I used to think that the feebleness of the scandals that occasionally brought down a minister or two in Edinburgh was matched only by the embarrassment one felt watching the Scottish press corps work itself into a frenzy in anticipation of feeding upon cheap cuts that properly corrupt countries would never consider feeding their dogs with.
There's something similar in the air about the fund-raising scandal that is destroying Gordon Brown's government. Except, of course, that after a decade of mendacity, he deserves it. Still, the scandal itself - laundered campaign contributions and a ridiculous scramble in which everyone does their best to implicate everyone else - is scarcely of epic proportions. Not when you compare it to actual policy scandals - the treatment of the armed forces, the hideous management of the public finances, the destruction of pensions schemes up and down the country, the sale, at knock-down prices, of the country's gold reserves, the torpedoing of welfare reform proposals, and so on and so on.
Then again, a government bereft of ideas and that exists solely to stoke its Prime Ministers' ego scarcely deserves charity or pity. They are down deservedly and now that the public is turning upon them must endure the kind of fierce kicking that the British people enjoy giving to those who are viewed, however unfairly, to have taken advantage of our affections. It's character building stuff, you know...
All of which is to say that Matthew Parris is in good, scathing form this morning:
Oh for an evil genius, a Blofeld. Oh for a real villain, for web of wickedness, a vortex, a mastermind. Oh for a mind. Oh for a dastardly cause, or a noble cause. Oh for any cause.
For this is what so profoundly depresses in Labour's funding scandal. It's all so low grade. The characters involved are so shrivelled. “Tragic,” say the commentators. But the real tragedy is that the story fails even to rise to the level of tragedy. It's farce: a pathetic, demeaning tale of small minds, small imaginations, small stakes; a silly, twisted, inconsequential tale of paltry people hiding paltry sums of money for paltry motives.
A tale of spivvy incompetence: a big stage, and a cast of insects. Second-rate ministers flanking a third-rate Prime Minister waited upon by fourth-rate courtiers sending out the begging bowl to fifth-rate sleeve-tuggers who aren't even very rich. At Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, that “Mr Bean” gibe said it all.
New Labour, it seems, can't even cook its own books. They can't even co-ordinate a cover-up. They failed to find out fast enough what it was they had to cover up, failed to take the elementary precaution of reconciling their excuses, and failed to square their alibis. Talk of a piss-up in a brewery � this lot couldn't organise a scam in an amusement arcade.
There's space this morning - if you will indulge a moment's pure cynicism - for a modest expression of professional regret that our Government has proved a flop even at cheating. Turn in your grave, Horatio Bottomley. Blush, Robert Maxwell. Standards have slipped. Top-notch fraudsters up and down the country must be wincing at the sheer incompetence. Labour has brought disgrace on self-respecting hustlers.
Other Times stories on the mess here: