BBC | How damaging is the Spelman saga?. The story in brief for those who haven’t been following it: with the Conservative party rocked by a series of scandals over expenses, beginning with Derek Conway and culminating (at least so far) in the resignation of the party leader in Europe, Caroline Spelman, the party chair who has been calling MPs to account, has herself come under the spotlight for (allegedly) paying her nanny out of constituency expenses.
On the surface of it, this sounds like the classic story of political hubris: public pressure forces a politician to champion a moral cause, only for them to be found out as a culprit. It’s the old story that dogged John Major’s ‘Back to Basics’ campaign, although Major himself wasn’t found out until years later, and, in any case, by ‘Back to Basics’, he really meant returning to Conservative economic basics, not basic moral values.
Far be it from me to defend the Conservatives, but on this occasion I need to come out and say that this story is not the simple one that it appears to be, and that Caroline Spelman deserves a fairer hearing, and a second chance.
We could talk about it being ten years ago, at a time when things were less clear cut, we could talk about the fact that it appears that the nanny genuinely did a bit of phone answering and message taking, and we could talk about the fact that Caroline Spelman was a new and inexperienced MP, who probably got some bad advice from someone. We could also point out that, if she hadn’t taken a stand to clean up the Tory party, nobody would even be talking about things that took place ten years ago.
I’m not convinced that any of those things stand up on their own, and I’m not convinced that, if they don’t stand up singly, that they have any value cumulatively.
However, there is one thing which puts this story in a completely different light from the Conway, Chichester and other scandals we have seen.
It is this: Caroline Spelman stopped what she was doing of her own accord. This is absolutely crucial, and none of the media commentators seem to have recognised its importance. Spelman was not threatened with blackmail to make her stop, she was not put under party discipline to make her stop, she did not receive angry letters from her constituents, or face tough questions from journalists, or a series of high profile media stories. She looked at what she was doing, decided that — whatever advice she had been given before, whatever anybody else was doing, and whatever the personal benefits of carrying on — it wasn’t right, and it wasn’t going to be part of her lifestyle as a politician.
Some would see this as an admission of guilt. In fact, it is an all too rare demonstration of moral purpose.
Whether Caroline Spelman knew what she was doing was wrong or not when she started doing it, she reached a point where she decided she should not be doing it, and stopped. Some people might say that this is all very well, and might let her off the hook technically, since it supports the claim that she was unaware she was breaching the rules, but still does not excuse her setting herself up to clean up the affairs of other Tory politicians. In fact, it is exactly the moral quality which someone needs who wishes to challenge others to follow her example: “if you become aware you are breaching the rules, stop”.
Have we learned nothing from 2000 years of the New Testament. Or, for those who bitterly oppose the moral teaching of Jesus Christ having any role in modern society, have we learned nothing from twelve years of Harry Potter? We cannot take the magic of Hogwarts into the real world, but Dumbledore and his second chances have a lot to teach us.
In an ideal world, all politicians would all be perfect all of the time. But in the real world, it’s not just that not all politicians will be perfect, but that all people will be imperfect. Again, that’s something we could have picked up from faith, or children’s literature, if we didn’t have the perspicacity to spot it ourselves. In the actual world we live in, it is far more important to have politicians with the integrity to change what they do when they realise they are doing it wrong, than to have politicians who have never yet been found out. It is exactly the quality of ‘carrying on until you are found out’ which is the essence of sleaze, although it is usually then followed by ‘denying it as much as possible’.
In this, Caroline Spelman has also shown that she is different from the sleaze brigade: she has voluntarily referred the matter to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.
It may seem rather surprising that I am defending a Tory here. But my fear is that Caroline Spelman will go the way of Estelle Morris — someone who didn’t feel she was good enough at her job to stay in politics (despite some quite substantial evidence to the contrary), and left, making way for those who really were not good enough. If Caroline Spelman stands down as Tory Party Chair, and subsequently as an MP, she will not be replaced by a Tory who is more honourable, merely by a someone who is better at appearing honourable.