant and unwatchable omnirant, with unparliamentary language being hurled around with impunity. Alex Salmond can’t announce his engagements for the day without being accused of lying. The Presiding Officer, Tricia Marwick, had to suspend the Labour MSP Michael McMahon, for challenging her right to call the house to order.
Now, it is perfectly acceptable to accuse ministers of being wrong, distorting the facts, or even misleading parliament. But when they all start calling each other liars and other names and challenging the PO it brings all of them, and parliament, into disrepute and it makes serious debate impossible. All members of parliament have a right to be respected because they represent, not their own political party, but the people who voted for them, who invested their trust in their good character. This is why, in Westminster, MPs are always addressed as “honourable members”, even if they manifestly aren’t, because the people deserve to see their champions treated with respect.
And by the way, the PO should ban the practice of applauding at question time. Holyrood has turned into a bear-pit. It isn’t anyone’s fault in particular – though Labour’s conduct has been pretty inexcusable. You can’t win any argument by ranting – except in a pub. The Nats have been behaving in a heavy handed manner since they won their landslide majority and their packing of parliamentary committees hasn’t helped. Labour’s frustration is partly down to their being locked out of all influence. But it was their fault they lost the election by such a crushing majority, and they aren’t helping their chances of re-election by restoring to the politics of closing time.
It’s been a dismal week for national institutions. Parliament, the press, the police are all looking tawdry and compromised by scandal. Even the Anglican Church is in a state. The BBC is still in turmoil, with an internal witch hunt which is so intensive that even former employees like me are being asked to report any gossip or rumour about possible paedos, boob fondlers and skirt lifters who may have worked there. And no, I’m not one of them. Meanwhile the internet is still spreading defamatory lies about everyone from former BBC disc jockeys to former prime ministers.
It’s time for everyone to take a bit of time out over Christmas and think how to sort themselves out. Or perhaps just turn public life into reality TV and be done with it. .