Chris Huhne, John Terry & RBS – the scapegoats of convenience

Posted on: 03 February 2012 by Alexander Hay

The sacking of John Terry and the fall of Huhne may make the front pages, but their primary goal is to suggest that we are now much better than we actually are

Terry & Huhne, this afternoonAs the now former energy secretary Chris Huhne and his wife face charges of attempting to pervert the course of justice (or to put it into layman's terms, trying to fiddle speeding points), it's worth considering what has actually happened here.

After all, it wasn't so long ago (2007, to be precise) that Huhne was one of the prime contenders for the Liberal Democrat Party leadership. He was certainly a senior figure and contributed to the Orange Book, a sort of spiritual manifesto for his party that eased it into the sort of loose pragmatism and ease with high finance that helped the party form part of the Coalition government. His fall would only be more dramatic if he were a senior player in the Conservative or Labour party.

Then there is England football team captain, John Terry. Or rather, there WAS England football team captain John Terry, as he was today sacked while an investigation into possible racist conduct continues.

It seems to be the season for such culls. Former RBS head Fred Goodwin joined the hoi polloi earlier this week when he was stripped of his knighthood. Other recent sacrifices, again with an RBS connection, include current chief executive Stephen Hester losing his bonus, along with that of RBS chairman Philip Hampton.

What have these all got in common? They are all figureheads or representatives of damaged brands. Huhne represents a compromised and often detested government. John Terry's antics only remind us of how the England team, and indeed the notion of wealthy footballers, has become tarnished with ugly behaviour and uglier allegations. And as a state-owned bank, RBS has become a focus point for resentment over bankers' bonuses and largesse, still dished out liberally despite the havoc these same banks have wrought on the economy since 2008.

This reveals the real reason why the CPS decided to prosecute, Huhne leapt before being pushed, the Football Association waved a pink slip (or perhaps a red card), and the bankers reluctantly abandoned their bonuses. It doesn't change anything, but it symbolises a great deal. When the great and good fall on their swords, albeit metaphorically, it is used to symbolise a sort of ritual cleansing, a purging of sins. It is a cliché to refer to this, but the use of the scapegoat to bear all transgressions before being cast out into the wastes is as good a metaphor as you could wish for...

...And which is why such gestures are ultimately self-serving. The scapegoat may have symbolically borne the sins of the community, but that community remained just as guilty, for all its gestures. Purging Huhne and Terry may make some feel better and others feel less under pressure to do something, but it does little to stop the often corrupt and immoral goings on in Parliament or the ugly, thuggish decadence in football. Fred Goodwin may be stripped of his knighthood, but the damage he and the rest of his peers inflicted remains with us to this day. The RBS board, meanwhile, remains very rich and many others within the banking industry will still get their bonuses. Very little has changed.

And that's the problem with symbolic gestures - they are precisely that. Changing what causes problems in the first place requires strength of will and courage. It's much easier to send a sacrificial lamb to the altar (if you can describe John Terry in such a fashion) than deal with the underlying causes. Nothing has changed today. We've simply been distracted with a spectacle or two.

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Alexander Hay

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