Monday, January 23, 2006

Politicians and their peccadilloes

I used to repeat the 'a politician's private life is of no public interest line' religiously whenever some hapless sexual adventurer had the misfortune of having their extra-curricular activities splashed on the Sunday tabloids. Clinton pushed this public/private distinction to destruction for me and, while I still despise the destructive prurience of the tabloids, I've never quite got it back. With regards to Mark Oaten, Max Hastings riffs the usual tunes:
"It is incomparably simpler for many people to accept the notion that a married man is damned because he slept with a male prostitute, than to decide whether, say, his last policy initiative on prison reform was a load of nonsense. Sex offers a lazy way of passing judgment on a public figure, sparing us the difficulties of assessing their work."
It's a reasonable point but I've concluded there's a couple of things about sex-scandals that those of us who take the liberal line need to get real about. For one, it isn't just laziness that produces the focus on politicians' private lives. Their incompetence/corruption/laziness/stupidity or whatever can be well-documented and challenged by the press and Her Majesty's Opposition but the minister in question will still cling to their job. It isn't necessarily that people aren't interested or think these more trivial than an extra-marital affair; it's just that today's decision-making, taking place as it does within a vast departmental bureaucracy, is objectively more difficult to trace than it used to be. The advantage of sexual indiscretions is that this disappears - it either happened or it didn't, there's no possibility of blaming civil servants this time.

That this should mean the end of a ministerial career is something I've always thought wrong. (Martin Luther King had extra-marital affairs; Hitler didn't - discuss.) But I'm thinking in my old age that maybe it's we who insist that private behaviour should have no bearing on one's fitness for public office, we who argue that people should have a more realistic view of the human condition, who aren't being a bit unrealistic ourselves. I dare say people shouldn't be interested in other people's sex-lives, but they are - and anyone who listens to the average water-cooler conversation post-staff night out understands that this interest is not confined to the activities of politicians. One could say: but the tabloids should not be raking around in people's private affairs. I completely agree - but they do, which gets us to the crux of the matter: people are interested in sex and will read about it if it appears in the press. High-minded liberal stuff about minding one's own business goes precisely nowhere in addressing this. Privacy legislation might. I'm not sure about that one but self-regulation certainly isn't working, is it?

Anyway, Hastings is wrong if he is suggesting that the Mark Oaten disclosures tell us nothing about his effectiveness as a potential party leader. What this episode shows is that even a rather exotic sex-scandal like this has completely failed to make Mr Mark Oaten sufficiently interesting - and that is what's pretty damning.

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