Sometimes there's nothing wrong with a good bit of Great British ShameTobia Nava with permission for Varsity

There’s not much the Great British Public like more than a Great British Scandal. It’s no wonder the first tabloid was founded in London in 1903; we are, fundamentally, a country fuelled by gossip.

More than its pure enjoyment value, a case of misconduct is a potent political weapon. If it happens at the right time – and to the right people – a dose of political sleaze can spiral into something far larger than the original scandal itself. The fallout from the Profumo affair, for example, had a hand in bringing down Macmillan’s government, and led to the election of Harold Wilson the following year. It would be pointless to even attempt to list all the misconduct which brought about the end of Boris Johnson’s premiership, but it was the Chris Pincher scandal which was the final nail in the already-hammered-to-death coffin.

“Riding out the hurricane of a superficial scandal often benefits those at the centre of its storm”

But it’s not just crises large enough to be worthy of the suffix “gate” which we find ourselves salivating over. It’s the cock-ups, the slips of the tongue and the “oh God I didn’t realise those cameras were still running”. I am – of course – talking about Gillian Keegan’s demands on ITV news last week that she be praised for doing a “fucking good job”. While everyone else was “sat on their arses,” the Secretary of State for education has been tirelessly working to stop schools from crumbling. Or so she says.

The Shadow Schools Minister Stephen Morgan condemned her “staggering arrogance” in the face of schools in “chaos”. He’s not wrong. But is the arrogance of one woman, who – loathe as I may be to defend a Conservative Cabinet member – has only been in the Department for Education since 2020, really the cornerstone of this issue? It’s not one individual’s fault that up to (or to use Sunak’s preferred qualifier, only) one in 20 schools may be built out of crumbly concrete. It’s a consequence of 13 years of crippling austerity.

Rather than berate Keegan for her (admittedly callous) comments, why not lay the blame at some more appropriate dress shoes? In 2010, Michael Gove made devastating cuts to public spending, including Brown’s school rebuilding programme. Under Sunak’s chancellorship, a DfE assessment recommending that 300 to 400 schools needed to be rebuilt each year was slashed. The Conservative government reduced it to just 50.

“a Great British Scandal shouldn’t go without a healthy dose of Great British Shame”

That’s not to say that these institutional failings haven’t been in the news at all, but lacking the fundamentals of a scandal – sex, swearing, or generalised sleaze – Keegan’s comments have taken centre stage. As counterintuitive as it may be, this misplaced focus doesn’t only benefit the government, but the Secretary of State herself. Being asked to apologise for her choice language means she has far less time to be faced with questions which may lead to some more damning answers. Like why the Department for Education gave £1 million from the schools rebuilding fund to a company linked to her husband. Or why headteachers should “get off their backsides” to sort a crisis which they had no part in causing. You would at least think Keegan would understand that, given she feels so saddled with the responsibility of doing the fundamentals of her job.

Ultimately, riding out the hurricane of a superficial scandal often benefits those at the centre of its storm. Matt Hancock’s arse-grabbing tendencies, paired with an unfortunate name and a well-placed CCTV camera, made him – superficially, at least – one of the villains of lockdown. But it’s hard to stay furious at a man with such a clear dearth of knowledge of the principles of karaoke – or kissing for that matter. Most importantly, we lost the worst of the scandal behind the grainy CCTV footage. The fact that Gina Coladangelo’s (Hancock’s more-than-an-aide’s) brother was the strategy director of a company which received several NHS contracts went largely underreported. Now, thanks to a stint on I’m a Celeb, and a pitiable narrative arc, Hancock is well on the way to reaching Alaistair Campbell’s levels of rehabilitation. Maybe one day he’ll start a podcast with Rachel Reeves. Just instead of banning any mention of the country which starts with an I and rhymes with Shmiraq, they’ll block out the years 2020-2021.


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Even the Greatest of the Great British scandals have often been misremembered, or had effects which – with the benefit of hindsight – call into question the ethics of a media hurricane. John Profumo – like Hancock, and perhaps Keegan – was rehabilitated. He died in 2006, fairly honoured and respected. Christine Keeler (the 19-year-old embroiled in the affair) was unable to escape the negative press from the scandal.

There’s nothing wrong with loving a scandal. God knows, British politics is depressing enough without depriving ourselves of mocking a man who drove to a castle “to test his eyesight” or another who claims not to be able to sweat. But the objects of mockery are often deserving of more than just mirth – and a Great British Scandal shouldn’t go without a healthy dose of Great British Shame. I think we know how to do that, too.