Magazine article The Spectator

Once, Only the Ruling Class Was. but We Are All Insiders Now. for the Ruling Class Is Now All of Us

Magazine article The Spectator

Once, Only the Ruling Class Was. but We Are All Insiders Now. for the Ruling Class Is Now All of Us

Article excerpt

An effective democracy does not only require that the sovereign people be given `all the news that's fit to print', as the New York Times used to promise to do. Quite as important is that it be given all the news that is unfit to print - the insiders' gossip. No member of the old ruling class ever formed a political judgment solely on the basis of privileged access to top secret reports and suchlike. Privileged access to gossip, garnered either at his London club or at country house weekends, was considered no less essential. So it was with noblemen under absolute monarchies. Louis XIV's courtiers did not stay at Versailles simply to learn the secrets of the King's council chamber. They did so even more to be privy to the secrets of his bedchamber.

Of course measures are important, but so are the personalities -- strengths and weaknesses, vices and virtues, loves and hates of the men who make them, and an effective political animal needs to have knowledge of both, not only to acquire real leverage over state affairs but, even more important, to develop and maintain a burning interest in them. Hard information may constitute the political meal, but gossip, as Saint-Simon and Creevey knew so well, supplies the spices which whet the appetite and make the meal worth eating.

So are the spoilsports right who complain about the enormous proliferation of gossip in today's newspapers? Not if they are democrats, I would have thought. For if it is right to want an open society in respect of hard political news, on the grounds that the public at large cannot know how to vote without the facts, then surely it is no less important that they should also know the gossip. In the old days, the man in the street had access to neither. Now, at long last, he is beginning to have access to both.

Undoubtedly, this does mean a sacrifice of privacy on the part of those occupying the corridors of power. But democratisation of politics has always involved invasions of privacy. Initially, MPs regarded the chamber of the House of Commons itself as private, and were no more willing to have journalists invade their privacy there than they are to have them invade the privacy of their bedchambers now. More recently, MPs were equally obstructive when new technological advances made it possible for the public to see and hear the debates, as well as read about them. Having succumbed eventually to their privacy being invaded in the debating chamber, however, they are now fighting a no less losing battle to prevent technological advance, like bugging and long-distance lenses, invading their privacy in more intimate parts of the House of Commons - the terrace and bars - not to mention the beaches and hotels further afield.

To argue, as MPs do, that their extra curricular activities throw no light on affairs of state is plain silly, as all insiders should be the first to agree. For they themselves take them seriously, spending just as much time discussing a minister's character - for the light it may throw on his fitness for high office - as his policies. After all, it wasn't policy but personality that made John Profumo unsuitable as minister of war, just as it wasn't policy but character -- rumours of unpucka conduct in battle - that made another prominent postwar Tory so unsuitable for that same job. Unquestionably, MPs have to be interested in such matters. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.