The British may have mixed feelings about the achievements of Mark Sanford, the pious, married Republican governor of South Carolina. Highlights from Mr Sanford’s correspondence with his Argentinian lover, María Belén Chapur, have continued to impress romantics, even after extracts were read out on the Today programme, with satirical emphasis. For example: “Have you been told lately how warm your eyes are and how they softly glow with the special nature of your soul…?”
However, after so long without a significant British political affair, the sudden emergence of a sexual hypocrite of Sanford’s stature reminds us what we have lost. How did this happen? Did we, like Victorians in the days of Empire, take effortless British pre-eminence in sex scandals for granted? Last century, when Parkinson, Mellor, Yeo, Archer, Clark, Shagger Norris, Currie and Major made Tory politics synonymous with non-stop sexual farce, it was justly said that no European country came close to the Anglo-Saxons for hypocrisy. Just two years ago the US journalist James Wolcott praised Britain’s record in the pages of Vanity Fair. “Comparing Washington sex scandals with those of Britain’s political class is enough to cause any red-blooded American to blush with shame,” he said.
How could his country ever compete, he wondered, with the nation that produced Profumo, and, more recently, that celebrated string of liaisons at the Spectator, where staff members diligently hoovered up anything that had not already been slept with by the magazine’s tireless publisher, Kimberly Fortier? It was like our handmade shoes. Where else would you find this bespoke, traditional quality? “British sex scandals, like ours, are often rooted in a dolour of middle-aged malaise,” wrote Wolcott, “but they’re also animated by spite, spicy details, vanity, revenge, bitter comedy and bawdy excess – the complete Jacobean pantry.”
But in reality we were already punching above our weight. Blunkett’s dreary little folly was to have wangled a nanny’s visa. Robin Cook’s primary mistake was to fall foul of the Alastair Campbell code of conduct. As for that blundering comic turn John Prescott, his storyline almost demanded that he grunt his way into Tracey Temple’s diary: “He can be a randy old sod… coz he wanted sex again.”
Since then, the most notable British politicians prepared to sacrifice their reputations in this way have been Ron Davies and Mark Oaten, neither of whom had to atone, à la Profumo, with several decades in the East End. When Mr Jacqui Smith appeared, with his porn habit, it was a point of honour, on every side, to insist that it wasn’t the smut we resented, oh no, not remotely, so much as having to pay for it. A tolerance born out of indifference, shamelessness or maybe, even, maturity, was recently codified by Justice Eady with his ruling that Max Mosley’s elegantly costumed whacking parties were nobody’s business but his own.
It is surely a melancholy reflection of our stalled voyeuristic tradition that the bawdiest aspect of the current Spectator is an excitable part work on political scandal whose cover boy is, with dull inevitability, Profumo. Today it is Americans such as Sanford who act out the political complications of unblemished family values…
The shame of a fallen empire.
Given our predilection for bible-thumping, I think we probably surpassed the Brits at hypocrisy by 1950. It took another half-century for the sexy bits to catch up, that’s all.