Britain is engulfed in another scandal of the ‘political establishment’, this time relating to allegations of a cover up of allegations of child abuse amongst politicians and possibly others, predominantly in the 1980s. This comes in the wake of other scandals about child abuse in institutions such as the BBC, the Church and, going back to politicians, those about fraudulent expenses claims that emerged in 2009.
It is clearly right that these matters are scandalous and that they should be investigated. At the same time, the way in which they are being configured is misleading and potentially dangerous. It feeds into a kind of anti-politics agenda, much in evidence on the political right, that the whole of the polity is irredeemably tainted (thus, a poll shows that UKIP voters are by far the most likely to think that the inquiry into the cover up allegations will not deal with it properly). Apart from the obvious fact that there is no reason to think that any and every politician has been engaged in these crimes, it poses an equally obvious question: if political representatives are to be treated as uniformly morally corrupt, who should wield political power? It is very easy to see how against a background of indiscriminate assumptions of guilt a kind of populist, anti-establishment ‘strong man’ could become an attractive proposition. Since ‘they’ are all as bad as each other, where would be the harm?
One answer to that lies precisely in the fact that these scandals have emerged and are being investigated. It may be slow, imperfect and in all kinds of ways unsatisfactory but, still, it would be unlikely to happen but for the many checks and balances, and the plural voices, of democratic and civil society. Cynically ascribing corruption to the political system in general may sound sophisticated and worldly, but in fact it is the opposite: it is naïve about the likely alternatives to, and inattentive to the sophistication of, that political system.
There is another problem, too. The way that this is being presented as being about the ‘establishment’ – meaning politicians, police, civil servants, clergy, media and so on - is a highly misleading and in many respects outdated way of understanding what ‘the establishment’ is and where power lies. It is the global elite and transnational corporations who are the true establishment, and they lie far beyond public inquiries or, even, the law. It is easy to whip up populist sentiment against what are, certainly, local elites but in doing so the rather harder targets are equally easily ignored. For that matter, the many interconnections between these local and global elites – for example the relationship between former politicians and civil servants and the outsourcing firms who receive government contracts – are also ignored.
I hope that no one reading this will think that I am arguing that present and past child abuse scandals should not be investigated and the perpetrators, or those who protected them, brought to justice. I am not. But in doing so we should keep a sense of proportion about what it means for the viability of democratic political institutions and an awareness that beyond the easily-identifiable traditional elite lie a new elite whose names are rarely in the newspapers and whose actions are rarely scrutinised.