- By Philip Hensher, The Independent, UK
Towards the end of a lifetime of networking, someone asked that glacial charlatan-genius Andy Warhol if there were anyone left he still had a desire to meet.
He said, “Minnie Mouse.” Straight-facedly, he was asked why Minnie. “Because,” he said, “I hear she can get me real close to Mickey.” As in so many things, Warhol saw the currency of the modern age quite clearly, and its coinage had a name: Access.
“That is how politics has always worked. Everyone knows, within that world, who has access and who has influence.”
Now that Liam Fox has resigned, we can see that Access is no kind of basis for government to be transacted. Maybe friendship in the usual sense can’t survive the pressures of government, and will always be translated into an access-relationship. Access, surely, is friendship translated into financial terms – a concept so alien to most of us that we prefer to interpret the sight of influence into terms we do understand, such as sexual thrall or blackmail. There must be some core of genuine feeling even in the most access-defined relationships. But could such friendships ever be legislated and permitted within government? This precedent means that they can’t, and shouldn’t.
Over the past few days, we’ve seen the model of the access-relationship partly exposed, with Adam Werritty in the Minnie Mouse role, and Liam Fox grinning for the cameras like Mickey. Adam Werritty’s relationship with the Defence Secretary was one which, clearly, some people in this situation saw as a commodity which could be traded and mined. He had Access. The whole thing is really faintly medieval. Mr Fox is, of course, a privy councillor, and I wonder whether now that he’s gone, he might reflect about some of the historic meanings of these public titles. There are the Companions of the Bath; there are Ladies of the Bedchamber; there are Privy Councillors. All these refer in some degree to private, or semi-private areas of the monarch’s life. The medieval court was predicated on the degree of access different people had to the monarch. Defence secretaries, too, it is apparent, have councillors and companions, ones not quite so openly appointed or scrutinised. Would it have been better to have given Mr Werritty, after the revelations of stag-night events in Dubai hotels, the formal title of Companion of the Cocktail Bar? At least then we would have known who he was, and why he was trotting around after Mr Fox at the head of a train of hopeful supplicants.
Some time in the early 1990s, government became fixated on the idea that it could place a price on all its assets, and declared how much the Foreign Office, say, was worth – its palace in Whitehall, its beautiful embassies, its chairs, and hatstands. It is not implausible to think that this odd habit encouraged people in or near public life to start wondering what their friendships and connections might be worth in terms of money or other benefits, too. Intimacy multiplied by length of connection, multiplied by importance of the contact: it wouldn’t be hard to work it out.
Most of us could not and would not place a value on our friendship with anyone at all. It seems totally indecent. The tawdry world of Mr Werritty, of lobbyists and old friends, and gatekeepers and party-conference goers, with their self-printed business cards and their prized lanyard, is one where relationships are routinely costed by themselves and others. The business world costs it; so do commentators; so do those lower down in the lobbyist/lanyard junkie/old-friend food chain. How valuable is this person? What Access does he have?
That is how politics has always worked. Everyone knows, within that world, who has access and who has influence. The difficulty comes when the access and influence can be costed but not audited. If Mr Werritty had been a special adviser, his appointment could have been examined by interested parties. Mr Fox seems to have wanted something short of a special adviser, appointed by a public process and offering some sort of professional expertise. Obviously, Adam Werritty was not that, as suggested by the way his advice and expertise went so seamlessly from health policy to defence policy when Mr Fox’s portfolio changed. Mr Werritty may have been just a friend, to be carried about like a lucky teddy bear. And yet those friendships, in those circumstances, have a knack of being monetised and of turning into matters of real public concern. Mr Werritty may have been a Piers Gaveston, a Maundy Gregory, a Lord Kagan, an Incitatus, a Beau Brummell – it is quite hard to think of positive examples of best friends of the great.
Mr Werritty’s highly inappropriate friendship with Mr Fox ought to have been scrutinised. But friendships are not customarily scrutinised in this way. Randall Jarrell observes that each of us has someone in our lives who, if we are asked who they are, we can only reply “Why, that’s Constance – you know, my Constance,” without ever really being able to define our relationship, or how they came to be there. When Mr Werritty turned up at dozens of meetings, trailing at the back of the striding entourage, he may only have been one of these figures – “Well, that’s Adam – you know Adam, surely?” Not every friendship of Mr Fox’s would have been our concern. But some of them were. If the Government were serious about curbing the corrupting influence of lobbyists, then somebody quite outside the network of friendship and access-relationship and “that’s-Adam-you-know-Adam” should have felt free, long ago, to have said quite firmly, “No – we don’t know Adam, actually.” I don’t know – maybe a civil servant? Once upon a time, that might have fallen within, not just their responsibilities, but their plain duty.
For the rest of us, the concept is unfamiliar – a companion who is not an employee, but whose friendship is accepted by all concerned as being the source of identifiable benefits. Because we can’t imagine engaging in a sincere relationship along those lines, we tend to reach for unfounded explanations in sex or blackmail.
Heaven knows, cabinet ministers should be gregarious; their friends and best friends shouldn’t be taken only from the ranks of the vetted and scrutinised insiders. They deserve friends as we all do. But the rest of us don’t have friends whose access to us is costed and valued by the world. If our public representatives choose to have friends like this, they must expect these values to be examined, and perhaps even audited, and sometimes their existence found to be incompatible with holding the highest office. Of course Fox had to go.