Gossip is the mortar that holds society together. How we know we can trust people without having to go through the laborious task of actually knowing them is to discuss their social reputation with others and find out the things they would rather no-one else knew. The same is true for politicians - we enjoy to gossip about them because it is a small way in which we can regulate their activities and morality, ensuring that immoral behaviour is found out and that information is distributed across society. Yet, with the recent revelations about the drug habits of the prospective Tory leaders, some are suggesting that the pasts of politicians should matter no more than their appearance; that the activities they engaged decades ago are not relevant to the policies they are putting forward now. There is some merit to this argument in that we should not attack people based on who they once were, but if someone's past is relevant to a particular debate then why should a politician's past be written off, or worse, hidden from the public?
The relevance of the activities in question is primarily to do with the duty of politicians to uphold the rule of law and the impartiality of the judiciary. How is it, one could ask, that Michael Gove or Boris Johnson could be expected to enforce the drugs policy of this country if they themselves are guilty of breaking the laws surrounding that policy? This has nothing to do with whether you agree or disagree with the policy in question, and everything to do with the obvious conflict of interest in people guilty of a certain crime being responsible for enforcing the law surrounding that crime.
Perhaps those who consumed cocaine will not become leader of the party, and therefore the country, in which case gossip may well have done its job, but what if they are instead brought into the Cabinet as Home Secretary? The trust we are expected to have in public officials is wholly reliant on public perception of their morality, integrity and law-abiding nature, and the fact that they appear so unapologetic about breaking the law in their days as young adults does them no service. The sheer hypocrisy of those, like Gove, who have, with no admittance of their past, argued against legalisation has to be noted as well for it displays a contempt for the public's right to pertinent information rarely seen in this country.
There is no direct solution to this problem of public officials having profoundly controversial pasts, simply due to these revelations being symptomatic of a more general problem with our political class. We have handled these revelations so childishly, with tongue-in-cheek mockery rather than a serious consideration of the implications of having what are, for all intents and purposes, criminals as candidates for our premiership, simply because we do not expect anything better. The reason we do not really care about our politicians' pasts is that their profoundly scandalous presents have already disillusioned us.
As much as journalists claimed that the Expenses Scandal would lead to the rise of extremist parties like the BNP, what has instead happened is we no longer hold any expectations of our politicians, and with every scandal about a group of them this becomes more and more true. Instead of this news prompting any rebuke of the candidates in question, or a moral condemnation, or even a serious discussion about the drugs policy of this country, we have instead carried on with slightly lower standards for our leadership. It is reminiscent of the amusing cynicism that marked the Soviet Union’s workers, with their adage: ‘they pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work’. Instead, we have: ‘they pretend to know what they’re doing, and we pretend to believe them’.
I should say that I am not calling for some kind of public witch-hunt against all immoral behaviour in Parliament. As Kevin Foster remarked when he visited Warwick, if everyone who had taken drugs was kicked out of Parliament it would just leave him and Jacob Rees-Mogg. What I am saying is that, when the next election comes around, the electorate should start demanding a higher standard of politician, ones who have are apologetic about mistakes they have made, ones who have some kind of moral integrity. What we need to do is stop believing them, and if all else fails, the right to not vote is just as important as the right to vote, and can send a strong message that the current generation of politicians is simply not up to scratch. But if they are re-elected, and the quality of officials continues to slip, at least there will be plenty to gossip about.