Sunday, May 30, 2010

Is it that complicated?

Sneaking out by Pants

Another week, another gay politician 'outed'. Sorry, what century are we in again? This time it's the British Lib-Dem Chief Secretary of the Treasury (for eighteen whole days), David Laws. To be fair, this story does have an interesting twist. It's not that he's gay or that he fiddled £40,000 which makes it so, but that he apparently diddled his expenses, because he's gay and didn't want anyone to know about it.

Sounds quaint and even a bit Hardyesque. On the face of it, this appears to be one of those old-fashioned dilemmas of gentility and manners where a seemingly irrelevant decision results in personal downfall and ruin. But actually, I think it represents a very modern dilemma. It has little to do with outward appearances and everything to do with self-determination.

The story goes that Laws, a wealthy man in his own right, had been claiming up to £950 a month in rent allowances for a room in a London property which was owned by his lover, James Lundie, who also happened to live there. No matter how flexible a relationship is, this is called cohabitation and it becomes quite important where public money is concerned.

Laws hit a fork in the road back in 2006 when the expenses rules were changed to prohibit MPs from claiming 'rent' on property leased from a 'partner'. He had already been living with Lundie for a number of years and claiming for, and presumably passing on to him, rent. When the rules changed, Laws was faced with a quandary. He was not 'out' to his family, friends or colleagues and neither did he want to be. That's his right. It was at this point that he made the fatal wrong decision.

You hear a lot these days about how entrenched the TINA Principle is in politics. Its popularity is credited to Margaret Thatcher. Like most things Thatcher, it seems to make a weird kind of pragmatic sense. It also means you finally get to go home and put your feet up after a long, hard day of decision-making. But later it leaps up and bites because of its tendency to set you adrift on a river of no return.

There is no alternative - this is what Laws must have thought. If he stopped claiming expenses, his colleagues would immediately draw the conclusion that he was living with 'a partner'. There was nothing else for it but to find a definition for the term 'partner' that excluded him. Fortunately, he was assisted in this venture by the populist, chitty-chatty language of the parliamentary rules which define 'partner' as,

one of a couple ... who although not married to each other or civil partners are living together and treat each other as spouses.

One should never overlook the tendency of all politicians to see rules simply as obstacles to be defeated but it does seem as if this vague definition was an aid to Laws's delusion. In a statement issued on Friday, he said,

"Although we were living together, we did not treat each other as spouses. For example, we do not share bank accounts and, indeed, have separate social lives. However, I now accept this was open to interpretation."

Perhaps a new definition of the term 'partner' is needed for the guidelines. It could say for example,

If you are living together and having sex you are 'partners' for the purpose of this regulation. We do not much care who buys the spinach mousse.

Perhaps Laws used the TINA Principle to arrive at his redefinition of the word 'partner' and perhaps he didn't but, having done so, he was able to rule out the other alternative - moving house. If he was not allowed to pay his partner rent but still needed a place to stay in London, why did he simply not think to pay rent to one of the seven or so million Londoners with whom he is not in a relationship? If he really wanted to safeguard his privacy, this would have been easily done. Newspapers aren't really interested in catching people out for doing the right thing, although that certainly would be news.

Here's where his flimsy definition does fall apart. They may not have had shared bank accounts, but clearly there were shared domestic finances. Laws has revealed that he remortgaged his constituency house in order to help Lundie buy a house. Rich people don't get that way by passing up free money. I can imagine it would be quite difficult to give up the expenses cash if you are used to it coming in. You can almost intuit the logic. They'd have to pay my rent anyway, why shouldn't it go to Jamie? Where else could you get a decent place in London for a thousand quid a month? I'm actually saving the Government money by living here! You can get a fair bit of spinach mousse for £40,000, even in central London.

Relativist justifications have been launched - and thankfully crashed and burned too. It isn't a swings and roundabouts thing. Maybe the rules weren't made to ensnare people like Laws. They were probably meant to stop MPs buying flats for their children in their spouse's name and using parliamentary expenses to pay off the mortgage. We know this and we've been through all the arguments before. You really can't have a rule with more exceptions than actual compliance. That's just silly.

Unfortunately, life does throw up moral dilemmas from time to time. Sadly for the former Secretary, he will be known for having one of the shortest careers ever in high office in British politics for failing to meet a challenge which, to be honest, was inevitable. Hubris hardly covers it. All of his ducks were lined up just waiting to be shot. Not only was he the second most important person at Treasury after the Chancellor, he was responsible for designing budget cuts which will deprive a great many people in the public sector of their livelihoods. Worse, he's been forced out in the ghastliest possible way, with everyone mad at him. Gay activists are understandably up in arms. Not only has he set public perceptions back about fifty years, but he seems to be using the fact that he's gay as an excuse for cheating.

As is often the case when financial irregularities force politicians to resign, tributes for Laws point to the abundance of his integrity and single him out as one of the brightest of the new batch. Either the bar is still set very low or all these incredibly scrupulous and clever people have an uneasy relationship with their self-destruct button. Strange phenomenon, that.

I said at the beginning this is a very modern dilemma. It's astonishing that this man's lack of an ability to recognise who and what he is has had such a devastating impact on his life. No one gives a toss about him being gay - why on earth would he think they would? Somehow he's conflated expectations that simply don't exist with a structure of probity that bears no relation to reality and is then stuck with keeping the illusion going.

Maybe the introduction of the new rule even assisted him in maintaining his denial. By choosing the path he did, he closed the option of ever coming out while he was still in politics. He made being openly gay incompatible with his career trajectory. And that is very much the TINA Principle at work. What we can be sure of is it was always all in his head and that speaks very powerfully of the sort of blinkered, self-serving ambition that people now deem a necessary factor in success.

What is so difficult about the real world that makes fantasy more attractive for the privileged? Actually, I don't think I want to know.