How bounders, chancers and charlatans took over politics

They can’t hide it anymore.

The contempt in which the political class holds the rest of us has erupted from the confines of the bubble and oozed its way across the entire body politic. The worst politicians no longer pretend they respect us or seek our approval. Ego is all and the best interests of the country pale when set against the personal, political, and financial objectives of those who rule over us.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, that highly schooled and poorly educated dilettante, has again allowed his desultory approach to detail to embarrass the government. As our representative on the world stage, he is supposed to be securing the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British national jailed in Iran on trumped up spying charges. Instead, the blond blunderer told MPs last week that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in Iran ‘training journalists’ when she was in fact visiting relatives with her three-year-old daughter Gabriella. The Iranians responded by bringing fresh charges against Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and threatening to double her jail term to ten years.

The Foreign Secretary is not the only government figure to go off on a flight of fancy. Priti Patel was forced to resign as International Development Secretary after her secret meetings with Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials came to light. Israel may be a friendly nation, and its enemies exploiting the row for political gain, but Miss Patel’s actions speak to unfettered ambition and an arrogant belief that the rules did not apply to her.

Rounding out a trio of self-servers, Alex Salmond has unveiled a chat show to be screened on Kremlin propaganda network Russia Today. RT is the mouthpiece of a regime where journalists are routinely murdered for trying to bring the powerful to book and which stands accused of interfering in the 2016 US elections. That Mr Salmond has clearly decided not to retire with dignity but to embrace Vladimir Putin’s pet TV channel while the former KGB man works to destabilise democracy in the West demeans the office of First Minister which he once held.

Why does every chancer with a political career behind or ahead of them think they can debase our country and its standing in the world? The answer, in part, is us. So inured have we become to the grubby circus of self-aggrandisement that we no longer challenge it. It has become perfectly normal for a foreign secretary to blunder his way around the world and for a Cabinet secretary’s leadership aspirations to take precedence over the strictures of the ministerial code. And so what if a failed politician clings to low-rent fame after losing their parliamentary seat? Isn’t that what politics is all about now — celebrity?

If we are half-way down that road in the UK, across the pond the capture of politics by show business is now complete.

Last week, Donald Trump’s Republican Party was rebuffed by voters in Virginia and New Jersey, two states that are more favourable to the Democrats. Among his supporters, though, there are signs that, far from disaffection over his broken promises and erratic governing style, loyalty to the Trump brand remains high. It turns out these electors weren’t all that bothered about scrapping Obamacare or building a wall on the Mexican border. What attracted them, and continues to, is attitude: Mr Trump thumbs his nose at the establishment and the niceties and conventions of professional politics. He is a wise guy, mocking authority and proper behaviour like a class clown inexplicably put in charge of the school.

In Alabama, the Republican candidate for Senate, Roy Moore, has been accused of making sexual advances to a 14-year-old girl when he was 32. That local Republican officials are standing by him is shocking but not half as astonishing as the public reaction. Moore is still neck-and-neck in the polls with his Democrat opponent and a majority of Alabama voters say he shouldn’t have to stand aside while the allegations are investigated.

Democracy has become a gruesome parody of itself. The ugliest aspects of politics have dragged us all down into the gutter and, because we still do our civic duty and go out to vote, they take this as vindication. But we have not given our blessing to this shallow, fetid sideshow — we have merely given up hope. At some point — perhaps Iraq, perhaps the expenses scandal — we decided that this was the best politics could be. That MPs were in it for themselves and ministers habitually incompetent. We settled for second best and soon enough we got third rate.

Nowadays no one expects of erring politicians the humility and remorse shown by John Profumo. When details emerged of his affair with model Christine Keeler, who had also had trysts with a Soviet diplomat, War Secretary Profumo resigned in shame and spent the remainder of his life cleaning toilets at a charity in the east end of London. He believed he had a debt to repay and part of the price was the end of his political career. The voters agreed — they had exacting standards and by insisting that public figures met them, electors and elected alike were conditioned to be better behaved.

We get the politicians we deserve. Faced with an incompetent government and an extreme opposition, four in five of us still back one of the two major parties. In the independence referendum, the SNP’s dissembling about currency, defence and the NHS did not stop 45% of Scots voting Yes. Lurid claims about untold millions for the health service and a looming invasion by Turks got the Brexiteers a win.

Bounders, chancers and charlatans can only get away with it if we let them. If we want to hoist our politics out of the mud, we have to insist on clean boots. No more rewarding the worst with indulgent shrugs or, worse, our votes. We should demand more of our politicians and expect more of ourselves.


Margaret Thatcher once advised: ‘If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.’ Scottish Labour is not accustomed to taking Mrs T’s counsel to heart but they should make an exception.

The current leadership crawl (we can hardly call it a race) presents a dismal choice between Anas Sarwar, who wants to tax us into the poor house, and Richard Leonard, whose tax plans perhaps made more sense in the original Russian. Worse still, interim boss Alex Rowley has come down with the flu and left the party leaderless.

Since all the men were indisposed, Jackie Baillie stepped up, barrelling into Nicola Sturgeon two weeks in a row at First Minister’s Questions. Dumbarton MSP Miss Baillie is moderate, unwaveringly Unionist, pro-Trident, and an SNP-baiter of innate, exquisite ability. If Scottish Labour wants to make a comeback at Holyrood, it should ditch the men and put its very own Iron Lady in charge.


I spent Armistice Day in an A&E ward and when the clock struck 11am, everyone rose and silence fell. Doctors froze on the spot, stethoscopes in hand; patients in pain stood nonetheless as a mark of respect. There was no vain bickering about poppies and pacifism. It was a moment to honour brave men who stood up when it counted.

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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at

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