Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Adultery, expenses, and the morality of politicians

The Prime Minister is not the only Scottish son of the manse who is going through times of political difficulty. Mr James Gray, the Conservative MP for North Wiltshire, is a son of a former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland (the Very Rev. John Gray of Dunblane), and is facing possible de-selection because of his behaviour. He could hardly be described as a good husband, having abandoned his wife (when she had cancer) in order to take up a relationship with another man’s wife. According to the Telegraph “It was not just that Mr Gray left his wife but his attempts publicly to play down the extent of her cancer which caused such distaste. . . . In trying to belittle her struggle with the disease he outraged even some of his own supporters.” He has shown, at the very least, a lack of integrity and a fair amount of callousness and selfishness. He took what he wanted and showed no concern for his wife or his mistress’s husband.

These are very similar to the qualities that many people detected in business of MP’s expenses. The MPs took what they wanted, and showed no concern for the tax-payers who they charged for items that most of us have to buy for ourselves. And they showed a lack of integrity in that they agreed to a system that kept the tax-payers in the dark.

Does this mean there a connection between philandering and troughing? Well, I suppose that the greed, callousness and lack of integrity a person shows in one area may be a sign of a more general problem. But it is also true that someone who has an extra-marital affair may, in other respects, be a person of integrity. And a person of complete marital fidelity may be, in other respects, a scoundrel. In other words, the fact that a man treats his wife badly does not mean that he is going to treat the voters badly.

The business of claiming expenses is different. Mr. Gray, we are told, claimed £2000 “for the future redecoration of his 'second home' on the day that he moved out of it.” In other words, he seems to have treated the money of tax-payers as if it was a pot from which he could help himself. This is more serious, because it indicates that he does not see tax-revenues as money that basically belongs to tax-payers. It tells us something about his underlying political views and philosophy. And that, it seems to me, is even more worrying than any lack of financial honesty that might be assumed.

And here we need to remind ourselves what MPs are for. They are not glorified social workers - constituency work is not their main job. Nor are they moral roll models. They are law makers. Their job is to scrutinise and vote on proposed legislation. The state of the nation does not depend on the moral integrity of politicians, nor on whether they are able to help constituents in difficulty, but on the quality of the laws they make.

Voting for a candidate who supports bad policies, simply because he is decent and honest, is extreme foolishness. And the same is true of rejecting a candidate who supports good policies, simply because his personal morality is shameful. The legislation that parliament enacts has far more effect on the morality of the nation than does the private morality of individual MPs.

MPs need integrity, but the integrity they need is not marital integrity, or financial integrity, but intellectual integrity and political integrity - a willingness to change their mind when the evidence shows that they are wrong, and to stand up for what they believe when the pressure is on them to back down. But even more than these things, they simply need to have the right policies.

There may be good reasons why Mr. Gray should not continue to be an MP. There is that expenses claim. His political beliefs are not quite what some of us would want to see. There is even the fact that he has already been an MP for 12 years, which is quite long enough for anyone.

But even though I think that his adulterous behaviour is disgraceful, I do not believe that it is, in itself, a reason why voters should reject him.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

keep quoting these dead white guys for a reason. We seem to be repeating some particularly nasty history, right now.