As the News International crisis deepens, James Meadway explores what the scandal means for democracy, civil society and the Coalition.

Gordon Brown has revealed that whilst Chancellor of the Exchequer his private files were hacked and his son’s medical records apparently stolen. Revulsion has once again greeted the news that News International were prepared to use this information as the basis of an grossly intrusive story – Rebekah Brooks herself calling Brown to inform him.

This has to be considered, as Brown himself clearly considers it, part of News International’s considerable efforts to undermine his authority. It is unclear at this stage if this campaign was conducted with the collusion of elements inside the Labour Party, although we know from recent memoirs of virulent disagreements amongst New Labour’s leadership. Brown has suggested that his unwillingness to back NI’s designs on British media markets may have also driven their ire.

It is an extraordinary situation that takes us far beyond the initial story, reported in 2006, that News of the World reporters were seeking celebrity tittle-tattle through hacked mobile phone voicemails. NI now stands revealed as brokers of extraordinary influence inside British political life: corrupt, ruthless, and contemptuous of democracy. This secretive organisation begins to resemble nothing so much as a lawless state-within-a-state.

There are rough parallels. Harold Wilson, re-elected Labour Prime Minister after the February 1974 general election, was convinced of the existence of a plot enacted against him by elements in the security services, colluding with the right-wing press.

Dismissed at the time as the product of Wilson’s paranoia, evidence emerged in later years of a concerted campaign of destabilisation. Colin Wallace, a former Army intelligence official later framed for murder, provided details of ‘Clockwork Orange’: a systematic attempt by UK security forces to undermine both the Labour government and political figures considered unreliable. The memoirs of former MI5 agent Peter Wright revealed how a clique inside MI5 had actively worked to remove Wilson from office.

News International is a private organisation. It does not consist, as Wright’s clique did, of disgruntled security services personnel with anti-communist axes to grind. That small group caused much damage, emerging at a time of social and economic crisis. Unlike them, NI follows the bottom line. And in doing so it has exploited the weakened powers of the state, spreading its claws far further than the plotters of the 70s would have dared.

The New Corruption

The radical journalist William Cobbett once wrote of ‘Old Corruption’: the tangling of personal influence, outright corruption, and brutality that passed for the British state in the early 19th century. Not so much a system of government as the rule of Mafioso, the Old Corruption poisoned every aspect of British political life. Its sinecures bought the silent consent of the upper classes, while exceptional repression was exercised against the lower orders.

It was broken by the violent upheavals and political campaigns that marked industrialisation. The creation of a new class, the workers, capable of independent, radical organisation, helped provoke reform. Campaigns for extensions of the franchise and for social welfare tamed the British state. Democracy and welfare marched together. And a distinctive British ideology – stressing its harmonious history – was developed.

Those social protections of democracy and welfare are under direct threat. They have been steadily eroded for years. But the Coalition’s statement of intent, the White Paper on public service ‘reform’, shows how much further process may run. Every single service currently delivered by state, with the exception of – what else? – defence and policing could be opened up to private interests.

The financial crisis has produced a turbocharged neoliberalism. This does not mean the state will disappear. It is to be reconstructed, continuing a process that began 30 years ago. Its welfare functions will be shrivelled, but protection of markets and market interests remain.

For all its talk of a Big Society and modernity, this weak, increasingly enfeebled government seems more destined for a reversion to a type that Cobbett would recognise. A reduced state, ruled by venal overlords; a corrupted public life dominated by poisonous, unaccountable private institutions; and the very haziest of democratic protections against it all.

The NI hacking scandal has exposed the myth of a state independent of capital, consisting of benignly watchful institutions. At its very centre is a tangled web of private interests and personal corruption, far from the high-minded liberal ideal of government for the public good.

Instability and weakness

But it is not stable. The replacement of public interest by private venality creates a vulnerability. It is the vulnerability of all criminal conspiracies: with nothing to hold them together but their own greed, they can rapidly be broken. The conspirators can be turned. Something like that is now happening. The police blame News International. NI throw their former golden boy, Andy Coulson, to the wolves. The politicians look back to NI. The cabal disintegrates as each side desperately tries to push the blame elsewhere.

And British civil society still contains immense reserves of authority. Ed Miliband has – after months of inscrutable silence – finally spoken up on the issue. The Labour Party stands to gain, for as long as it can appear above the fray. For as long as it can do so the situation can be stabilised. Those most implicated in the scandal can be removed from the scene.

Cameron will cling onto his post for a while yet, but he has begun to look like a dead man walking. His authority is in tatters. His government, already weak, will be substantially crippled for as long as he remains in power.

We must make the most of this weakness. Stopping the forced march to austerity will be hard, but weaknesses at the top of society bring it closer. The demand for democracy and accountability – of press, government, and police – goes hand-in-hand with the demand to stop the cuts.

James Meadway

Radical economist James Meadway has been an important critic of austerity economics and at the forefront of efforts to promulgate an alternative. James is co-author of Crisis in the Eurozone (2012) and Marx for Today (2014).