Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
Did you know that Bill Clinton gave Monica Lewinsky a pair of comedy sunglasses for Christmas one year? We were in the States, the first time I heard of her – I must have been twelve – and he was all over the ubiquitous TV screens, interrupting adverts for bootcut blue-jeans and sticky sugar-cookies, and speaking about ‘that woman’ in his dying-to-be-imitated Arkansas drawl. Last weekend, having learnt how Lewinsky is coping with the public gaze by having found another, more fulfilling form of celebrity (she’s now a TED-talking, emoji-designing, anti-online-bullying guru), I decided to glance at the infamous Starr Report.
Yes, a glance was my intention. Of course, a little later, I’d read it all. Why? Not for her, for sure. It was never to do with her; if she’d been involved with almost anyone else, none of us would have cared. (Making it seem more unfair that she’s the only one unable to move on. Sorry, Donald Trump.) No, it was Bill. I’ve always been a bit of a fan, actually – perhaps that’s why I bothered to read the whole detailed thing. A liking for the Clinton accent, and an interest in his foreign policies?
Why do we care about politicians’ private lives? Should we? The obvious answers couple intrigue with the fact that, occasionally, we’re bored. Sometimes, political commentary is so repetitive that a cricketer has to bowl up; in moments of news-junkie monotony, we get desperate. The best response to the original John Whittingdale story was surely: how did the dominatrix feel when she realised she’d been with some C-list MP? But all this is quite tedious – and worse, full of inconsistencies.
If ‘transparency’ is the word de jour, its rival is ‘privacy’: there are few lesser modern obsessions. A quick Ngrams – to discover the terms’ relative popularity in British English texts through time – shows the words rising in tandem over the past four decades. (Ngrams data only reaches 2008; today, both lines would be off the graph.) We want to know everything about everyone – it’s our right, right? And we want to be able to tell everyone everything about us, too: social media is the sharer’s Valhalla. Except that we don’t want just anyone to know just anything about just any of us all of the time, do we? You mean the security services can track back how long I spent on the phone? No, you can’t use that old photo of me in your campaigning leaflet! What’s that? Facebook owns my rights?!?
We also remain confused about what we want our politicians to be. Should they represent us in terms of speaking ‘for’ us, or ‘as’ us? Do we elect them to make choices, or to be a megaphone to shout our views? Would we like our constituency’s voice to be heard in a debate on, say, airstrikes (‘Hey guys, tweet me how to vote, yeah?’), or do we want a limited number of experts to make an informed decision, on our behalf? And should each of our representatives represent our ideal person? (Good luck trying to agree what that is: most people don’t think there are any such things as objective moral values, never mind wanting to work out what they might be.) Although now it’s clear that, for many Britons, that ideal person probably isn’t a dominatrix. Oh, unless you’re a particular kind of (almost certainly) left-winger, who feels that a woman’s right to be a sex worker (careful with your terms) is more important than anything else. Apart from calling for senior Conservatives to resign, maybe. Or demanding that the press respects privacy.
What about professional objectivity, anyway? Don’t we select those we consider capable of putting us – the individuals constituting our society – above their subjective viewpoint? Often, we seem to embrace the opposite. We want our Education Secretary to have been a teacher, because it’s not sufficient for him or her to assimilate the opinions of thousands of teachers and appropriate others, is it? No, they have to have classroom experience, themselves, or they won’t understand. Ditto the Health Secretary, who, preferably, will be a recently-resigned junior doctor. And how would we feel if the Women’s Minister wasn’t a woman? Differently from if the hypothetical men’s minister were always a man? And our MPs mustn’t be life-long politicos – except for Jeremy Corbyn, obviously: no spads or people who’ve studied politics, thanks. That said, other degrees are irrelevant, so let’s follow UKIP, and choose non-graduates, instead.
Loaded histories aren’t allowed, either. (If the father benefitted from tax ‘advice’, how could the son want the best for those who don’t have the money to visit Panama, still less exploit it as a haven?) Though some narratives are useful. (Having grown up in a single-parent family on a council estate means that a politician can relate to people like that.) And, pasts aside, one needs to stay true in the present and future: if it’s on the record that you support comprehensives, it definitely follows that you can’t send your child to an independent school.
Ok, we’re messed up. But what about instances when private affairs do affect work? If a minister exposes secret documents to a person who shouldn’t have seen them, there’s more to investigate than the identity of that person. If an MP – or a president – tries to help someone obtain a job that he doesn’t deserve, the most consequential factor isn’t that they’re sleeping together. And what of views that inspired past actions? If you once thought it acceptable to appear with terrorist-appeasers, what fallout might that have on your current suitability for public office?
As ever, it comes down to balance. That our system is relatively incorrupt doesn’t mean that we should stop scrutinising our politicians, but it’s hard to make progress without trust. I don’t care if the Culture Secretary wears a blue silk kimono while eating his toast (I’d have to be pretty bored to care about that, aside from a momentary interest in him sounding like a Ngaio Marsh character), and I really don’t want to know whom he’s dating. He can go out with Angela Merkel, for all I care. (Well, I might be bored enough to read about that.)
We’ve moved on from the days of provincial blackmailers influencing the influential on the grounds of sexual proclivities: even GCHQ has been hiring gay people since the 1990s. And if we hadn’t, that wouldn’t be a reason to submit. Inane gossip continues to sell stories, yet usually we don’t (or shouldn’t) ruminate on it past those minutes during which it’s supposed to entertain us. If our political representatives are doing a good job (let’s not be distracted from asking if they are), and are responsible in ensuring their extra-curricula activities don’t interfere with that - great.
While we’re on culture, something about which I do care is English National Opera. Can we discuss that instead?