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Let it be said: Most politicians aren't crooks

There are essentially two ways of interpreting David Laws' expenses rent claims - and of viewing him as a man.

The first is that he's a rich man who decided to rip off the taxpayer.

The second is that he's in a relationship he wanted to keep private - and that this desire was the motive behind his claims.

His reasons for keeping his relationship private seem strange, at first glance, in this day and age; but at second glance, they don't. If you doubt it, read Iain Dale here.

Any fair-minded person can only lean towards the second explanation - on the basis, I add carefully, of what's been exposed to date.  Is it really more likely, on the evidence before us, that Laws is a coldly calculating crook than a man who wanted, for understandable reasons, to keep his private life just that - private?

To which comes the answer: that's not the point. Laws has himself admitted that he was in breach of the rules (it goes on), and his resignation was therefore inevitable - especially given his role as the guardian of public spending probity.

I'm not writing to dispute this claim.  My point is different - namely, that if we believe the worst of politicians' motives, so much the worse for us in the long run.

I've left the moonscape of politics for the lush pastures of journalism. In other words, I'm now a spectator, not an actor.  My reasoning was that the expenses scandal would only speed the transformation of politicians from citizen legislators, who are free to work and earn outside the Commons, to professional politicians, who aren't - and who will therefore, by an act of irony, become more dependent on the taxpayer than they were previously.  The Laws controversy doesn't suggest that I was wrong.

None the less, it's surely incontestable that the actor's more vital to the play than the spectator.  Indeed, without the actor there's no play at all.  And we've already reached the point where a significant number of potential actors have decided that the play's not worth the candle - not worth the loss of freedom to earn, the pressures on family life, the stripping-away of privacy, the entry into work where a presumption of guilt applies.

What's my evidence for this claim?  The same as yours, if you've asked around. Many of us will have spoken, at least once, to someone who's said, perhaps in a mildly puzzled way: "In this day and age, I can't understand why anyone would put themselves forward to be a politician in the first place."

People do, of course.  In large numbers.  Always have, always will.  And, let's face it, their pay and conditions place politicians near the top end of the earnings scale - if they compare themselves not (in some cases) to the contemporary earning hundreds of thousands, but to the average worker on the average wage.

But the question isn't whether people will want to enter the Commons.  It's whether - the way things are going - they'll want to stay there.  And whether, too, over the medium to long term, there'll be a decline in quality.

I wrote a teasing piece Friday evening here which illustrated Laws' more admirable qualities.  I'm glad that I did, because if we don't view politicians with a presumption of innocence rather than guilt, so much the worse, as I say, not for them, but for us.  (I'm not arguing against a presumption of caution - that's different.)

All in all, we can't treat politicians as pariahs, and expect good people to want to stay at Westminster - or to go there in the first place.  Let it be said: most politicians aren't crooks.  I admit that they aren't saints, either.  But I won't concede that they are, on the whole, no better or worse, than those who elect them. 

And that's not only how it is, but how it must be.  If we're to have politicians (which, regrettably, we must), and if we're to have a representative assembly, it follows that it must represent the range of human nature. If you believe otherwise, remember that the country didn't do too well when it was last governed by an assembly of saints (see here).

Whatever may happen to him, I wish David Laws happiness - and a speedy return to the Cabinet (if we have to have Liberal Democrats in it, I want this convinced economic liberal to be one of them).  I like to think that I'd say the same for any non-Coalition politician in the same circumstances.  It's hard to imagine the psychology of those who wish him anything else. Perhaps they exist on an higher moral plane to the rest of us.  But whether they do or not, in treating all politicians as criminals, they're simply making a rod for their own backs.

Paul Goodman


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