To those with an interest in politics as a way to put ideas into practice for the benefit of others rather than simply a route to personal prestige, wealth and fame, watching the Clinton sex affair from across the Atlantic is like being a rabbit caught in the headlights of an on-rushing car. We are appalled, yet transfixed. As a schoolboy, I was fascinated by the inexorable unfolding of Watergate. "Expletive deleted" is perhaps the phrase which most easily brings back memories of my miserable adolescence!
`In Britain we have our own pathetic equivalent of the Clinton affair. Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, publicly announced the breakup of his marriage to Margaret, a consultant hematologist, a few months ago. There was some mild titillation in the papers here about the fact that he was now moving in with his former secretary, Gaynor Regan, but the general consensus was that we didn't get too excited about politicians' private lives, now that the days of "Back to Basics" (the ill-starred Conservative morality drive of a few years ago which was promptly followed by an series of unsavory revelations about Conservative politicians) were over.
But, curiously, in the last two to three weeks the Cook affair has resurfaced. Allegations and counter-allegations-of how Mr. Cook's girlfriend has accompanied him on trips at the taxpayers' expense and how Mr. Cook had considered replacing the Foreign Office secretary he inherited from his predecessor with Miss Regan (but didn't)-have followed each other across the newspages, with similar standards of proof to those allegations bombarding Bill Clinton.
The consensus opinion of press commentators seems to be that irrespective of the degree of truth in their own stories, they are "damaging" and destroy "credibility," and that therefore the target of them should consider resigning. But surely this is utter nonsense! What is the point in democratic elections if people have the right to vote people into office but cannot keep them in office? Frankly, if I were Bill Clinton, I would be spending too much time with my psychiatrist to sort out health care or the Middle East. Which would leave me with the choice of carrying on without the means to do my job or standing aside to allow three years of government by someone who, for all his evident qualities, has not been chosen by the voters of America.
I can't help feeling that the Cook and Clinton debacles arise from the same root cause. The corporate-libertarian alliance (there's instability for you!) after one and a half decades of power has lost its way. And it has lost its way because the experience of people's lives, in Britain and the U.S., has shown them that widening social division is damaging us all, rich and poor alike. Up to now, the wounding criticism of our Tony Blair's Prime Ministership has come from those who want to see more action for the excluded groups in society, not less. So the Right have at last seen a chance to attack on a personal basis, unimpeded by their bankrupt political beliefs. That these assaults can have any prospect of success brings into sharp relief the flaws of our democratic systems. It shows more clearly than usual how political power lies in the hands of too few individuals, whether they be the flawed human beings in public office or the paragons of virtue that control the press.
I hope you will forgive me for boasting of the good sense of my fellow-Scots when I say that we have seen this coming for a long time now and are a few years ahead of the game. Throughout 18 years of Conservative rule in the U.K. Parliament, the voters of Scotland consistently preferred their opponents, with the result that desire grew ever stronger for a return of Scotland's own legislature, removed in 1707 as a result of the Act of Union between England and Scotland. Following overwhelming endorsement in a referendum in September last year, Scotland is to see that legislature return, on a site next to the old Palace of Holyrood, before the year 2000.
We don't intend this to be a small-scale model of Westminster. We have plans for a Parliament where a small executive yields power to members who are truly representative of the interests of ordinary Scots-as a result of committees which can initiate legislation and a proportional system of elections. We hope to have a body united in its purpose of improving the lives of all Scots, and committed to making sure that they have access to its intimate workings and have ownership of its decisions. This is to be achieved by laying down rules of transparency and openness before the first business is debated and by using electronic communication to spread democratic participation into every neighborhood and perhaps ultimately every home. An impossible dream? Watch this space!
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