Much of the opprobrium heaped on Byers, Hoon and Hewitt over their lobbying claims was justified yet very little of the coverage has sought to place their behaviour in the wider context.
While their behaviour should not be condoned, it can perhaps be explained if viewed through the prism of our current cultural mores. The affair should be viewed in the context of three modern-day trends.
First, we live in a talent-free celebrity age in which not only do we celebrate the talented, beautiful and rich, but exhibit a tawdry obsession with celebrity itself. Critical faculties are suspended as the talentless are packaged up as celebrities via television shows.
Second, the post-modern celebrity age has arrived, first prophesised by Andy Warhol with his talk of everyone having “fifteen minutes of fame”. If post-modernism is the disintegration of cultural reference-points then modern-day celebrity has heralded the age of the ‘citizen celebrity’. The genre of stars who are ‘famous for being famous’ is now a mini-industry fuelling the belief amongst mere mortals that because anyone can become a celebrity then so can they in the National Lottery of fame.
Third, everyone, apart from nurses, charity workers and nuns, is on the make. Everyone is imbued with the notion that they must maximise the financial benefits of any given situation. Ordinary folk sell their story to the press, no matter how macabre the subject matter might be. Those involved in scandals immediately engage the services of Max Clifford. Ghost-written autobiographies are published before the ‘author’ turns 30 in order to cash in on their brush with fame. Inconsequential politicians publish diaries to capitalise more on what they’ve seen than what they’ve done. People who have suffered bereavement or tragedy quickly rush out books, often serialised in the Daily Mail. Journalists hop between short-term contracts and different channels and can now be paid a million pounds to read the news. The proliferation of ‘no-win-no-fee’ legal arrangements has meant many people would rather chase their own ambulances than play fair.
We live in a society in which financial wealth, material possessions, career success and ambition are the new articles of faith. Our society, through the free market system, gives far more financial ‘value’ to the job of a footballer, reality TV star or City banker than to the doctor, nurse or paramedic on whose judgement human life depends. Our children are constantly told by the media and government of the importance of entrepreneurialism, of business. The dragons of Dragons Den are multi-millionaires because they maximised profit at every step of the way. Actors prostitute themselves doing voice-overs in adverts and anti-establishment rock bands allow their songs to be used to sell cars and Coke. People at the bottom of the income scale exhibit such behaviour too. A hairdresser with talent will seek to work in more and more exclusive salons and command higher and higher fees. These days they may even seek a TV career.
We even see such behaviour in the public sector. Teachers become ‘education consultants’ and GPs set up independent practices to maximise their salaries. Name the employee who wouldn’t consider moving job if a head-hunter rang to say their unique skills warranted the doubling of their salary? Even the left is at it, with trade unions going out on strike to protect wages and conditions. Money talks and we all know that it also buys better schooling for our children and better lawyers if we get into trouble.
Such behaviour is commonplace, is human nature and most would say essential to the success of our economy. In short, we live in a society in which almost everyone seeks to maximise the financial reward they can receive for the skills they have to offer. When people pass judgement on Labour’s current crop of supposedly dishonourable Members, they might consider just how far removed their behaviour was from the cultural norms of the day. Being MPs makes it appear worse, but if we’re really honest, we’re all at it to some degree.