Matthew Dancona

A sorry state of affairs

A sorry state of affairs
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Gordon’s “Sorry” looks and sounds like catch-up – for the good reason that this is precisely what it is. In my Sunday Telegraph column yesterday, I argued that the British polity had slipped backwards on the moral evolutionary path from a “guilt culture” (governed by moral conscience) to a “shame culture” (governed only by fear of discovery) – if you are interested in this all-important distinction, by the way, try Ruth Benedict’s classic work of anthropology, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Only disclosure, or the threat of disclosure, has forced our parliamentarians to promise reform. I am not saying that their forbears were all paragons of individual ethical conduct. But this lot need to be forced to reveal even the smallest slip-up. They are (let me say it again) a bunch of second-rate spivs.

All parties are guilty – but some are guiltier than others. The Prime Minister, unlike David Cameron, resisted the opening up of the books earlier this year, and tried, shamefully, to bounce Cameron and Nick Clegg into a daft pre-emptive package of reforms with his toe-curling YouTube intervention. Much worse, he declined until this morning to apologise for a political story that, more than any other in recent memory, has reached far beyond the Westminster village and daily followers of its antics, and become the subject of water-cooler wrath in every workplace. Not everyone cares about carbon emission targets, or tax credit policy, or PFI statistics, but everyone – and I do mean everyone – knows it is wrong to charge the taxpayer for tampons, or Jaffa Cakes or fancy gardening.

Gordon’s interim position over the weekend – that it was the disembodied “System” that was to blame, and that we should all congratulate him for reforming it – could not have been worse. A close second was Lord Mandelson’s claim that it was all a wicked media conspiracy. If I were a member of a political caste which had just been shown to have its noses so firmly in the trough, I would have refrained from accusing anyone of mounting a plot. One could almost have formed the impression over the weekend that Gordon and Peter thought there was really nothing all that wrong with these deplorable practices and it was all just the ghastly right-wing press up to its usual tricks. There was a time when these two master strategists would have seen instantly what was required. Look how out of touch they have become during 12 years of Labour in office.

Fresher and hungrier for power, Cameron grasped, as they did not, that there was no alternative to apology: the bigger and fatter, the better. This is a case where the only shred of dignity that politicians can salvage from the disaster is to put their hands in the air, turn themselves in, and say: “It’s a fair cop.” On the terrible spectrum available to political class at the moment, this is the best available option. It means that – maybe, just maybe - Mr Cameron will be despised a little less than the Prime Minister. And even that is not a certainty.

If treason is a matter of dates, then so are political apologies. If Gordon is sorry today, why wasn’t he three days ago? Answers on a postcard please.