Channel 4’s Despatches programme (23/2/15) made depressing viewing. I have long respected both Jack Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind. Mr Straw and I corresponded back in 1997 when I brought to his attention something I felt his then Department had done well. To watch both he and Sir Malcolm so energetically, so sleazily, pursuing the dangled opportunity to consult for a fictitious Chinese company was unedifying to say the least. I suspect, mere weeks away from the end of their long and distinguished Commons careers each had let his guard down and the lure of easy money worked more strongly on them than would have been the case in earlier stages. One must certainly hope so. To hear Mr Straw talk airily about his (presumably now fading) prospects of a peerage and the greater scope that would allow him to aid his prospective client, to watch Sir Malcolm describe his current role as an MP as ‘self employed’ and boast of his automatic access to ambassadors was offensive and embarrassing. Whatever happens next, their greatest punishment, if they have any vestige of honour remaining, is to have to face themselves every morning in the mirror and see looking back at them what sadly we now see: not respected elder statesmen but grubby, money hungry old chancers.
And as someone who has happily had to hustle for work for the past 20 years, I have to say, I really didn’t think they were very good at it. They not only let down their parliamentary colleagues, they give all us other old chancers a bad name. I’m thinking of using them as examples in future sessions on negotiating as a case study in how not to do it. Too hungry by far.
For the UK, this problem will remain as long as MPs can receive a salary for the public purse and pursue private remuneration. It really is quite simple.
The trial of Dominique Strauss-Khan raises a wider ethical question: What is the relationship between personal morality and professional integrity? By reputation the French have regarded these as separable and distinct. France seemed a place more sophisticated, populated by a people generally more grown up and relaxed about sex. But their response to reports about President Hollande’s personal life last year suggested a shift in this traditionally live and let live attitude which the trial of DSK seems to confirm. Is there a continuity between behaviour in our personal lives and the way we conduct ourselves in public life? And who has rights to what? What is the extent of a public figure’s right to a private life? What rights do the public have to know what those in power get up to when off duty?
The 1998 impeachment procedures against Bill Clinton were not about his extra marital affairs, much as they may have engaged the public imagination and dominated the headlines, but about whether he lied under oath: He faced charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. Maybe this is where the personal and the professional, the private and the public, coalesce. In a commitment to the truth or a willingness to tell lies. Surely that is likely to be the consistent across all aspects of one’s life: Can someone really be personally deceitful but professionally ethical? Many people would say no, yet we seem able to accept it can work the other way round. That someone can lie and cheat in their job but be a trustworthy family member and friend. So does integrity mean the same in both contexts? What does it tell us that Clinton maintained high approval rates as president throughout his troubles but opinion polls indicated that moral character and honesty were significant issues in the subsequent Bush/Gore election?
At the time of the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, I was in Ghana. Chatting the matter over with a group of senior government figures, one shook his head in wonder at all the fuss: ‘What is this all about?’ he mused. ‘Here, if we give a man power we expect him to act like a powerful man. You know how Clinton should handle these questions? He should say “What? Who? Show me a picture of this woman. Hmmm. Have I slept with her? Probably. Next question.” Could anyone get away with such a cavalier approach here and now?
In an interview with The Telegraph in October 2014, the Mayor of London Boris Johnson dismissed the idea that the public care about his love life. ‘On the whole,’ he said ‘I think that all that kind of thing is, or certainly should be, irrelevant to the job you are trying to do.” Maybe. But only if you’re popular and strong. When you are weakened, undermined and vulnerable, your failings suddenly become public property. So far, Boris Johnson has managed to maintain the persona of a brilliant maverick, much loved to whom the normal rules simply don’t apply. Will it last?
Does it make a difference if the individual concerned is elected rather than appointed? I think so. Increasingly we vote not for parties but for individuals, and even then not on the basis of what they propose to do but on who we think, or they say, they are. If a key plank of a politician’s bid for power is ‘Trust me’ then surely we have a right to access information which may cast doubt about how trustworthy that person is. And when who a person claims to be is a key element in their political campaigning and championed by their supporters, then is it unreasonable for their opponents to feel free to use apparent character flaws against them?
But throughout all this one can’t help but sense a whiff of cant and hypocrisy. A number of Republican members of Congress who voted for Clinton’s impeachment had their own extra marital affairs exposed at the time. Anyone in public life who decides to take the moral high ground sets themselves up as a target and needs to be pretty sure they either have no skeletons in the cupboard or, to mix metaphors, that any prospective dirty washing is securely hidden from view.
My own view, for what it’s worth is that there is a difference between private life and public role and, as the Straw/Rifkind case I think illustrates, these differences must be rigorously policed. In Ethiopia a few years ago I caught the end of some American funded ethics training for law enforcement. In the closing session each participant was encouraged to stand up and commit to an ethical change they would now make. Cheers and applause greeted a series of statements about giving up alcohol or renouncing adultery. I found this evangelical style offensive and the focus on personal behavior wrongheaded. It is also a convenient mechanism for avoiding the real issue.
Some years ago I took a group of anti-corruption activists to meet the then Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Sir Philip Mawer. To explain his role he said that if a Minister has a mistress it is none of the Commissioner’s concern. However if that Minister pays for her with public funds it very much is. This is the point. If a policemen is demanding bribes, that’s the issue I want addressed. If he becomes a good husband or a sober churchgoer yet still takes bribes he may sleep better at night but I don’t think society has been much advanced.