Nick Cohen

The Great Reckoning

The Great Reckoning
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In my Observer column today, I talk about the scourging of Britain’s failed elite. To give readers an idea of how many institutions are in the dock, I quote an extract from Piers Morgan’s diaries from the summer of 2004. Because I have more space, I can give you the full ghastly detail here – what lucky people you are.

Morgan's managers had just fired him from the editorship of the Mirror for running pictures of British soldiers pissing on Iraqi detainees, which a fool could have told him were crude fakes. There is a risk that when the pictures are seen in the Middle East they will endanger men and women in the forces. Morgan does not care. He toddles off to the 40th birthday party of Ross Kemp. Brown is there. Blunkett is there. Tony and Cherie Blair are there, along with Greg Dyke, the former Director-General of the BBC, and Sir John Stevens, commissioner of the Met. It seems that everyone who is anyone in Britain is there, but no one is there to see Kemp. They are paying court to the star of Eastenders' then wife Rebekah Wade (now Brooks). Rupert Murdoch made her editor of the Sun, and she is thus a mighty figure in the land.

While Stevens hovers in the background giving confidential information to passing media bigwigs, Morgan sidles up to the blind Blunkett.

“Got any gear on you mate?” he whispers.

“Who is this?” splutters Blunkett. “Morgan, you bastard, I thought we had got rid of you.”

As I say in the Observer, everyone at the party shared the same assumptions.

'The guests scratch, slap and stab each other's backs (particularly over the second Iraq war). But they agree that there is only one way to rule Britain. Whoever is in power must strike a deal with the media, most notably with the Murdoch papers, and feed them crowd-pleasing stories.

Politicians must let the City do as it pleases because what tax revenues its bankers provide allow ministers to pay for public services. As for all those millions who are never invited to celebrities' parties, they can still "live the dream", to use the most unintentionally revealing phrase of the last decade. Even though the incomes of working people were stagnating by 2004, the banks allowed them to pile up debt so they could consume on the never-never in a land of make-believe.'

Eight years on, and Brooks is awaiting trial on charges of conspiring to hack phones, the police have arrested several dozen other tabloid journalists, and witnesses at Lord Justice Leveson have torn into the press. The Met’s close relations with Murdoch have disgraced it, while the inquiries into the wider scandal of the police cover-up of the causes of the Hillsborough disaster, have forced resignations. Criminal charges will surely follow. Meanwhile, the expenses scandal destroyed the reputation of MPs. Blair, Brown and Blunkett seem like naïve creatures from a faraway land of make belief: fools who could not see where the economy was going. The finance system they counted on is bust. The state and a significant portion of the public are weighed down with extraordinary debt.

No wonder people are angry. But beyond a raging public’s desire to bring guilty men to book there is no coherent reform programme on left or right.

To start in my patch, I don’t know if you’ve noticed that people on the left have started calling themselves “progressives”. What that means is anyone’s guess. The US progressive movement, which ran from the 1880s through to the 1910s, had a programme, parts of which I find attractive, the breaking up of cartels, others less so, the original progressives anticipated Hitler with their support for eugenics and selective breeding. Today’s “progressives” believe in what, precisely? When you strip off the makeup, you find that they are still committed to the old Fabian state, where Labour politicians sit in London and dispense large amounts of money through bureaucratic hierarchies. With honourable exceptions, progressives are not moving forward or indeed anywhere, and not only because there is much less money than there was. As the BBC and the banks show, top down hierarchies are the problem. Bosses ban criticism even when speaking out about insane lending practices or a cover-up of child abuse is in the public interest and, indeed, the organisation’s interest.

Many on the right also bear a more than passing resemblance to living fossils. With honourable exceptions again, they have yet to take on board the consequences of the banking failure. The notion that taxpayers should bail out some banks and give the system as a whole a taxpayer guarantee of £46bn a year – or £1,840 for every household in Britain – ought to be anathema to true conservatives. But because banks are private institutions (or nominally private at any rate) and because bankers are rich and right wing, George Osborne and the bulk of Conservative Britain cannot contemplate essential reform.

Unless Britain is going to be stuck in permanent decline, this cannot last. Eventually real reform will move us on from the age of Blair. I cannot guess its precise shape but believe it will involve opening up to scrutiny the managerial cliques in private and public sector bureaucracies, who have taken so much and given so little.