In the same casual manner

Huhne

Yesterday, this man was sentenced to eight months in prison for perverting the course of justice. He is Chris Huhne, one-time Liberal Democrat MEP, MP, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in the coalition government and something of a “star” of the party. (He ran Nick Clegg pretty close in the leadership battle in 2007, and, if you included postal ballots, which they didn’t, he would have won.) I think we’re all well aware of his crime: after being caught speeding in 2003, when he was a Member of the European Parliament, he convinced his then-wife, Vicky Pryce, also convicted yesterday, to “take” his points by claiming she was driving when the vehicle was photographed by a speed camera. (Ironically, he was banned from driving for three months in the same year for driving while using a mobile phone and she had to “drive him around”, the very inconvenience their deception was designed to prevent.)

Huhne, who pled “guilty” at the last minute, and Pryce, who pled “not guilty”, both received the same sentence. As we speak, they are being “processed” at Wandsworth Prison, which nobody says is going to be a lot of fun for either of them, but will then be moved to open prisons for something like six weeks, after which they will be released, but put on house arrest for the remainder of their sentence. He is no longer an MP, but, after legal costs, he will still own seven properties, and certainly went into prison with a fortune of around £3.5 million, much of that earned when he worked in the City, before entering politics. (When he was the Lib Dems’ environment spokesman, he was criticised for having shares in “unethical” companies.)

For better or for worse, I have a kneejerk reaction against the following types of people:

  • MPs and other elected representatives of either gender who lie
  • Men who abuse power (and it is so often men)
  • Men who leave their spouses and their families for a younger woman (essentially because it’s such a cliché, especially if the affair is conducted “at the office” – what is this, a 1970s sitcom?)
  • Male politicians who give the impression of being a “family man” in order to get elected – as Huhne did in Eastleigh with the family snapshots in election material (“Family matters to me so much – where would we be without them?”) and his public displays of unity at the ballot box with Pryce – when they are in fact conducting an affair in secret and plan on leaving their wife and children when they get in

Here’s where I stand:

I do not think putting Huhne, or Pryce, in prison, even for a couple of months, is a good use of taxpayer money. I stated this on Twitter and, as usual, enraged some who felt I was letting him off the hook. I mentioned “his sort” (which is kind of all of the above), which was misconstrued as “posh/rich/establishment” and taken to mean that this “sort” are “too good for prison”. Far from it. If I really thought that the £800 per week we’ll be paying to keep Huhne in an open prison would change him, I’d consider it. But to my mind – and this is a pure hypothetical as the sentence has been passed – community service would be a far better option. It would cost us less. It would – shall we say – inconvenience Huhne more. And it would put something back into the society he clearly felt he was above.

I state these facts only because, as usual, I felt I was struggling to make my views heard in the ridiculous medium of Twitter. I do not believe that the purpose of community service is “humiliation”. Although I do believe that picking up litter or washing police cars would be humiliating for an arrogant prick like Huhne. (I have never met him, but I know a lot more about him after the court case than I ever expected to know, and I don’t much like the sound of him. Do you?)

Vicky Pryce and Chris Huhne in 2010

Had I been on the jury, I feel in my bones that I would have been less harsh on Pryce. She is, on paper and in a court of law, as guilty as him for the misappropriation of those speeding points, but it certainly sounded like she was “maritally coerced,” which was her defence. A couple of weeks fewer in prison, at least? She is anything but “the little wife”, and she certainly put all of this into motion by going to the press after she was dumped by Huhne, but she seemed at the time to me to be the injured party. It’s hard to know for sure, but that’s the impression I took away from what remains a sordid affair.

Chris Huhne is now hated by his ex-wife, and, presumably, by the three kids he had with her during their 26 years of marriage. That’s their private business. I only care about him because he is an elected official who asked the electorate to trust him and to represent them. Call me a dreamer and an idealist, but I expect Members of Parliament to be honest and to set a good example. I do not give a toss whether or not they are happily married, or have families, those trappings of apparent trustworthiness are not as important to me as they are to many other voters; I merely expect them to do their best, to be upfront with those who elected them, to put their constituencies first, and not to behave as if it’s one rule for them and another rule for the rest of us.

Much of my reaction to this story, which can go away now, is rooted in my own prejudice – and no doubt coloured by the disgust I feel for the Liberal Democrat party since they enabled the worst Tory government in history to take power, while abandoning all their promises – but I am being honest about that, and anyway, nobody elected me. Most people who drive have broken the speed limit. Many have points on their licence. Equally, for most people, a fine and a driving ban would be deterrent enough not to sail too close to the wind too often. When the offender is Chris Huhne, a man with a personal fortune and a property portfolio (two words that really shouldn’t go so casually together), a fine and a ban aren’t going to be enough. He needs to be made an example of, I agree, but sticking him in an open prison isn’t going to do the trick.

And we don’t put people in the stocks any more.

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20 thoughts on “In the same casual manner

  1. Good piece. I made similar points about the prison sentence on Facebook yesterday and a veritable deluge of calumny poured down on my head (and sanctimony, from a lot of people who cared much more about the majesty of the law than I would ever have imagined) . A couple of hundred hours of Community Service in a high-vis jacket would IMO have been more appropriate and, I sense, more of a punishment to Mr Huhne than choky, which I believe should be reserved for those who are a danger to society.

  2. Excellent post. It says it all. Call me naive too but I expect Members of Parliament to be honest and set a good example, surely that’s the least we should expect – not the most!

  3. I don’t know if it’s still the case but police officers charged with crimes used to be treated more harshly than ordinary punter because of the breach of trust involved. I think the same applies to MPs. The relatively trivial nature of the original offence has tended to be conflated with the far more serious one (particularly for a law maker) of perverting the course of justice. The (presumed) ignominy of being jailed would seem to be quite appropriate for Huhne. Although perhaps it’s a mark of cool among the elite these days what with the Conrad Blacks and Jeffrey Archers et al.

  4. Well said. It’s very useful to have people like you around who think the same as I do and take the time to put it down so I can read it and agree rather than having to formulate it all out in my head first. That sounds weird and lazy but it’s supposed to be a compliment!

    • And it’s taken as such. (Sometimes I have to take the time to put it down so that I can read it and agree with it. Seriously. It really helps me.)

  5. Amazed that someone so clearly wedded to his car that he felt the need to both speed and make phone calls whilst in it was ever “Environment Spokesman”. Rather like Simon Burns (Rail minister) with his ministerial car. Wouldn’t it be nice to have politicians in positions that they actually believe in rather than a merry-go-round of portfolios that bear no resemblance to their beliefs or skills… love or hate Boris Johnson (mainly hate) at least he’s come through for London Cyclists with his plans for the cycle network and you get the impression that he actually believes in it and would use it.

  6. I only sometimes pay attention to politics and scandals in the UK (which is understandable because I’m in Australia), but this was something that I caught that sort of hit home because I originally grew up in an American state that is often teased for having a “governor’s wing in the penitentiary” (Illinois). I very much agree with the statement about forcing them to do community service as opposed to being put in prison or under house arrest; I don’t understand the point of allowing them to continue to burden the tax system. They should be forced to give something back when they’ve clearly done nothing but take from it, and I’m all for that.

  7. This is the most vitriolic thing I’ve ever read by you, so I think it’s fair to say that you’re right about your prejudice seeping through.

    The problem with your views on what a member of parliament should be is that it has created the type of politician with have now. That is to say: media-trained robots too scared to deviate from the party line. Ordinary people get divorced, sometimes in extreme circumstances, yet portray themselves as family men in order to succeed at work. Huhne stating he was a family man is not necessarily untruthful, because the text messages between him and his son showed impeccable parenting in the worst circumstances – he obviously cares deeply about his children.

    I also think your comments on the Lib Dems and Tories are totally unhelpful and dehumanising, which seems to be quite common on the left nowadays. As someone whose heart beats on the left it pains me to say it, but by refusing to acknowledge the validity of the right-wing narrative and attacking people who advocate it on a personal level, we are creating a culture that breeds resentment.

    You state that this is the worst Tory government ever elected, but give no concrete reasons why. I certainly think Thatcher did far more damage during the eighties than this government is doing now. I would suspect, though I’m not entirely sure, that this comes down to a tribal hatred of the Conservative party, rather than conservative politics (as socialism is, in many ways, considerably socially conservative).

    The manner in which this government rolled back the infringements on civil liberties left by Labour is to be praised, even if they are falling into the authoritarian trap now with secret courts. All analysis of the tuition fees policy by economists shows it to be fairer than the system left by Labour and, crucially, shows that people will pay back less on average under the new system than the system I am enrolled in.

    Labour politicians often cite the United States as an example of an economy that didn’t follow the austerity route and recovered from recession, but comparing the UK to the US is kind of ludicrous. The US has a long-term debt problem, but no short-term debt problem, because nobody doubts its ability to repay. The UK, on the other hand, has a short-term debt problem that requires some austerity (as the previous government was running deficits in boom years, spending like a social democracy whilst taxing like a liberal republic).

    I’m not trying to say that I agree with everything the government is doing, but it is clearly not extreme enough to demonise its members personally in the way that you do.

    • I was pretty honest about my prejudice. I am prejudiced against people on the right. The older I get, the more left-wing I get, which is not how it’s supposed to be, is it? Help! I didn’t mean for my comments about the Lib Dems and the Tories to be “helpful”, however. My politics were forged in the 1980s and that makes me a certain type of idealist, I think. I make no apologies for it.

      Here is a “concrete reason” for why this is the worst Tory government ever elected – although if you agree with anything the government is doing, then you will disagree with any of my reasons, so they’re not really “concrete.” From where I’m sitting, they will not be satisfied until the NHS has been totally dismantled. This began under Thatcher, but was not stopped under New Labour, so Blair and Brown are as much to blame for paving the way to the privatisation of our healthcare, which is well under way. I haven’t seen a definition of socialism that puts me off it, so if you want to call me a socialist, that’s fine. but I genuinely believe that society is better off with a strong state, public healthcare and public utilities. In this, I am not very Labour. (I haven’t voted Labour since 1997, for the record.) I don’t compare the UK to the US.

      In my own personal view, the government is doing plenty to deserve my “demonisation” of its members. What else am I going to do? Canonise them? A political party is made up of its members. I find the Lib Dems to be especially disappointing, as they have not only enabled the Tories to take power, but they have done almost nothing to curb their worst excesses. They have reneged on just about every useful promise in their manifesto. They now sit and nod through anything the Tories wish to push through while they cling to power. I don’t think the damage being wrought on the NHS can ever be undone, even if the Tories were ousted tomorrow. The Tories have no compassion, that’s my problem with them. You can sense the deep hated people like Cameron, and Osbourne, and Duncan-Smith have for the poor and the disabled and the disadvantaged. They believe in Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” as if it were a religious creed: that the market will sort everything out, and that those who sink to the bottom deserve it. This notion appalls me.

      I’m pretty fucking furious about the way things have gone since 2010. It informs everything I think about politics. Again, I make no apologies. But don’t make the mistake of thinking me “tribal.” That would suggest I feel I belong to a tribe. I wish I did. I sometimes feel utterly isolated. You’re the one in the tribe, I fear. I rather envy you that.

      • I think the issue is with a political culture to treats those with different views as inherently bad people. Trust me, the fact that I try to understand that that isn’t necessarily the case can make me feel pretty isolated too.

        The point about the Lib Dems isn’t really borne about be the facts; about 80% of their manifesto made it into the coalition agreement and is being implemented now. The problem, I think, was with the way the party branded itself before the election: they have always been a market oriented, economically and socially liberal party of the centre left.

        On the NHS point, and I genuinely do want to know the answer to this, because I feel I might not have thought about it enough, as long as healthcare in this country remains free at the point of access, does it really matter if some of the services are run by private companies? I haven’t really made up my mind myself, so it would be nice to understand why people seem repulsed by the idea of competition in the health service.

        As far as I can see, although I am young and, thus, not indoctrinated into our national religion in the same way as some, the NHS is a really inefficient and ineffectual form of public health care. It creates an unnatural monopoly that in turn leads to complacency, waste of funds and few incentives to improve service. The systems widely used on the continent of national health insurance schemes seem far more effective, but I would like to know why I’m wrong.

        I have to take issue with the idea that members of the cabinet despise the disadvantaged and disabled, I really do. Maybe I’m and idealist myself, but I refuse to believe that people I disagree with are malicious, evil figures. IDS has been fighting the Treasury to protect the welfare budget and, I think, you can see that he genuinely cares passionately about taking people out of the welfare trap. Whether you think he’s doing it the right way or not is a different question, but I think it shows a shocking lack of empathy to accuse him of despising the poor.

        Adam Smith’s invisible hand isn’t really about what you describe. In fact Smith wrote a lot about our duties to each other and morality. Maybe the Conservatives do believe that those who sink to the bottom deserve it, but the Lib Dems certainly don’t and, again, I don’t agree that it makes them disgusting or despicable people.

        Working in a care home whilst I was at college, I was struck by how right-wing the working poor tend to be: there is a real resentment for those on benefits that stems from a belief that it is too easy to stay on them for life and avoid work. I think it’s honestly fascinating how those closest to our society’s safety net are those most angry about its existence.

        To get things straight as well, I am a social and, to a lesser extent, economic liberal who tends to vote Lib Dem, but never as a protest vote. Both the Labour and Conservative parties have authoritarian tendencies that make me
        unable to vote for them.

        I guess my point is, democracy works when there is a plurality of views and we respect each other. As soon as we begin attacking people on a personal level for their political beliefs, the system begins to fall apart.

        As much as I will defend my views, I don’t want to live in a one party state and I praise the fact that I have to argue for them.

        • Blimey.

          On the NHS point, and I genuinely do want to know the answer to this, because I feel I might not have thought about it enough, as long as healthcare in this country remains free at the point of access, does it really matter if some of the services are run by private companies?

          It matters fundamentally, because a private company is beholden only to shareholders and the bottom line. If you run a railway as a private company, your only goal is to make more profit. That is not a jaundiced left-wing view of private companies, it is a fact. If you run health as a private company your goal is never going to be to make people well, it is going to be to make profit. The two simply do not go together. Public healthcare is still beholden to budgets, and cuts, and it must balance its books, as it is under scrutiny from taxpayers, who fund it, but I’d rather that than private health. (I do not deny those with the money the option to pay for their own healthcare, but it should be free for anyone who wants it.) Look at the US healthcare system. If you’re happy with this country going the same way, we must part company.

          You say you are “young and, thus, not indoctrinated into our national religion in the same way as some”, and that’s why the NHS is doomed. If you think state-run healthcare is a “monopoly” you are effectively a Tory. That’s like saying the British Army is a monopoly. The NHS isn’t perfect, by any means, and, like the BBC (which I also think is sacred and should be protected from market forces), it is victim of too much bureaucracy. You’re not “wrong” to think health insurance is a great way to run healthcare, you just differ from what I think about it. Universal healthcare is what I believe in.

          You accuse me of a “shocking lack of empathy” because I surmise that IDS and others hate the poor and disadvantaged. I’m sorry you feel that way, but I’d like to see some evidence of compassion. We learn from the Rowntree Foundation that by 2015 half of all children in the UK – half – will be below the poverty line. That cannot be allowed to happen. It’s happening because the “one million private sector jobs” the government keeps harping on about in its own defence are not full-time jobs, they’re not jobs you can live off, and they’re not jobs that are secure. Private companies would much rather employ on a casual basis, so they can replace part-time personnel at their whim and not have to pay out for staff benefits. This is how to run a business if it’s run for profit. A bleeding heart about society, or about continuity and security for individuals, cannot come into it. It’s the same with the Tories.

          The Lib Dems enabled the Tories to seize power. I do not think those who voted for them in the election are despicable, and I’m sure there are some Lib Dems with principles and fight in them, but as a party, they are doing a dismal job, as reflected in their projected election results, and in the rise of UKIP.

          I wouldn’t argue that some of the “working poor” hold right-wing views. I’ve long since stopped kidding myself that the noble workers will rise up against their totalitarian oppressors. But the answer to a lot of society’s ills is a living wage. The only way we are going to get a living wage for ordinary people is to impose regulations on business, and no major party seems brave enough to do that. The idea of regulation went out with Thatcher, and look where it got the financial services industry. They pissed our money away for us, and we’re all suffering as a result.

          You state that “democracy works when there is a plurality of views and we respect each other.” I believe in democracy. And I would respect a Tory who was honest about his or her views, but they all hide behind rhetoric and jargon and say what they think will offend the fewest people. Give me an honest politician any day.

          I’m afraid I will never be able to meet in the middle with someone who believes that private healthcare is the way forward. It’s a deal-breaker.

          • I certainly don’t see private health care as the way forward and obviously the American system doesn’t work.

            What I’m interested in is making sure everyone has access to a good standard of public health care for free and the failings of the NHS as it is prove that the status quo isn’t working.

            What you miss in your treatise in private companies is that they are also beholden to their customers, in a way that the NHS isn’t.

            Germany has a system of healthcare where the government pays for everybody’s health insurance, but the citizens can choose between providers.
            Fundamentally that could solve some problems with the NHS, but it would undoubtedly create others, which I appreciate.

            What is becoming more and more clear though, is that the status quo + more money isn’t a solution.

            The BBC is actually, kind of, a good model for what I’m talking about: we all pay into the BBC through the license fee, but they have to compete with other networks. Competition in the media has improved the overall standard, whilst protecting the public broadcasting service that the BBC is.

            • We’ll drop this now, as I still hate the Tories and still wish there was a party that could adequately undo the damage they’ve done.

              However, you say the NHS isn’t “beholden” to its customers. That’s because we are not its customers. It does not have customers, as people would rather not use it, as they would rather not be ill.

              Also, many of the aspects of the BBC that are wrong are to do with the fact that it must “compete” in a commercial market. The market is the enemy to me. The NHS doesn’t work because, since the 80s, it’s been stripped of funding. Hospitals close. New hospitals get built with private money. It’s broken because successive governments have broken it. We need to fix it. And to fix it, we need to properly fund it, from the public purse. Because it’s not a business, and it doesn’t have customers, it is a service, and it serves us. Or is supposed to.

              I am apparently a “customer” of the local rail company that runs the line I use to get to work. But I can’t use another rail network, so I have no choice. It just shows the gulf between what’s actually happening, and what’s being promoted. I do not fall for it.

              People in the UK have the choice to pay for private healthcare and consultations. But it’s only a choice if they can afford it. So it’s not really a choice. Never trust politicians. They live to keep their jobs or feather their nests for when they lose their job, and their benefits. Politics might attract some for noble reasons, but it quickly corrupts them and strips them of their independence. Sorry if that “dehumanises” them, which was your original argument against what I wrote. They should act more “human.”

          • Oh and, on the living wage point, I think this is something that will gain political traction in the same way the minimum wage did, and I fundamentally support that.

  8. I was one of the people who engaged with you on Twitter, Andrew (@Unpopcult). For what it’s worth I wasn’t “enraged” by what you said – can’t speak for anyone else, of course – and from my perspective I thought we had a courteous and enjoyable exchange of views, ultimately agreeing to disagree.

    I agree with the general proposition that too many people are in prison. (I work within the criminal justice system, and have done for much of my professional life; for good reason I’d prefer not to be more specific.) And I share, broadly, your political views and knee-jerk prejudices!

    In this case, I do, however, think that a prison sentence was both defensible and justified. Huhne stood to lose his licence and get a fine, and engaged in deception to avoid legal penalties. If the sentence to be faced on detection were simply a ban and fine, that would – in my view – encourage him and others in a similar situation to think that it was worth the risk. And the sentencing judge made it clear that one of his reasons for selecting the sentence he did was to deter others. This seems to me to be a reasonable use of the court’s powers.

    I don’t think that he should have been punished more or less harshly because he was an MP at the time. I do, however, respectfully disagree that prison is less of an inconvenience for him. Having spent some time in prisons – again, professional capacity – there is pretty much nothing I wouldn’t do to avoid being locked up in one. Community service would have suited Huhne down to the ground – he could have used it as a very visible means of showing his penitence, working to put something back into the community, etc. etc. And if there happened to be some photographers around to record just how penitent he was, then even better. I think he would have loved that opportunity. Absolutely loved it.

    • As you weren’t “enraged” I was not including you among those who were enraged! We still agree to disagree, which is a palatable outcome.

      A driving ban still strikes me as the clearest deterrent there is for drivers not to speed or text or drive stupidly. Prison should be a deterrent for murderers and rapists, and if it isn’t, then we have to look again at the society we live in.

  9. Wow! That post got some passionate responses! I was away and using someone elses’s computer when I read it but I thought it was an excellent post-heartfelt, articulate and honest as you always are-(I suppose I can also be accused of prejudice-but then we are all prejudiced towards the values we believe in)-arrived home today and opened it again to forward it to lots of people-which I will still do. Keep on doing what you do, Andrew!

  10. One thing I agree with lazingabout about is that the problem with the Lib Dems at the last election (and – whatever they were calling themselves – for decades before that actually) was branding. Any political party – or tribe – is going to attract a wide spectrum of supporters. As the traditional “protest” party, the Lib Dems had probably the widest spread of support of any party – nutters from the hard left to the hard right. But fundamentally the party is comfortably to the right on the economy. For me “left” and “right” is ultimately about nothing more than wealth. That makes the Lib Dems clearly centre-right to my mind, but the distinctions are hard to draw.

    I’m a tribalist (although I’ve never belonged to a political party):I hate the Lib Dems; I’ve always hated the Lib Dems. I’ve always seen them as basically Tories. And they have lived up to my expectations, so I can hardly say I’m disappointed by them. It’s not simply a case of nodding through legislation they disagree with – they genuinely believe in much of what this government has done. I don’t think we should let Clegg off the hook by suggesting he’s some kind of ineffectual dupe who inadvertently opened a door and doesn’t know how to close it. He told voters before the election he was prepared to form a government with the Tories. Was nobody listening? Were those carried away by the Clegg “surge” so disillusioned with politicians that they didn’t believe what even he was saying? Did they really not think it mattered? Didn’t people know what the Tories were going to do?

    Not for the first time I find myself saying we get the governments we deserve. And we get the MPs we deserve. Most of us – myself included – let pricks like Huhne work their way through the political system unchallenged and unchecked. We don’t know who our MP is, we just know which party they represent and we let them get on with it. People greedy for power and unsuitable to wield it can exploit a system like that. If we don’t engage with that system then it won’t change. It’s not in the interests of people like Huhne that we engage more, It’s usually not in the interests of political parties either – unless they’re seeking to exploit our disillusionment. It would serve no one’s interest but our own.

  11. small point: wonder how many Lib Dem voters were in areas where Labour had zero chance of success. Don’t know where I stand on proportional rep but can’t help thinking they could alter the constituencies round here, to even it up a bit – stretch them around railway routes or major roads maybe.

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