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For the past few years in Britain we haven’t had politics. We’ve had economics. There was a brief (and entertaining) period when Ed Miliband appointed Alan Johnson – a man who claimed to know nothing about economics – as shadow chancellor ahead of Ed Balls, which offered the exciting possibility that the debate would be conducted not between Balls (a geeky economist) and George Osborne (the City’s lapdog), but between Osborne and a human being who would move the debate away from markets (invariably a home win), and back to the real people whose livelihoods they affect. A debate conducted in layman’s terms, rather than Lehman’s, you might say. For a moment, it seemed that there was going to be a clash of ideologies. But then Labour’s Balls dropped into the job and we went back to economists arguing over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin number.
But something is stirring. In the past few months, politics in Britain has been more interesting than for some time – ironically, at a moment when the public (and Russell Brand) have apparently never been less interested in their politicians. The plates are shifting, and the middle ground is cracking open. With his unwillingness to rubber-stamp military action against Syria’s President Assad, and his recent and sustained hounding of the energy companies and payday loan providers, Miliband is fashioning an alternative to the kind of weary acquiescence that passes for opposition when parties don’t dare to disagree.
And it’s not just Miliband. Even John Major, who gets better with age, seems to have decided to speak out for the squeezed middle classes against a prime minister who thinks Downton Abbey is gritty social realism, Somalia is a wine waiter and social mobility means giving the cleaner a lift to the bus stop.
As far as Ed Miliband goes, whatever your politics, it’s good to have a distinctive divide between leaders. Years ago, the Brighton Belle – the famous electric Pullman service from London to Brighton – served kippers for breakfast. In the early 1970s, the decision was made to take them off the menu. In true British tradition, a campaign was launched, with none other than Laurence Olivier as its patron. The railway duly backed down and restored the kippers. On the first day back, the steward spotted Olivier in the dining car and greeted him cheerily. “Ah, Lord Olivier!” he said, “I expect you’ll be having the kippers?” “No,” said the actor, “I’ll have the bacon and eggs.” “But . . . I thought you wanted the kippers?” the steward remonstrated. “No no, dear boy,” replied the great man. “What I wanted was the choice.”
Meanwhile, at the Old Bailey the phone-hacking trial goes on. I had mixed feelings when I heard that the notebooks seized by police from the private investigator Glenn Mulcaire contained 2,987 mobile phone numbers. They can’t all be Simon Cowell’s, I thought. I wondered if I was one of the 2,987 celebrities or people deemed interesting enough to be in Mulcaire’s book. Then it occurred to me that if I hadn’t made the top 3,000, I should have a word with my agent. (As it happened, my name was found, by an officer on Operation Weeting – one of several ongoing investigations whose names – Weeting, Elveden, Tuleta, Sacha, Kilo – make them sound more like Demi Moore’s children.)
I wonder if the same thought occurred to David Cameron when he heard that America’s National Security Agency had been bugging 35 world leaders, including Angela Merkel. He must have hoped he was at least as interesting as Frau M, whose small talk is almost entirely limited to discussing fiscal policy, fashion tips and Major League Baseball (at least it was when I listened in, but I might have got a crossed line). Or maybe DC figured that you’re exempt from the NSA’s bugging programme if your own spooks are helping the NSA in the first place. With all this bugging going on, you wonder if soon the NSA will be called to give evidence in the Old Bailey trial to the effect that David Blunkett couldn’t have been dating X because they were monitoring his phone at the same time and he was definitely with Y.
The serious point from all this is that while the British public are fascinated by goings-on at the Old Bailey, they seem pretty unfazed by the growing evidence that our own intelligence service may be spreading its net further and wider than any of us imagined. Only this week German newspaper Der Spiegel (“The Mirror”) revealed that, in a practice called “Quantum Insert”, GCHQ used doctored LinkedIn pages to install spy software on the computers of the Belgian telecoms company Belgacom. Should we know about this? It’s a big question, but at least worth asking. Meanwhile, maybe those intelligence services need to take at themselves look in the Spiegel.
At this time of year, I host a lot of award ceremonies (all offers considered). Many are for investment banks or financial institutions, and it’s always humbling to pay tribute to people whose work so often goes unrewarded.
Yet, at a time when the banks are gradually working their way off the hook, to be replaced as Public Enemy Number One by the energy companies – a shift that coincides neatly with the rhinoceros-skinned Angela Knight’s recent move from her job as CEO of the British Bankers’ Association to chief executive of Energy UK (there’s a woman that loves a challenge) – there is one area where they still lead the way. The fines the banks are paying – for mis-selling PPI and interest rate swaps, fixing Libor, and rigging exchange rates – are rapidly heading north of £25bn. As the novelist John Lanchester wrote recently, when those fines feed into the economy as “household consumption growth”, they’re contributing, at about 0.2 per cent of GDP last year, more to the economy than any of George Osborne’s measures. Well done, boys. Where would we be without you?