Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 23 October 2019

Our obsession with political scandals is detracting from the real burning issues

Outrage against elected individuals, from the Philippines to the US, takes up too much of our attention and time. We need to recalibrate our priorities

Boris Johnson is the frontrunner to become the next British prime minister. Christopher Furlong  /Getty
Boris Johnson is the frontrunner to become the next British prime minister. Christopher Furlong  /Getty

Given the current levels of hysteria in political discourse, it is sometimes forgotten that former US president George W Bush once prompted a similar reaction among bien pensant opinion-formers – so much so that the US commentator Charles Krauthammer coined the term “Bush derangement syndrome”, defined as “the acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidency – nay – the very existence of George W Bush”.

I have long believed that huge numbers have been suffering from its modern-day reincarnation, Trump derangement syndrome. Still trapped by the feeling that the globe fell off its axis when he was elected in 2016, their response to anything he says or does is coloured by their – doubtless heartfelt – disbelief that such a man could be president.

Others have been likewise afflicted when it comes to president Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. One of his biographers, Jonathan Miller, was so maddened by what he viewed as the criminality of Mr Duterte’s war on drugs that he compared him to the Cambodian dictator Pol Pot and the Butcher of the Balkans, Slobodan Milosevic. This was over the top, to say the least. Poor Mr Miller must be driven apoplectic by the wild popularity the president continues to enjoy among Filipinos.

Now we have a new derangement syndrome, inspired by Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary who is the frontrunner to be the next leader of the Conservative Party and therefore prime minister of Britain. This is nothing new – left-wing vehicles issued apocalyptic warnings before he was elected mayor of London in 2008, although in the event even his detractors had to agree that in terms of crime reduction and improving infrastructure, his two terms helming Britain’s capital were at least moderately successful.

The prospect of Mr Johnson in 10 Downing Street is, however, something that his critics find so appalling that one – his former editor at the Daily Telegraph, Sir Max Hastings – has promised to emigrate to Argentina if Mr Johnson succeeds Theresa May.

The outrage provoked in many people is totally disproportionate. And that, when taken in conjunction with the amount of time wasted concentrating on 'scandals', has consequences

I am not saying that it is unreasonable to have objections to the three examples I give above. Mr Trump has so little regard for constitutional niceties – indeed, he probably has little knowledge of them – that it has been observed in some quarters that he might only be in the clear when it comes to obstructing justice because his attempts to do so failed.

Mr Duterte’s callous attitude towards the thousands of deaths caused by his largely extrajudicial campaign against drugs is indeed shocking. And I understand the feelings of those who charge Mr Johnson with being a reckless opportunist – even if I do not share them, having had many dealings with him over the years in which he showed the spirit-rousing good nature and leadership his admirers credit him with.

What I do think, though, is that the outrage provoked in many people is totally disproportionate. And that, when taken in conjunction with the amount of time wasted concentrating on “scandals”, has consequences. Malaysian politics, for example, is currently near-paralysed by the circulation of sex tapes, allegedly involving a senior minister. He denies the allegations but the accompanying brouhaha – a police investigation, commentaries on the veracity of the tapes, arguments about who recorded it and who might have leaked it – will rumble on for months. The country has far more serious problems to deal with. The national teachers’ union recently called for a comprehensive study into the decline in English proficiency among students, an issue that gravely affects Malaysia’s productivity and international competitivity. That is a far greater scandal. But it is not what is talked about in Kuala Lumpur, not when there are muck-raking recordings to discuss instead.

In America, the fact that the endless conversations about impeachment and Russian interference will likely end up going nowhere – whether through lack of evidence, or a lack of political will in the Republican-controlled Senate – is not a reason to neglect talking about these issues.

But it is cause to recalibrate the amount of attention devoted to them. During his recent testimony in a US congressional hearing to consider making reparations and a national apology for slavery, the noted writer Ta Nehisi-Coates pointed to the little-known fact that the average black household has one-tenth of the income of the average white household in America. Such startling inequality ought to be one of the most burning questions being considered in the US today, as should the shocking fact that in the UK, the fifth largest economy in the world, people are having to resort to food banks.

But the outrage against specific individuals takes up way too much space and time, even though they were elected according to various constitutional rules. Quite apart from the issues of devastation caused by austerity and how Mr Johnson can bring a fractured country together, my fellow columnist Damien McElroy rightly pointed out that the most important question facing any incoming UK prime minister is just how he will handle Brexit. I, for one, would like to hear very precise details from all candidates of how Britain would transition to World Trade Organisation status in the event of a Brexit no-deal. Mr Johnson must also explain how he would get a no-deal through parliament when he has Tory colleagues who have said they will bring down the government rather than allow that to happen.

Yet apparently the fact that Mr Johnson had a row with his girlfriend is far more important, judging by the coverage in UK papers. Some even ludicrously suggest that a domestic quarrel reflects poorly on the diplomatic skills he will need to deal with the EU.

This is insanity. The world faces huge challenges, including the potential destruction of life as we know it if we do not deal with climate change. Obsessing over the flaws of politicians, who can all be removed at the ballot box, simply cannot be our overwhelming priority.

Sholto Byrnes is a commentator and consultant in Kuala Lumpur and a corresponding fellow of the Erasmus Forum

Updated: June 24, 2019 02:34 PM

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