31 May 2010

The Cautionary Tale of David Laws

Having had the weekend to reflect on the downfall of David Laws, I still can't pin down what my actual feelings on the matter are. I think at the heart of it, there's a bafflement that such a clearly intelligent man can allow such a situation to build up that his rise and fall are so swift.

I suppose, first, there's the scandal. Let's be clear: the rules say that you can't claim back rent paid to your partner. Laws claimed rent paid to his partner. He broke the rules, and he wouldn't admit that he was doing so. He may have been driven by a desire for privacy (and I'll come back to that point), but still, whatever the intentions, a deception did take place. And if that deception were to be committed by an ordinary member of the public, then the best they could hope for would be a disciplinary hearing at work, and likely dismissal. In some cases, a criminal record and perhaps even jail. Welcome to our world, Davy boy. On that basis, it's incredibly difficult to feel sympathy for him.

That said, it's clear that he's punishing himself more than we could punish him: he quickly realised that his position was untenable, and sought to stand down quickly, to get things over with. That's just realism. But the nasty bit is that he now sees all the structures he built in his life, the divisions between the public life and the personal, come crashing down around him. More galling, he sees the man he loves being dragged through the press. Neither of them sought this, but this must put special pressure on Laws: of course there'll be an element of guilt in his mind that Laws is going to have to deal with. No one should have to go through that. On that basis, it's quite easy to feel empathy for him.

All the same, has David Laws been living under a rock for the past year? Since the Telegraph began its campaign to root out dodgy expense claims, surely Laws must have realised that he was on borrowed time, that this had the potential to emerge eventually? Did he think that, having been overlooked a year ago, he was out of the woods? Was he that foolish? Surely a man as intelligent as he obviously is would realise that this was a ticking timebomb? Where was the risk management? And, most importantly of all, what was he thinking taking the Chief Secretary to the Treasury post when he had this politically compromising threat lurking in the distance?

And this, for me, is the problem. I just can't weigh up why such an intelligent, capable politician could allow this situation to unfold. He could even have used the lax rules to his advantage: it would have made more sense to flip his homes, to declare the flat he rented as his primary residence - and there would be a case for this as a national LibDem spokesman - then to keep claims on his original home to the bare minimum. In a strange way, it would have been the honest thing to do: of course he'd be spending the most time there, so of course it becomes his first home. It would have meant no expense claims, no forms, no questionable arrangements, and no problem. All the paperwork would have shown is that on such-and-such a date, he changed his addresses. He might have had a line or two in the Telegraph, and a small rebuke from the local newspaper in Yeovil, but he could have ridden the storm. Why didn't he realise this?

Then there's the personal side. I understand his motivations here: the drive for privacy is a powerful one, and it's not confined to gay people. It's natural for people to keep their cards close to their chest, not to advertise private details. Friends learn these details about each other over time. Other people don't find out all if it can be helped. Why? Because it's none of their business. What you or I get up to in our spare time, and who we get up to it with, is no one's business but our own (and the other people involved). Of course we'll tell our friends. But we won't want other people sticking their oar in.

And in the case of David Laws, that's even more understandable. There's been a lot of preaching from gay Labour politicians that Laws could, and should, have been himself, that he should have been open about his sexuality and that he must obviously be ashamed of who he is. And let's be honest, it's a sad reflection that in 2010, there are people who still don't feel confident enough about either themselves or the people around them to be open. But that's not the fault of David Laws. Rather, it's proof that despite all the massive strides towards equality, despite that people in general seem more accepting of homosexuality than they did, say 20 years ago, there's still a long way to go. And let's face it, Laws would have been coming of age just as the AIDS crisis was gaining momentum, along with the new wave of anti-gay hostility that saw Section 28 appear on the statute books. While there are plenty of openly gay men of a similar age to Laws, it's clear that he did not consider himself in a position where he could be one of them. That says a lot of things about a lot of people, but it's not something for which we can judge him, and we certainly can't judge him harshly.

But entering politics creates a new set of variables, and sadly, the normal rules don't apply. Being an MP or a member of the Cabinet (or even just the LibDem front bench when they were in opposition) isn't just a full-time job; it's a 24/7 job. You are always on call. You are a prominent figure. Your personal life gets sucked into that. More than ever, political partners are scrutinised even though they're not standing. In the recent election campaign, Sarah Brown, Samantha Cameron and Miriam González Durántez were public figures, with almost as much attention lavished upon them as their husbands. We remember Margaret Thatcher, but we also remember Denis. We remember John Major (albeit vaguely), and we also remember Norma. We think of The Blairs - not just Tony, but Cherie as well. Even at the local level, there'll be talk of the local MP and their partner.

So once again, we have to ask: did Laws think he could keep his private life private forever? I don't like this culture where the partner is basically dragged along for the political ride, but that's where we are and if you're involved in elected politics, then it's become a necessary evil. I know that if I were standing, I'd consider that I'd have no choice but to be clear about my domestic arrangements, and at least mention any hypothetical partner. I wouldn't try to compartmentalise things as I currently can, because it wouldn't work. David Laws did try, and failed. Again, he's an intelligent man - why didn't he see this coming?

I understand his predicament, and it's easy to see things both from the outside and with the benefit of 20:20 hindsight. But even so, I just can't understand why David Laws didn't spot the very obvious warning signs dotted along his career path, whether it was all the publicity received (whether willingly or not) by political partners, or the series of revelations on MPs' expenses in the Telegraph. On this occasion, his intelligence clearly failed him.

And sadly, he and his loved ones are now paying the price.


subrosa said...

Excellent post Will. Like you I've thought about this issue and dithered on how I really feel about it.

He broke rules and knows it. He's stepped down.

As for his sexuality, don't you think it's the media which makes a big noise about it. Seemingly it was well known in the Westminster bubble that he is gay. It's up to him if he wants to make it public, but, once anyone enters public service they have to show they're honest in what they say and do.

Perhaps if the gay lobby calmed down for a while, those who get pleasure from criticising would be silenced too.

As I said somewhere else, women fought and died for the vote. Attitudes don't change overnight and I do think that gay people are now accepted in general.

About time too of course, but it hasn't taken that long. When I was young it was illegal as you know.

Sophia Pangloss said...

Ah share yer bafflement Mr McNumpty. Whit ah couldnae get ma heid aroon' this weekend wis how Mr Laws hadnae seen this comin' miles aff. It aw feels a bit like yin o' Mr Forster's stories, aw public school shame an' stiff upper class lips. The facts are as clear as day; he claimed when he shouldnae have, an' he has tae go on that score an' that score alane.

Behind that easy point tho lies a much deeper book o' questions an' puzzles. Questions which touch oan sexuality an' how we live in oor ain hooses, questions which, oan account o' their universality, we can aw hae an opinion. Aye, even folk wha think ye can hae a gay lobby. Well ah jist went an' had a look, an' ma lobby still goes straight fae ma sittin' room tae ma bedroom. Disnae look awfy gay tae me.

This is the year 2010, an' tho we aw grew up in an earlier time we aw hae tae try tae keep up, nane mair so than oor elected representatives. Like it or no, they are at times a mirror tae the country. We like tae compare oor lives tae theirs, oor mores tae theirs, oor choices tae theirs. Mr Laws gies the impression that he wid prefer tae hing oan tae a time when bein' gay wis acceptable, jist sae lang as he didnae mention it in polite company. People kent, Mr Clegg kent, Mr Kennedy kent, loads ae MPs kent, but naebody wid mention it. They wanted tae respect his view o' his ain life.

The problem is that this disnae chime wi' maist folks' experience these days. It sets the man apart as comin' fae a different time, a different place, mibbe even Another Country.

Mr Laws wisnae found guilty o' bein' gay. He wis found guilty o' tryin' tae keep his gayness secret, an' that's where the big change has ocurred ower the years since they stopped usin' the birch.

It's aw a bit immaterial. Nane o' us really ken whit wis gaun through Mr Laws' heid when he made the decision, month in an' month oot, tae keep claimin' fer his rent. Nane o' us ken whit he wis thinkin' oan Saturday when his bedroom arrangements became the talk o' the steamie. Nane o' us can imagine whit him an' his man are feelin' th'day.

Aw we ken fer sure is that he broke whit we thought wis fixed:- the rules.

Caron said...

This is a well thought out post, Will. It's crtiical without being full of the sort of bile that Labour have been flinging around the place over the weekend. It's not like they created some sort of homophobia free utopia while they were in power.

I think that the Yeovil option - could still have brought scrutiny had he done that in 2006. People would have wondered why and may have drawn conclusions about the guy that he lived with in London and who previously received the payments so could effectively have outed them.

The point you missed, though, is had he declared the relationship, he could have claimed more. A lot more.

I feel for him - and can sympathise with the dilemma he was faced with in 2006 when the rules changed. There's an argument that the change made it disproportionately harder for people in same sex relationships and therefore could be discriminatory.

David Laws is not a bad man and his intention was to protect, not defraud. He must be the first person to resign for something which, if he'd declared, could have claimed more.

Sophia Pangloss said...

Ah've ssen a few comments ower past days makin' the same point you do Caron, namely that if Mr Laws had declared his relationship he could have claimed more. This is not true, an' lies at the heart of Mr Laws' problem. If he had declared his relationship, he would not have been able to claim back his rent. There lies the expenses rule break.

Mr Laws, in continuing to claim this rent, payable only to his 'landlord' denied a relationship which despite his dubious re-definition was an intimate one. There lies the ethical rule break.

Had he chosen to arrange his affairs differently he may indeed have cost the public purse more, but only as much as he would be entitled to, using the same rules as all other MPs. He would also have retained the privacy he seemed so keen to maintain. Mr Laws appears to have felt able to interpret the rulebook to suit his own ends, that is his error.

Ted Harvey said...

For me the critical lesson from this affair is that yet again we have evidence of how utterly detached our political classes have become from real society.

Others have articluated here and elsewhere just how utterly stupid the predicament constructed by this intelligent man was. A most obvious way of explaining how it came about, would be to note that the man is a member of the Westminster political elite and therefore (and ipso facto?)is incapable of making a well balanced and considered common sense decision about plain and obvious matters.

Bill said...

A very good and balanced post.

I must admit my first instinct, when I first heard about this was to assume it was basically raked-up because he is gay, but the more I learned about it I increasingly discounted this. He broke the rules on claiming expenses so his position was untenable, it is as simple as that and when he was forced to confront the issue he clearly agreed.

I rather suspect his seeming myopia on the matter is that whilst his claims, as structured, were 'modest' (my perfectly ordinary modern apartment in London's Docklands almost 20 years ago cost my employer in excess of 1,000 a month and Laws was claiming only 900 or so a month I understand), he could quite legitimately have claimed considerably more by structuring his affairs differently.

There seems to be a feeling amongst some that, because he is a fairly wealthy man, it is somehow 'wrong' for him to claim public money at all. It's a difficult area, but MPs are there to do a job and should be paid appropriately for it - the days of relying on independently-wealthy MPs are luckily far in the past. I think that if we want a reasonably open democracy we do have to pay for it and not rely on only the wealthy doing it fo us.

Whilst I think it was necessary for him to step down, it seems from the little I know about him that it would be a crying shame for him to leave public life completely - I hope he remains as an MP and will in due course be called back to serve in Government. It does seem that he has technical skills that the country needs badly just now; the situation is far too serious for his future to become the subject of simple political gamesmanship.

(PS/ The casual dismissiveness of an earlier commenter "Perhaps if the gay lobby calmed down for a while, those who get pleasure from criticising would be silenced too." is the kind of comment that infuriates me - change the word 'gay' for 'black' or indeed 'women's' and it becomes clear just how unjustified and frankly how knowingly disingenuous it is.)