I have a soulful black and white photograph of Martin Luther King on my wall. Why would I not? He spoke one of the greatest lines of the 20th century, that he dreamt that one day his children would not be judged on the colour of their skin but the content of their character. In an age where black people still had to ride at the back of the bus, it was an astonishingly bold statement. In any age, it was a one true thing. He was the youngest man ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize. His legacy still resonates today.
Martin Luther King was famously unfaithful to his wife. We know this from memoirs by his close associates and observation from a paranoid FBI, which was determined to paint him as an evil communist. There are rumours also of prostitutes and threesomes, which may or may not be true. An ugly subset of the racist internet likes to play up these rumours, to make their claim that the reverend was a phoney and a fraud, who liked paying for sex with white women, as if that would negate every single thing he did for the civil rights movement. The great congressman John Lewis, who walked over the Alabama bridge and got beaten half to death for his pains, knew King, and once said of him: ‘he was not a saint, he was just another human being’, so making the tacit acceptant that he might have not been flawless in his private life.
If even half of this is true, does it make any difference to the King legacy? He has a national holiday named after him in America; he made an incalculable difference to race relations in a land that was scarred with the memory of slaves picking cotton in the fields. If there had been no Martin Luther King, there would be no Barack Obama. Would I rather not know that he had catted around? Yes. Did my heart sink a little in disappointment? Certainly. I am not so cavalier as Christopher Hitchens, who once wrote that Dr King spent his last night in dissipation and why not? In the same way, I would like to think that the venerable Gladstone did not have some strange obsession with prostitutes. This great classical scholar had a habit of bringing fallen ladies home to tea with his wife, and then going into a room and flagellating himself for being aroused by them. (We know this from little Greek characters that he wrote in his diaries.) This is slightly pathological behaviour, by any lights. Yet Gladstone fought like a tiger, even when he was old and frail, for Irish Home Rule. He did not win that battle, but just imagine if he had. There would have been no IRA. There would have been no Omagh bombing, no knee-capping, no hunger strikes, Lord Mountbatten would not have been blown to smithereens while his grandchildren watched.
All of which is a very long way of saying: flawed people can do great things, and those great things are not diminished by the frailties of the human being who achieved them.
So I find it hard to understand the frenzy of self-righteous moralising that is going on among the media classes. I love the media classes, adore the BBC, and think there is nothing in the rumour that they are all chatterati hacks who know nothing of life beyond the Groucho. But sometimes a story comes along and produces a mad herd instinct where all reason is forgotten, groupthink prevails, and a collective wail of why oh why can be heard throughout the land. The current unquestioned narrative is predicated on the idea that the public wants a snow white polity. This is why all good hard-working decent Britons are enraged (enraged, I tell you) by what has been going on in their name. I am not sure this is quite true. The British have always held a sceptical and unsentimental attitude towards their politicians. They can be ruthless, even towards national heroes. They adored Winston Churchill when Britain stood alone and only the power of his oratory convinced them that the beleaguered island might prevail. But the moment the war was won, they chucked him out. Pundits and commentators are telling us, day after day, that the public has never been so disillusioned by, despairing of, and disgusted at their elected members. Yet look back and you will find polls and statistics that show public faith in politicians has always hovered around a low mark. Last week, when the expenses scandal started cooking up, a survey showed that 60% of the public was interested in the Ghurkha story, and only 40% in the expenses story.
Personally, I don’t really give a damn about Keith Vaz’s scatter cushions. I could not care less about Alan Duncan’s garden. I have very little interest in Gordon Brown paying £6000 to his cleaner. My own cleaner says, when I ask her what she thinks about the expenses scandal: ‘What expenses scandal?’ I explain it to her. She cocks her head. ‘You mean they are taking the piss?’ she says. I say that some of them could be described in this manner. ‘Well,’ she says, ‘I suppose we all take the piss sometimes.’ She is bright, honest as the day, and a good mother to two small children. Here is what she worries about: her little boy and girl getting a good education, the damp in her council house, and the fact that she and her partner are paying more tax than they used to. This last revelation shocks me senseless: this was the government that I voted for, partly because it promised to relieve the burden on the low-paid. Everyone is kicking up a stink about class war and the new fifty percent top rate of tax, while none of the newspapers are whipping themselves up into a frenzy of indignation over the fact that a mother of two in a council house who works part time is getting hit up for more tax in the middle of the worst recession in living memory. You crusaders over at the Daily Telegraph – where is your righteous fury over the immorality of that?
Down in the village shop, I try out another little vox pop. Jake, who works the till, a young man with an open friendly face, says: ‘Well, they are human, aren’t they?’ I am slightly surprised. Where is the outrage, the fury, the sense of death of the Mother of Parliaments? ‘I expect if I had an expenses account, I might do the same thing,’ he says, cheerfully.
Would I rather that John Prescott had not claimed for faux Tudor beams at his constituency home? You betcha. There is something awfully de haut en bas about Barbara Follett charging the taxpayer £25,000 for ‘security’. The thing with the moat is absurd. There are clearly many elements that are ropey and creaking about the allowances system, and MPs were idiotic when they voted against expenses being published. My prescription would be: put the whole lot on the internet. Claim what you want, but know that your constituents will be able to see it all online. I am not defending MPs who truly abused the system. They are public officials and should be held to account. But the number of egregious cases is a small percentage of the 645 parliamentarians, probably the exact same proportion of people who might steal something from the stationary cupboard in any large company. This does not make it right, or excusable, but in an ironic twist, probably makes the House of Commons quite representative of the public it serves.
I do not whitewash the expenses revelations, but I do attack the crazed reaction to them. ‘Gerry Adams slams expenses gravy train’ yelled a headline on the BBC news website. In 1987 Adams told the Oxford Union: ‘I have never condemned the IRA, and I never will.’ So it is perfectly fine to blow people up, but claiming for a fridge is beyond any ethical pale. A day later, Stephen Fry dared to point out that there really are more important things to get hysterical about, like waging illegitimate wars, say. Ah I thought: a cool dose of perspective. But the papers called foul. ‘Stephen Fry and his big brain don’t get it’ roared the headline in The Telegraph. ‘Stephen Fry dismisses the expenses scandal in typical arrogant-luvvie style, says Liz Hunt,’ it went on. Apart from indulging in clichéd stereotyping, this entirely missed the point of what Fry was saying, but he was so demoralised by the savage reaction that he confessed dolefully on Twitter that he wished he had kept his mouth shut. (Interestingly, the majority of Twitterers came out of the closet and admitted that many of them were thinking the exact same thing.)
If you want real ocean-going, five-star, fur-lined scandal, try this: the government is currently wasting £20 billion on an NHS IT system that, according to one person involved in the project, ‘isn’t working and isn’t going to work’. It is a story with more turns and twists than a convention of corkscrews. One of its finer elements is that Richard Granger, who was originally in charge, on a meagre salary of £285,000, failed his computer studies course at Bristol. Pricelessly, this nugget was revealed by his own mother, who called up The Observer to talk about it. ‘It was pretty serious, so I had to write to Princess Anne,’ she said (possibly my favourite line in any story in the last five years). Granger is currently threatening Private Eye with legal action for a story they want to run on him. Why is this not on the front page for five days in a row? Why does the press not expect good hard-working Britons to be up in arms about this, which takes many more of their tax pounds and directly affects their lives? Could it be that a man with a tennis court and someone claiming for a chandelier is just a sexier story?
A slightly baffled Italian journalist said on the Today Programme this morning that what British MPs are doing is ‘inappropriate’ but that what Italian MPs do is often ‘illegal’. It is worth remembering, in the middle of all this, that no law has been broken. This is not the Arms to Iraq scandal of the Thatcher years: ‘secret government encouragement of arms sales to a dictator who gasses civilians; ministers misleading parliament; perhaps a quarter of the cabinet implicated,’ as the Economist put it at the time. It is not cooking up dodgy legal opinions to justify torture, as has been revealed in America over the last two weeks – a scandal so big and deep that it takes the breath away, and yet gets hardly a mention in our press. It is not government officials in the Department of Energy having sex with oil industry executives and snorting coke off toaster ovens – another unlovely American political outrage of the fag end of the Bush years. (I do not know quite what a toaster oven is, or if you can claim one on expenses, but I am perfectly certain that very few of our parliamentarians are in the habit of using them to chop out grade A pharmaceuticals.)
I must declare an interest. One of my dear friends is a Member of Parliament. I know him to be a good, honourable and clever man. The gap between the person I know, and the current media version of MPs as chiselling crooks, venally out for everything they can get, is so wide I cannot bridge it. Menzies Campbell, whom I do not know, is a former Olympic athlete who took a steady, principled stand against the Iraq war. Now it has been revealed that he claimed £10,000 for decorating a flat. This one act apparently throws him into the cesspit along with the other scum, so much so that the Daily Mail now refers to him as ‘moral’ Menzies Campbell. This is a man who has devoted his life to public service and always displayed thoughtfulness and rectitude; now he is reduced to having the word moral put against his name in inverted commas. Perhaps more than any other individual example, this demonstrates how mad the reaction to this affair has become.
It is not that the thing itself is not bad. It is. But it is not that bad. It could be so much worse. In the context of wider politics, it may even appear rather petty. What frightens me more than a questionable claim for mole removal is when every single part of the press is following an identical narrative. It worries me when journalists I really love and admire, from Andrew Rawnsley to Nick Cohen to Michael White, are all saying the same thing. The story of what was done over the Iraq war, the questions of intelligence, the practice of extraordinary rendition, the odd saga of the Niger uranium claim, was a true matter of ethics and morality; it was a matter of actual life and death. I can’t remember anyone saying, as Nick Robinson did this week, that those involved in the darker aspects of the war should no longer be known as ‘honourable’ members. Most importantly, many varying degrees of opinion were expressed about the conflict, across all the different newspapers, not necessarily depending on political allegiance. This is exactly how it should be in a democracy that prides itself on a free press. The alarming thing about the current saga is that dissenting voices against the prevailing opinion are not only hard to find, but are pilloried for daring even to question the agreed line. I’m not asking for someone to come out and insist that all MPs are perfect, but I do wish that the press might cock an ear to Stephen Fry, take a deep breath, and rummage under the bed to find its mislaid sense of perspective.