Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Privacy 2: outing gays and hunting ministers

Benjamin Disraeli injected colour into the role of British Prime Minister, in every sense of the word. He liked to wear purple velvet and would affect white gloves with rings outside them. He also had a way with words. Told on his death bed that Queen Victoria wished to visit him, an unheard of royal honour for a man born a commoner, he apparently turned the offer down on the grounds that ‘she will only ask me to take a message to Albert’, her late husband.

Charm was another of his qualities. ‘When I left the dining room after sitting next to Mr. Gladstone,’ recorded a young woman who had the privilege of dining on separate occasions with both Disraeli and his rival Gladstone, ‘I thought he was the cleverest man in England. But after sitting next to Mr. Disraeli, I thought I was the cleverest woman in England.’

Winston Churchill said of his political opponent and erstwhile former deputy Prime Minister from the war years, Clement Atlee, that he was ‘a modest man, who has much to be modest about’. George Bernard Shaw sent Churchill a telegram reading ‘Two tickets reserved for you, first night Pygmalion. Bring a friend, if you have one’. Churchill replied, ‘Cannot make first night. Will come to second. If you have one.’

It wasn’t only Conservative politicians who specialised in barbs, of course. One of the harshest but in my view finest was provided by Aneurin Bevan when he turned his guns on the Conservatives themselves: ‘No amount of cajolery, and no attempts at ethical or social seduction, can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party. So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin.’ I think we got the message.

Denis Healey, probably the finest leader the British Labour Party never had, and the greatest Prime Minister Britain missed out on, had plenty of excellent and highly quotable aphorisms. ‘When you’re in a hole, stop digging,’ has to be a particularly useful suggestion which I wish I could learn to follow more often. And he also provided the useful legal advice that ‘the difference between tax avoidance and tax evasion is the thickness of a prison wall’.

Much more recently, when the new coalition government was formed in this country, David Laws of the British Liberal Democrats was appointed Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the number two position in our finance ministry. When he took up his office, he found the traditional letter from his predecessor, in this case Liam Byrne. It read ‘Dear Chief Secretary, I'm afraid there is no money. Kind regards – and good luck! Liam’.

That was just three weeks ago, but David Laws has already had to resign. Why? Because he’s gay.

That may seem extraordinary. After all it isn’t illegal or even much of a matter for comment to be gay in Britain. We’ve had numerous openly gay ministers already. The problem with Laws is that he chose to stay in the closet. So when it came to claiming for expenses, instead of declaring his home as shared with his partner, he claimed for rent paid to his partner as landlord.

A committee of enquiry is looking into the matter, but for now it looks as though he made no more than he was entitled to from the arrangement. Technically, however, it was a breach of the rules.

The Daily Mail, one of the least pleasant of our scandal sheets masquerading as daily newspapers, decided last week to denounce Laws. Faced with a media maelstrom, Laws felt he had no choice but to resign.

Today he is quoted as saying, ‘I should have been more open’. Well, perhaps he should have been, perhaps he shouldn’t. I don’t see how it’s my business or that of any other voter. I’d far rather we all took a decision on David Laws based on how well or how badly he performs in politics. Everything else falls into the strictly private realm.

My last post was on privacy. Isn’t this a much clearer example of where privacy really needs to be protected than, say, on Facebook? Can we tolerate a technical offence bringing down a minister? More to the point – can we tolerate that minister being driven out for his sexuality?

You may agree or disagree with the politicians I quoted at the start of this piece. You may find them amusing or detestable. But they were certainly characters, they were colourful, they rose to challenges.

If we let organisations like the Daily Mail get away with their poisonous little crusades, we’ll end up with politicians who are without exception straight, white, middle class, male, middle-aged and nominally Christian. They’ll have the purity of cotton wool. They’ll have the respectability of a tweed suit. They’ll have the dynamism of a communion wafer.

And the wit and charm of a George W. Bush.


Awoogamuffin said...

Well, you know how it is with George Bush - fool him once, shame on... shame on you... fool him twice, schame on... uh... you fool me can't get fooled again

David Beeson said...

Ah, how nostalgic you make me for that wonderful period.