Saturday, 29 May 2010

David Laws

There is a man who is gay and he rents some rooms from another man who is his landlord and to whom he, naturally, pays rent. He then forms a relationship with this man who is also gay and who is still his landlord.

And all this is fine and above board as far as parliament goes. Then in 2006 the rules change and he now has a choice in declaring his position: he either has to stop paying his landlord, who is now his partner, any rent, or he has to leave his partner. Not an easy choice. He hasn't let anyone know he is gay: now he has to declare it. His relationship to his partner is broken either way.

Then the Telegraph runs the news, and its three glorious hacks can take considerable pride in exposing another freeloading MP. Our fearless reporters expose corruption! Though the rule only came in 2006, their trembling, morally indignant finger points to the fact that David Laws has been paying rent to the man who is his landlord, who had after a little while become his partner, for eight years!


The Daily Telegraph's Expenses Files show that between 2004 and 2007, Mr Laws claimed between £700 and £950 a month to sublet a room in a flat in Kennington, south London.

So two of those years were perfectly legal, and one of those years postdated the rules.

Something is rather wrong here. Anyone who imagines that newspapers are there to keep our moral streets clean is, of course, deluded. They are there for one purpose only: to sell newspapers. The good they do - and it is a vital good - is incidental and morally neutral from the paper's point of view. The papers will write and thunder morality, and while some of the columnists and many of the reporters do an honest job - operating morally within a morally neutral territory - the more the paper thunders the more hollow it sounds.

There always has been yellow journalism, but there were various shades of yellow. Now it's much the same yellow anywhere. The three fearless reporters want only a good story and the sense of achievement in affecting change. Any change. Because only change is news. The Telegraph is now fully and finally yellow.

I loathed the MP corruption scandal from the start - not for those who indulged in serious corruption, but for those who might possibly have erred in one or other small way, sometimes without even knowing it. For them it has been tragedy - I can think of one or two in particular for whom this was the case - for the papers it's cash PLUS moral high-ground. Except the high-ground is built on a pile of manure.

I really don't want the press to come moral with me too often.


Anonymous said...

It is the disease of the press making the news not merely reporting it.

Sadly it has now reached epidemic proportions and we are none the better for it.

George S said...

It's the curse of short-termism. And nothing is shorter term than yesterday's newspaper.

Unless you are its victim. Though... a brief new post.

Anne said...

Of course newspapers are upholders of moral virtue. Reading them makes people good. They offer us safe moral high ground; no one need look at what the high ground is built upon, or who owns it. They enable people to make quick judgements, unfettered by such morally ambiguous shackles as complexity, details or mitigating factors.

And journalists, Lord love them, are honest workers. They are always loyal to principles and spouse. They never practise economy with the actualité, never fiddle their expenses.

Eh, but there's something deeply objectionable about their assumption that the office of Chief Secretary to the Treasury is something Laws was doing for himself rather than something he was attempting to do for the nation.

Stephen F said...

But Anna, when journalists fiddle their expenses they're just taking money off Rupert Murdoch; it's a victimless crime.

When Laws does it he's using the income taxes of those public sector workers on minimum wage whose jobs he's about to close down in the name of financial probity.

It's not the same thing, is it?

George S said...

Well Kelvin McKenzie is entirely with you, Steve.

But read through the background. I am not convinced Laws has set out to 'fiddle' anyone. I suspect that is a tabloid simplification. I think his problem was trying to hide his homosexuality, while at the same time trying to keep up his relationship with the man who started out as his landlord and ended up as either his lover or partner.

If the landlord was an occasional lover Laws was not liable to pay anything. If he was a partner in the full sense of the term then he was. On the other hand, if he was his partner, Laws either stops paying him rent or he leaves the man and breaks up the relationship. That is not an easy choice. It is not a simple matter of 'fiddling'. It is a matter of priorities, of personal v. public, and I agree he made the wrong choice. But bearing in mind he has only been in office about two weeks there hasn't been much time for adjustment.

As regards who you are fiddling - it really doesn't matter - if it is fiddling. The fiddling is in the fiddler, not the fiddled. If you want to change the scale of values so a burglar in your house receives a lesser punishment than someone burgling some poor tenant on the thirteenth floor of a crumbling tenement block, fair enough. There could be a case for that, and I'd listen to it, but I don't think that is what you are claiming.

But, putting all that aside, Laws's value to the country seems to have not counted for anything. If you are drowning you want the best swimmer to rescue you. If you are happy to have a second grade swimmer do it that's up to you. The general opinion seems to be that he was a very good man for the job. Now someone less good has it.

On the dubious and very slim grounds that he was simply a fiddler seems a recipe for suicide to me.

People seem far keener on booing or cheering rather than thinking - and sooner or later the pleasure of booing and cheering runs out.

Stephen F said...

You've got to be clean to be in public service, if you're not you're asking for trouble, that's all.

The public don't imagine that they elect MPs so that they can spend their time wondering whether or not it's within the rules to claim the rent they pay to their boyfriend out of the public purse, especially when they're already a millionaire. It's a massive high risk claim for a peanuts return, a no brainer, and it cast doubt on Laws' judgement over other matters he's charged with sorting out.

I don't buy it that he's the best swimmer either, couldn't any senior accountant from Coopers and Lybrand carry out the job he was about to do?

The Plump said...

There is another dimension to this George. If this exact scenario had happened to anyone on benefit, someone who had been claiming housing benefit and continued claiming it after the landlord became a partner, they would have been prosecuted for fraud and could have ended up with a prison sentence. In both cases, there is no need to declare anything, just to stop claiming.

I would be very, very sympathetic to the benefit claimant, but to a multi-millionaire?

George S said...

That may be, Steve - and Plump - but sometimes no brainers are the most difficult problems of all. Try delivering no brainer lectures to those caught up in a relationship. And you may be right that it casts doubt on his judgment. I just wonder how clean in every respect were some of our major historical figures; how their judgment in one sphere leaked into their judgment in others?

I don't buy it that he's the best swimmer either, couldn't any senior accountant from Coopers and Lybrand carry out the job he was about to do?

Forgive me, but the point is that Laws was a Lib Dem politician who had taken a very big pay cut so as to serve the government, not a mad axeman. Do you have any personal suggestions? Do you reckon the nearest bookie would do the trick?

As I understand the situation vast cuts are on the way because of the vast debt. If I might change the metaphor, I would sooner a highly skilled surgeon with some notion of dedication, however rich, did it rather than the nearest butcher.

The Tories have no party reason for protecting him. He is not of their party.

So my opinion is still that to refer to him simply as a fiddler is crude, and that if you really think anybody could do the job, that's fine. It's settled now. It's exactly what many people want

We shall see how he does. How we do.

George S said...

Plump - I suppose if he stops claiming then the question arises why has stopped claiming? In other words the secret is out.

Maybe it shouldn't have been a secret. It would have been much better if it hadn't been. But I am inclined to err on the generous side in such cases. As I would with benefit claimants, of course.

Few people seem to have considered him a natural 'fiddler'. He seems to have been highly respected by people. He has not pleaded his case, he simply resigned.

I just wonder whether we are better off without him in the hands of George Osborne partnered by a weaker secondary figure?

Stephen F said...

I guess that Tories have to defend Lib Dems as they would their own now they're coalition, don't they?

I'm not suggesting he wasn't skilled, I'm just saying it's his own fault that he is where he is, not the Daily Telegraph's. Go back to Profumo and keep moving forward through Jeremy Thorpe, Cecil Parkinson, David Mellor, Blunkett and his mistress, the chap with the oranges and the stockings, Mark Oaten et al - this country loves seeing politicians fall on account of what goes on behind closed doors, or on Clapham Common. It's a national sport and that's just a fact. He'd have been in trouble for keeping his sexual identity secret (it's not very liberal, is it?) even without involving 'technical' misuse of public money.

My best interpretation for him is that he's very arrogant (if that's better than the very bright/but very stupid combination). How did he think he was going to get away with it, really? And what does this repeated assertion mean about him being an intensely private person? How can you be intensely private when you're on television every night?

George S said...

I don't imagine he chose to be on TV every night. I had never heard of him before this.

It's very school-boyish all this 'aren't they naughty, let's scrag them' Britishness. It makes me feel quite foreign, really.

Ah well, I suppose I will adjust eventually.

Mark Granier said...

'It's very school-boyish all this 'aren't they naughty, let's scrag them' Britishness. It makes me feel quite foreign, really.'

Me too, especially since they're just as bad (if not worse) over here.

The Plump said...

If he stopped claiming it wouldn't have been public. He didn't need the money, and neither did his partner. So there are more interesting questions here.

The first is the relationship of money to power. He had made millions from investment banking(!) before he entered politics, and so he could embark on a political career cushioned by the wealth a poet could only dream of. And then he joins the Liberals of all parties, condemning himself to permanent opposition, only to find himself unexpectedly in government - and then the fall. This is a Victorian melodrama.

The other is the nature of his politics. His ability is unquestioned, but his economic ideological base is a very hard line Thatcherism. He would have been comfortable on the right of the Tory Party and would have been rigorous in pursuing cuts; in the view of many economists as well as most of his own party, precipitate and damaging cuts. He wasn't a moderating force, he was a zealot.

Now we have the most unconvincing Chancellor I can remember supported by a Chief Secretary with a background in PR. The Civil Service are back in control and we will be the victims of Treasury orthodoxy once again. It will take its course, but this crisis is far from over.

Stephen F said...

The basic psychosexual /political programming of the British mind:

Victorian Morality > Suppressed Sexuality > Edwardian Seaside Saucy Postcard > 30s Morality > Suppressed Sexuality > Wartime Austerity > Suppressed Sexuality > 1950s Seaside Saucy Postcard > Suppressed Sexuality > Swinging Sixties > Tabloid Outrage > Mrs Thatcher's Victorian Values > Suppressed Sexuality > Seaside Saucy Postcard > Tabloid Outrage > Swinging New Labour > Seaside Saucy Postcard > Broadsheet Outrage > ConDem Coalition > Seaside Saucy Postcard > Tabloid/Broadsheet Outrage.

George S said...

I think that's about right, Steve, but are you sure you've got enough saucy seaside postcards there?

Plump -

'The other is the nature of his politics. His ability is unquestioned, but his economic ideological base is a very hard line Thatcherism. He would have been comfortable on the right of the Tory Party and would have been rigorous in pursuing cuts; in the view of many economists as well as most of his own party, precipitate and damaging cuts. He wasn't a moderating force, he was a zealot..'

Do you know that for certain? Strange thing to do, joining the Lib Dems then - stranger still for them to accept him and put him forward for the post.

But it doesn't matter now. We will never know. What we will know is what we get once we get it.

The Plump said...

The Liberal Democrats are split between the Social Democrat wing (the Beveridge Group) and the Orange Book liberals. Laws was one of the editors of the Orange Book, arguing for a radical extension of the free market and abandoning the social market position that was the previous mainstream Lib Dem position. The removal of Kennedy was also an ideological coup. The current leadership are all Orange Bookers. There is a critical article in Tribune here:

For me to call him a Thatcherite was unfair. He is a classic liberal/libertarian and, as such, is as much a social liberal as an economic liberal. So he would have been comfortable with Thatcherite economic policy, perhaps even more radical than her, - but not with elements of Tory social policy. He would have had a lot in common with the liberal wing of the Tory Party, Alan Duncan, William Hague etc., despite their later pandering to the atavistic prejudices of the right.

So, by joining the Liberals, he was showing that he was serious politically, but not aspiring to power. Cameron's opportunism and own social liberalism made the coalition possible, which it would not have been under Kennedy or Ashdown.

And if he had stopped claiming he could have simply said he didn't need the money - made it a point of principle. Believe it or not, the press have shown restraint in not publicising personal issues. But when there is a sniff of hypocrisy, they become squalid and prurient. I approve of the former and thoroughly dislike the latter.

George S said...

Thanks, Plump. That is a thoroughly convincing answer.I'll check the Tribune piece when I get a moment. I'm trying to complete the bibliography of an article I wish I hadn't started writing, but which is now accepted. I mean I am glad I wrote it - for the ideas -but am less keen on the miles and miles of legwork needed to put all the stitches in place.

George S said...

Except for one phrase, Plump, now that I have read the Tribune article, which has a touch of lost election blues about it. I mean I get it but it seems to me to place the Orange Book liberals so close to the Tories as to be practically indistinguishable. That's not how it sounded at election time.

This phrase is: ...he was serious politically, but not aspiring to power.

How should I read that? Do you mean he wanted to be an eminence gris to a party that would never have power? Odd ambition.

How do you read it?

The Plump said...

I read it as one of the twists in a very odd plot.

If he wanted power he would have joined an organisation that was likely to win it. New Labour was stuffed with opportunists like that, people whose beliefs were opaque to say the least. But he joined a party that had no chance of power. Presumably that was out of political conviction, joining an organisation that was a vehicle for the expression of his beliefs, rather than solely for his ambitions.

Now, that does not mean he was merely possessed with a lofty intellectualism, he also had a willingness for dirty political struggle within that organisation on behalf of his particular faction and was just as ambitious as anyone choosing the mainstream.

The struggle was between two traditions associated with two leading Liberals - Gladstone and Keynes. He is a Gladstonian and won.

Then, power was presented to him, unexpectedly, and his past tripped him up just at the moment of triumph. Forget Victorian melodrama, this is pure ancient Greek drama.

And yes the Tribune article is partial and poor. Though what it has done early is to realise that the Tories pulled off the trick Blair missed. Blair, mainly due to the size of his majority, built an electoral coalition of voters rather than a party coalition. If, as many Tories feared, they had carried out their 1997 manifesto promise to hold an election on electoral reform they could have harnessed the anti-Tory majority and excluded them from power for the foreseeable future.

Instead, by chance and opportunism, the Tories have harnessed the anti-Labour majority through building a coalition that will last and, provided that the economy does not go badly wrong, will stay in power and exclude Labour. This could not have been done without a Cameron (who should not be underestimated) leadership of the Tories and an Orange Book ascendancy in the Lib Dems. Slowly, Labour people are coming to terms with the plight they are actually in, though I think that it is still mainly unrecognised.

This is a major realignment, where the old Tory establishment have taken control and found social and ideological common ground with the free market Liberals, and it is highly convenient as a way of marginalising their own, predominantly lower middle class, raving right-wing and marginalising the Labour Party. The upper classes are back.

As Orwell said about England in The Lion and The Unicorn - a family, but with the wrong members in control. We are back there again.

James said...

Laws isn't a multi-millionaire, and the Orange-Bookers have been in the Liberal Party since the 1920s, if not under that name.

One other point that Plump hasn't made: if Laws had "come out", his claims would have been entirely within the rules. This may well be as much about a Thatcherite counter-coup against the coalition as much as anything else.

Back to my online debate about whether Own Goals should be picked for England instead of Heskey. I think his showing against Japan came too late.

All best,

The Plump said...

He is on the record as being a millionaire James (the multi may be hyperbole) and Orange Book Liberals have been in the party since about 1859 :-)

Greg said...

I hope Jeffrey Neilson will forgive me if I borrow his words responding to a quite different subject on Susan J Barbour's blog. They seem appropriate and speak to the need for a proportionate response:

'I couldn't help thinking of an image from a piece by Marilynne Robinson "Writers and the Nostalgic Fallacy": "...among people carried along in a canoe headed toward a waterfall, the one who stands up and screams is not the one with the keenest sense of the situation. We are in a place so difficult that perhaps alarm is an indulgence, and a harder thing--composure--is required of us."'