What Chris Huhne’s departure tells us about British politics

by Rob Marchant

So, Chris Huhne has left the cabinet. Entire forests have already been destroyed over the interceding months, since the story broke about the speeding points allegedly taken for him by his wife. He will now be charged and is innocent until proven guilty: that is the fair play to which he is entitled.

We will never know – or at least, not for a while – whether Huhne genuinely went willingly, or was pressured to resign to avoid being sacked. But we’re also in new territory entirely: this is the first time a cabinet minister has been charged with a criminal offence in as long as anyone can remember, no-one quite knows what the rules are. And here’s a thing, which some have questioned: would it be right for a cabinet minister to have been made to go under such circumstances, given that he has not, as yet, been convicted of anything at all?

Yes, it is. Because this is not a parking fine. It’s a criminal charge, and criminal charges have to be taken seriously. Here’s what can happen when you don’t.

Mariano Rajoy, now Spanish prime minister, was last year in a similar position to Cameron and Clegg. But his judgement was another: that he was happy to let one of his party’s main figures, Francisco Camps, stay in post after being charged with a criminal offence. Although Camps later changed his mind and resigned anyway, the point was that, not being able to tell whether he was innocent or guilty, Rajoy had bet his party’s reputation on Camps. He lost.

Rajoy is now paying the political price for his calculation: the credibility of Spain’s ruling party, not to mention its justice system and the country’s “brand” abroad are now seriously threatened by this and other scandals, despite – and partly because of – the fact that Camps was acquitted two weeks ago, throwing a cloud of suspicion over the whole legal system in the process. It’s a mess.

The message Rajoy’s action sent was clear: the political class doesn’t have to answer to the same laws as the rest of us. They are above the law. Imagine the CEO of a multi-national being kept on while they answered criminal charges – it’s largely unthinkable, because the shareholders wouldn’t stand for it.

The point is that grown-up political parties cannot afford to take the risk of all that.

Two countries, two different decisions. In Britain Cameron and Clegg indicated fairly clearly before the announcement that Huhne would have to go if charged. In other words, they chose to protect their parties, the government and the judicial system by giving a signal that they take such allegations seriously. They have acted correctly, although they might have acted much earlier. Many thought this affair would blow over. It has not.

Those who have cried “witch-hunt” will know whether or not they are right shortly. Huhne may be found not guilty, or guilty. The trial might even collapse. But, in circumstances such as Friday’s announcement, we have a distinct choice: we can act like Britain and protect our reputation by removing the possibility of a direct association back to government, or we can act like Spain and risk it. We cannot know for certain what the truth is about Huhne, only probabilities, and for the moment we must keep that speculation to ourselves.

But it is right to act to protect the good name of our political system, just in case. It surely cannot be a bad thing that at least, unlike in many other countries, it is a highly unusual event for a senior British politician to be charged with a criminal offence. For all its faults and occasional lapses, we still have quite possibly the cleanest political system in the western world. We should be proud of that.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left.


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4 Responses to “What Chris Huhne’s departure tells us about British politics”

  1. Nick says:

    The message Rajoy’s action sent was clear: the political class doesn’t have to answer to the same laws as the rest of us. They are above the law.

    ==============

    Correct.

    I submitted an FOI request for Hanningfield, Taylor and Uddin’s correspondance from the house of Lords.

    The Clerk of Parliament then signs a certificate saying that its a state secret. On the grounds that it would infringe the rights and privileges of Peers.

    ie. Lets cover up fraud, or the Lords involvement in paying out hundreds of thousands to fraudsters.

  2. Ralph Baldwin says:

    Rob,

    Your question in the second paragraph is very relevant to the events occuring in Politics currently. What we are talking about here is more than just “rules” but Constitutional Conventions of a sort. It’s a question of moral legitimacy. In certain circumstances the public can be quite forgiving of many things, the media realize such issues have low interest levels and so nobody really bats an eyelid. Then we have occasions when public understanding and forbearance is decreased in it’s range (yes you can probably measure this and make a bit of science with it) during economic hardship, especially hardship the people blame on political legislative mismanagement accompnaied by corruption.

    Rule of Law then begins to weaken in a different way to when secular groups abuse it, replaced by the emotional sense of natural justice (I shan’t say revenge as that is too strong).

    I agree with you in principle in the premise of “innocent until proven guilty” and circumstances may make things more complex but the Leadership of the Country understand the importance of moal legitimacy and need some latitiude with the public especially if they plan to return David Laws to a senior position which will not go down well at all as there is an issue of trust (three types); questionable integrity, discipline with public funds, responsibility.

    I disagree on having the cleanest political system in the world, we just replace bribes with other things lol. We also have an appallingly weak Constitution and awful (as experienced by Heather Brookes when she arrived here from the USA) closed system. Its an archaic joke lol for a country like ours.

  3. @Nick: well, compared with the Spanish state I still think we’re pretty good in this area (not to mention the US, most of the Continent and pretty much all of Asia). For example, it is very rare that public prosecution touches the British Cabinet, whereas it has happened relatively recently in many of our European neighbours (France, Italy, Belgium and Ireland as well as Spain, to name but some).

    @Ralph: indeed. I think there are “extra-judicial” elements that come into play which protect the legitimacy of the system. The trouble is that there are few guidelines in this area – they can range from the unfairly draconian (e.g. the whip being withdrawn from Phil Woolas even before a constitutional court had reported, and certainly not a public prosecution for a criminal offence) to what happened with Camps. The best course of action has to be somewhere in the middle.

  4. Clr Ralph Baldwin says:

    Rob, agreed.

    I like the idea of a Constitutional settlement though. To this is merely the upteenth reason for a codified constitution. But until we have representational and not institutional MPs this cannot happen. Until then its a continuation of the fluidity of the system and discretionary decision making as we try and place the wrong jig saw piece into a distorted picture.

    🙂

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