Anyone who has seen a James Bond film will be familiar with the words that Ernst Stavro Blofeld used before dispatching minions who had displeased him: ‘ You know the penalty for failure.’ The penalty was always death, whether it came in the form of Rosa Klebb’s poisoned toe-knife or a pool of piranha fish. For most of us the penalty for failure at work isn’t so dramatic, but penalties there certainly are. If you’re a social worker say, and you make a mistake or error of judgement, you can expect to have your career and your reputation destroyed and you will be lucky to work again.
If you’re a ‘failing’ school, and you don’t meet the latest arbitrary targets that the government of the day has imposed upon you, you can expect to be put into the purgatory of ‘special measures’ and have your every single action ruthlessly scrutinised by Ofsted. The same applies in many other professions, particularly in the public sector, where micromanaged target-setting has become the stick that governments and their appointees use to whip the system into line – and privatise when it doesn’t fall into line.
It’s a very different matter at the top end, when it comes to politicians who perform what we still quaintly – and increasingly absurdly – refer to as ‘public service’. Even if you are generous enough to say that Tony Blair made an honest error of judgement over the Iraq war – and I’m not generous enough to say this – it was one of the most catastrophic errors of judgement that any British prime minister has ever made. At the very least, it cast doubt over Blair’s judgement, yet he went on from that disaster to make more money than any British prime minister has ever made, much of it in the same region where he had demonstrated his incompetence and lack of knowledge and ability.
I used to wonder what people were paying Blair these incredible sums of money for. It was obvious he was being rewarded for something, thought it wasn’t always clear what the reward was for. But what could he be saying that was worth £100,000 or more for a single speech, given that what he actually says in public isn’t very novel or insightful, and is often really quite banal? I assumed it must be something to do with access, that paying Blair these sums was a way to get to network and get know to someone else.
Now I’m beginning to see things differently, after trying to take in the incredible new that George Osborne is now editing the Evening Standard. I should make clear that I don’t have any respect for the Standard at all. It’s a trashy rightwing newspaper that I only read for free on the tube, because my mobile server is so useless that you can’t connect to it underground.
But the fact that Osborne got this job is not good news. This is a man who was rich before he even took office, who inflicted pointless and brutal social cruelty on thousands of men and women in the name of a deficit-reduction dogma that his own party have rejected, who left the country with an even greater debt than when he took office, not to mention the calamity of Brexit.
Yet like Blair, he has gone on from strength to strength. Since last summer Osborne has received £800,000 from speeches. In the same week he has just got a new job of one day a week with an annual income of £650,000. And now he has been given the job of editing the Standard by a Russian oligarch who he was already pally with, even though he has barely written a word and has never worked as a journalist. And on top of all this, he’s still an MP.
Weird, isn’t it? Except that it clearly isn’t weird at all. They prosper because they belong to an en elite that is not governed by the rules that govern the rest of us. That elite exists only for itself, in order to enrich its members and reward those who serve it. What looks like failure to the rest of us doesn’t look like failure to them. What looks immoral to us looks moral to them. They don’t even care about competence, success or failure. Once you’re in, you’re in, and unlike Spectre there is no penalty for failrue. You can just keep rising as high as your friends and contacts can lift you.
Some may shrug and shake their heads at the remarkable progress of a man who has once again risen far higher than his abilities merit, as if it’s just another of those 21st century beyond-satire things that doesn’t concern them. But it does concern us. Because it’s partly because people behave like this that we get Trump and Brexit, and why we might get Le Pen. Democracies cannot prosper when their elected representatives behave like pigs in a trough and seem to have no real purpose or goal except the trough.
If politicians act so brazenly in their own material interests and use public office to gain admission to the global kleptocracy while the rest of society is squeezed and cut to the bone, then why trust any of them? Why not trust someone who isn’t a politician or seems to be a regular guy – like Trump or Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage? Or why not vote for them even if you don’t trust them just to have a change?
Because if democracy becomes a mockery, don’t be surprised if people choose to mock it in unexpected and sometimes self-destructive ways, and George Osborne’s unlikely progress is another sign that British democracy is in very bad shape.
Of course Georgie and his mates don’t care about this. They only care about how they are doing, and right now, they’re doing very well indeed.