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Government by scandal

Will Deighton on the threat to democracy behind the Bill Clinton and Robin Cook affairs

The government of the world's greatest superpower can be paralysed by accu-sations of sexual impropriety against president Bill Clinton, while proceed-ings are suspended in the Westminster Parliament to consider the sleeping arrange-ments of foreign secretary Robin Cook. Once upon a time, scandals and sleaze interrupted the ordinary business of politics. Today scandals and sleaze are the political process, only to be interrupted by wars.

The original sexual wrong-doings alleged are in the cases of Mr Cook and President Clinton, trivial. Their Conservative and Republican opponents have sought to lend the charges gravitas by linking them to other accusations of perjury, in the case of the president, or jobbery, in the case of the foreign secretary. But the substance of these scandals is nothing but sexual prurience.

According to the First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton the charges against her husband are part of a right-wing conspiracy against the Democrat president. True, Special Investigator Kenneth Starr was put in place by a Republican Congress and has links with the Republicans. But there is no need to uncover a hidden conspiracy to explain the campaign against Bill Clinton.

The role of the Special Investigator was established in the 'Watergate' era of the seventies, when Republican president Richard Nixon was found to have burgled his opponents' campaign headquarters, kept secret slush-funds to finance the operation and then tried to cover it up. The shock that the president had broken the law made Americans look again at their political system - but not all the changes were for the better. After all Nixon was elected by the people, but brought down by journalists and lawyers - among them a young Hillary Rodham. Many drew the conclusion that the capacity of the president to fool all the people some of the time meant that new legal safeguards were needed against the presidency - hence the enhanced and open-ended role of the Special Investigator.

The Special Investigator has an open brief to investigate any charges of impropriety against the president, with wide-ranging powers to subpoena witnesses, seize evidence and arrange hearings. Because the Special Investigator is not answerable to anybody in particular, he is free to take his investigation wherever it leads.

The Special Investigation into Bill Clinton began in his previous term of office, looking at real estate deals and a law firm in Arkansas. Those investigations proceed with no sign of any conclusion. When Paula Jones accused the president of showing her his cock in a hotel room, Ken Starr simply added this new and unrelated charge to his inquiry. Then Monica Lewinsky's secretly recorded gossip about the president was made public, and the world waited - with bated breath - while Lewinsky's lawyers negotiated with Starr over her testimony. The latest Republican advertising campaign ends with an alien abduction-like appeal: 'if you think you have been sexually harassed by the president, call 0800-HARASSU.' Clearly this investigation could go on forever.

The consequence of Ken Starr's permanent inquiry into any and all charges against the presidency is a state of permanent scandal. Starr does not have to make any findings to paralyse the presidency. All he has to do is investigate and the media stop reporting anything else. The mere fact that he talked to Monica Lewinsky's lawyers held up the US government for two solid weeks. In effect the Special Investigator has indefinite license to scandalise the presidency.

But Ken Starr has not abused his office. The Special Investigator's office is intended to be like a loaded gun pointing at the presidency, just waiting to be fired. The origin of the special investigation is a distrust of the presidency, but more importantly, a distrust of the process of democratic accountability at the polls. Unlike Kenneth Starr, Bill Clinton was elected, and then re-elected, despite the various allegations of scandal and sleaze made against him. Since this latest set of charges, Clinton's polled approval-rating actually climbed, to an unassailable 70 per cent. But none of that matters to the Special Investigator's office. Its role is to investigate the president's flaws regardless of whether he has the support of the voters. After all, they will say, Nixon was elected, and look at him.

The desire to short-circuit democratic accountability by legal investigation is the flaw at the heart of the Special Investigator's role. Back in the seventies, radical Democrats were dumbfounded that Nixon had beaten them among working class voters, and, despairing of winning a straight fight, they turned to the law to effect the result the voters had denied them. After Bill Clinton overturned the Republican's 12-year occupation of the Oval Office, the right were similarly disappointed with the voters, and turned to the Special Investigator to do their dirty work for them.

The Special Investigator gives institutional form to the political elite's distrust of the voters. It is not surprising that his office paralyses elected government - that is what it is supposed to do. What is surprising is that the British Parliament has embraced this US model of regulation. As in the American system, the new parliamentary watchdogs under Sir Gordon Downey and Lord Nolan are powers unto themselves. For the first time since the restoration of the monarchy in 1688, parliament has willingly placed itself under the external authority of an unelected body, with higher powers than those of the elected House of Commons.

The Standards Commission under Lord Nolan has a roving brief to root out corruption. Like all bureaucracies, his has a built-in incentive to discover the disease for which it is the cure. Like the Special Investigator's office in the USA, the Standards Commission is a powerful and all-purpose constraint on government. Like an open invitation to manufacture scandal it waits to start its investigations. Already the Conservatives have started mumbling about 'standards' in the Cook affair. A government that has made intolerance towards sleaze its slogan will find it difficult to fend off demands for a Starr-like investigation.

Reproduced from LM issue 108, March 1998

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