Yesterday Chris Huhne joined the growing list of shamed politicians who have been convicted of serious crimes in the Crown Court – in recent years, we’ve seen Lord Taylor of Warwick, Eric Illsely, Jim Devine, David Chaytor, Elliot Morely, Margaret Moran (though deemed not fit to plead, found guilty of the act) and Dennis McShane all have their good character expunged by the Courts and all bar Moran sent for a spell at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. Chris Huhne is almost certain to join them in the next few weeks.
Private Eye carried out some analysis that showed that a disproportionate number of MPs compared to the population at large (0.6:0.13) were in prison.
So why is this? Why are politicians ending up in Prison? And is this something that we should be concerned about?
I’ve been musing about this – not because I particularly expect our politicians to be morally without reproach, but because I do expect them not to get banged up for offences of dishonesty.
Clearly, the main reason for the sudden increase in the number of politicians falling foul of the law has been the Freedom of Information Act that allowed the Daily Telegraph to expose the fiddling of expenses – and that can only be a good thing. But, it doesn’t answer the question whether politicians are more likely to act in a dishonest way in the first place. And this is what concerns me – do politicians have a propensity to think that they are above the law.
In the case of Chris Huhne, it is clear that his character was such that he believed that he could act in a way that allowed him to break the law and get away with it. But is arrogance necessarily a bad thing in a politician? To some extent all politicians, by definition, have to be a bit arrogant, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to put themselves up before the public. What is more alarming about Huhne, isn’t so much the arrogance that led him to contemplate the act of perverting the course of justice, and then brazenly denying it, but the stupidity that led him to commit a crime that could so easily be exposed (apparently the evidence that he rather than his wife was the driver was overwhelming) and then choosing to fight it in the Courts, by way of an abuse of process argument knowing full well that he had committed the crime. And when arrogance is mixed with stupidity, that is when devastating mistakes are made. The politicians who made the ludicrous false claims are guilty of a similar combination of personal failings.
Westminster, I believe, is a dangerous place for people with ‘character flaws’ it is the type of place where a person, can, if they want, indulge their particular ‘flaws,’ – and perhaps, we have seen in the last couple of decades a breed of politicians who are coming into politics without the type of experience of life and the world that would make them more adept at knowing where the line is, and how not to cross it, or at least, how not to get found out once you have crossed it!
We have also seen an increase in the type of politicians for whom being a bit of celebrity is more important than striving to improve the lot of their fellow man. And when that boundary is blurred, when the politician as an individual becomes more important in his own mind than the people he is representing, then that, again, is where danger lies.
Of course the problem with that theory is that some of the MPs on that list do not conform to the stereotype of career politicians who enter Parliament without any experience of life, or celebrity politicians who want to go on reality TV shows. Chris Huhne, with a background in banking and academia most certainly had a life before Westminster and wasn’t someone who particularly courted the press for the sake of it.
The other flaw in that argument, is that it is almost certainly right that politicians have been up to all sorts since Socrates was a lad, but, alas, in today’s world of internet and e-mail and mobile telephones and mass scrutiny by the public as well as the media, then those who err will almost certainly be caught and the days when a politician could give a policeman a nod and a wink and flash his House of Commons security card before walking on, are pretty much gone as well.
Perhaps, the reality is that McShane and Huhne and Illsley and others have done us a favour – Judges talk a lot about sending out a message to other criminals, and when I hear them I am always sceptical, but for politicians, they are right – the overwhelming shame of being caught, tried and imprisoned is, for a politician, so massive that the prospect of it, may well deter them from committing a crime should they be tempted.
I don’t mind arrogant politicians, I don’t mind adulterous politicians, or politicians who get driving bans, I don’t even mind politicians who might get drunk and have a bit of a fight – but, I don’t want arrogant politicians, who are also stupid enough to think that they can get away with being dishonest just because of who they are. And I do want politicians who, ultimately, care more about me and the state of the country than they do themselves and their personal ambitions.
I predict that it may be while until we see another politician who is charged with a criminal offence, but whether we see an increase in politicians who are actually any good, is another matter.