SNP’s Angus McNeil, the Western Isles MP who demanded and vigorously promoted the Cash for Honours probe, has apologised for a ‘romp’ involving two teenage girls, half his age, just a few weeks before his wife gave birth, and two months after he was elected to parliament.
As a media story this has all the makings of a classic, offering equal amounts of prurience, bad judgment, and political hypocrisy. But it begs deeper and more serious questions about the nature of integrity in (post)modern British politics.
Since Robin Cook dumped his wife in favour of his mistress on the day that he became Foreign Secretary, and since Bill Clinton lied his way out of impeachment, we have been in something of a free fall when it comes to the sexual behaviour of politicians. That is, unless it involves gay sex, in which case, as both Labour’s Ron Davies and Lib-Dem’s Mark Oaten both discovered to their cost, neither the public nor the media is inclined to be forgiving.
This is not the place to solve the old conundrum: what private standards should we expect from our public servants? But it is both the place and the time to question a man who has built his recent political career on (so far) successfully attacking Labour on the issue of integrity, when he had none himself.
Of course, it would be completely inappropriate to suggest that a single lapse of judgement should disqualify a politician from campaigning on integrity (but see above). If this was the case, no politician, nor any other human being, would ever be able to advocate standards any higher than their own worst behaviour. But, in the same way that MPs are obliged to declare an interest, an MP, and especially a new MP, should set the record straight before proceeding almost straight from their own lapse of judgement to an integrity campaign.
The term ‘lapse of judgement’ itself needs some questioning if we want an answer. In general, people do not suffer from ‘lapses of judgement’. Magistrates, for example, do not suffer a lapse of judgement and convict someone who is palpably innocent or let someone go who is palpably guilty. Or, if they do, they cease to be magistrates. Surgeons do not suddenly decide to amputate an alternative body part because of a ‘lapse of judgement’. When anything of this nature occurs, there is always an internal inquiry, and you can be quite certain that the excuse ‘I suffered a lapse of judgement’ is not considered adequate.
In Westminster spin-speak, a ‘lapse of judgement’ refers to doing something in your private life which is entirely inappropriate to your role as an elected representative. It is used in contrast with an ‘error of judgement’, which is something equally inappropriate done in your public life. Both are invariably kept secret until exposed by the media.
Which is worse â€” the ‘mistake’, or the secrecy?
To some extent, the secrecy is a natural consequence of our adversarial political system and the media’s attitude to politicians. There is never an up-side to admitting you have done something wrong before it is forced out of you. No matter how sympathetic your voters are, you can be certain that your political opponents and the media will between them attempt to crucify you for it. And yet media barons (think Conrad Black), journalists (think Clive Goodman), and, of course, political opponents (back to Angus McNeil and the genesis of this article) are far from squeaky clean.
We have become a culture which rewards judgmentalism but does nothing to develop sound judgement.
As a committed Christian, I would argue very quickly that one of the most important things which we are missing in our public life is the concept of grace. Grace is not a matter of letting people get away with things. It’s about a relationship where someone can stand up and say “I’m sorry I was wrong” of their own accord, and others will respond with “Thank you for your honesty. We forgive you.” Forgiveness, though, is not in our political vocabulary.
Of course, you can counter: “If we develop a forgiveness culture in politics, then we are effectively giving our politicians the right to behave badly and get away with it.”
This would be a fair call, if anybody believed that at least a proportion of politicians were not already getting away with it, at least for a while. And often they only get away with it for that while because opponents are holding the trump-card, to be played at the most damaging moment. Was it really in the nation’s interest for Jeffrey Archer to be exposed at the moment he was? Did we need to lose Blunkett at that particular point? Was it right to dispose of Prescott for the reason that we did? It’s not secret that I didn’t agree with any of them on policy and perspective. But I believe that the nation and the political process was damaged by the manner in which their private misdeeds were revealed, and by the timing of it.
I am not advocating the kind of blind eye which they turn in France. The French still struggle to understand why any of the private lives of our politicians should make a difference to their public lives. For myself, I believe that integrity is something which runs right through the person, or it is not integrity at all. I do believe that someone who cannot be trusted in their private life cannot be trusted in their public life.
Anybody with an ounce of integrity recognises that they do not always live up to their highest aspirations. Integrity and grace go hand in hand. It is integrity which leads us to recognise that we are flawed and need grace. It is grace which insists that we create for others a way to revive their integrity.