14 February 2013

Scandal and Democracy

Scandal was common across the democratic world in the early 1960s… It wasn’t just the shadow of the war but the frustrations of the democratic peace that had made people restless by 1963. In many countries, the political class that produced the postwar settlement was still hanging on; old political soldiers were refusing to die. Governments that had been around too long were growing careless, and their publics were looking for something new. These are the circumstances in which scandal becomes a vehicle of democratic change.

The press had a field day, and so did political opponents. Power-starved politicians and embittered journalists used the scandal to advance their own careers. The outs got in; the ins were temporarily put out. Its result was for ‘one network of egotists, with an intricate history of mutual obligations, murky pacts and tacit promises being replaced by an opposing alliance, no more qualified or efficient, held together by similar bargains, ambition and vanity’. There is nothing distinctively English about this. It’s how democracy works… Political damage was done by press and opposition speculation about who had said what to whom. Rumour did the work of fact. Journalists took sides; so did judges. A frustrated younger generation of politicians used the scandal to leverage old men out of power.

The result is usually disappointing: change is never commensurate with the scale of the outrage a scandal provokes. But it is effective: scandals are a good way of telling entrenched political elites when their time is up.
Democracies (especially parliamentary democracies) run on cycles of tolerance and intolerance for indiscretion at the top. New governments get away with a lot, but they are also more alert to what they can get away with. Then, when they become old, they become less alert and they get away with less.

The ability of a scandal to destroy a government usually has very little to do with the merits of the case. It depends on timing. It is asking too much to expect democracies to acquire a sense of proportion about these things.
David Runciman on An English Affair