Most people, when they hear the word populist, will think of Marine Le Pen going mad about Muslim immigrants or a Ukipper saying he wouldn't want an Albanian living next door. But yesterday we witnessed a different kind of populism: the deceptively right-on variety, which aims its black-and-white moralistic fury not at cash-starved people at the bottom of society, but at wealthy individuals at the top. The purveyor of populism this time was Margaret Hodge, panto queen of the Public Accounts Committee, her target was some HSBC suits, and it made for an unedifying spectacle.
Hodge has in recent years become Parliament's poundshop Robespierre, a one-woman mopper-up of moral rot in the establishment, the purifier of the political realm. In her capacity as crusader-in-chief of the Public Safety Committee — I'm sorry, the Public Accounts Committee — she has barked at Google bosses, drugs companies and other corporate nasties. Yesterday it was the turn of various hapless HSBC staff, still reeling from those tax-dodging revelations, to feel the wrath of Hodge.
It was like a Twittermob made flesh, with Hodge and her MP footsoldiers melodramatically mocking those arranged before them. Rona Fairhead, the chairwoman of the BBC Trust who previously chaired HSBC's audit committee, really got it in the neck. When she insisted she knew nothing about the tax shenanigans at HSBC, a virtually spluttering Hodge declared 'I don't believe you' and then suggested Fairhead should resign from the Beeb because 'I don't think... you should be the guardian of the BBC licence fee payers’ money'. And if she refuses to fall on her, or rather on Hodge’s, sword, then she should be sacked, insisted a now quite emotional Hodge.
To which the only appropriate response is: Who the hell does Hodge think she is? She doesn't believe Fairhead's claims and therefore Fairhead should be chucked out of her job? Did we all just die and wake up in the 15th century? Perhaps the purification committee should have dusted down an old ducking stool and bobbed Rona in the Thames a few times — that would have given as reliable a reading of her guilt or innocence as Hodge's instincts, feelings, mystical powers of deduction.
Perhaps Hodge has recently been so busy titillating the chattering classes with her showboating showdowns with Evil Rich People that she hasn't had a chance to catch up on the past 500 years of British history, where she might have discovered that it now takes rather more than one powerful person to demand the punishment of an alleged wrongdoer.
The metamorphosis of Hodge from run-of-the-mill Labour MP into the Kingdom’s chief finger-jabber shows how incredibly important select committees have become in recent years. The more the Commons itself has become emptied of substance, with sixth-form-style shouting matches over caps and targets having long replaced that chamber’s one-time clashes over values and visions, the more committees have moved in to fill a political gap. Whether its Hodge haranguing rich folk, or Keith Vaz having a pop at the Murdochs, or Tom Watson getting his substantial rocks off against wicked tabloids, committee life has become a kind of alternative political realm, a place in which MPs can still feel purposeful, a simpler, cleaner moral zone that pitches spotless politicians (LOL) against some suspicious creature from the outside world.
I experienced it myself at the Public Bill Committee, where, in 2013, I was invited to offer my views on the Same-Sex Marriage Bill. I said I didn’t think it was a great idea. I was subjected to half an hour of scoffing and groaning. At one point I had to tell them off for rolling their eyes, which I was always taught to think of as rude.
Yet many in the media lap up these committee pantos, these moral spectacles that have taken the place of political conflict. Today’s Mirror hails Hodge the ‘champion of the public’. The Independent applauds her ability to ‘[reduce] captains of industry to gibbering imbecility’. There’s something weirdly pre-modern in this passive gazing at powerful people slapping down other powerful people: it reduces us to plebs being graciously granted a glimpse into clashes of opinion in the court, invited to stare and clap as our media-baptised ‘champions’ exert moral vengeance on our behalf. Isn’t there meant to be more to democratic politics than this?
The liberal elite’s obsession with the tax antics, bonuses and social lives of the rich and powerful is not half as progressive as they’d like you to think. It’s actually the flipside of other populist politicians’ handwringing over the poor who surreptitiously crib a few extra quid from the dole office or immigrants who come here to ‘steal our jobs’. In both cases, a profound inability to face up to, far less resolve, the historic stymying of economic growth and progressive ambition in modern Europe leads to a hunt for some money-grabbing evildoer who we can blame the whole mess on. The committee-as-kangaroo-court speaks to the end of politics and its replacement by one of the oldest, ugliest habits of humankind: scapegoating.