Thursday, June 01, 2006


Why John Prescott Shouldn’t Be Sacked

From The Two Ronnies to another great comic institution; I’ve talked about how easy it is to get a laugh about Mr Prescott before. It proves for those who say he’s become a laughing stock since the news of his affair broke, nonsense. He’s been a laughing stock for years. He mangles his words in a far less inspired way than Ronnie Barker, and – more importantly – he’s been a disastrously bad minister and should have been sacked years ago. But just now, I’m unusually tempted to leave him alone. And why? I don’t want sex to be sackable.

“Sex scandals” are always funny – as long as they happen to other people. And, to be fair, Lib Dems tend to laugh at them but not to be overly censorious, just to make po-faced public remarks about “human frailty”. And Mr Prescott’s an immense open goal; if the problem’s that he’s lowered the government’s dignity with his trousers, it’s a work of idiot genius for Mr Blair to allow him to keep the ‘dignified’ titles and perks but take away the department that he was allegedly fine at, when any fool can see that it should have been the other way round. More than one wag has pointed out that he's no longer considered responsible enough to decide on your planning permission, merely to run the country when Mr Blair’s away, and I can’t help but think even he would be better at overseeing an Equality Act than his replacement Ruth Kelly, who’s voted against or abstained on every gay rights measure and thus puts the fear of Dei into us. Instead, he’s still being slowly turned on the spit of humiliation as he now gives up his country mansion, Dorneywood.

Against all common sense, however, I’m going to stick up for Mr Prescott. This was not the time for him to be sacked; perhaps the only time he shouldn’t have been sacked. His press coverage probably harmed the Labour Party, as did the total shambles under Charles Clarke, but ironically I suspect Patricia Hewitt being booed by nurses as she made overblown claims about the NHS was much more damaging to the traditional Labour vote, and she’s the only one who kept her job – despite single-handedly inspiring polls that put Labour third on Health, which is pretty astounding.

This all feels like back to the ’90s – the 1890s. Really, what is there to be bothered about around sex? They were both adults and knew and consented to what they were doing. I don’t know whether he may be a bully, or a sexist, or a git, but in this sort of case, none of that matters. If he was a tortured saint, the headlines would be the same. I’m afraid this isn’t the sort of issue on which nuanced remarks cut it, except to make the public think we’re all the same and call us hypocrites when one of us is ‘caught at it’.

Liberal Democrats – the Party That Says Sex Is All Right

I have a radical suggestion. Rather than damning with faint neutrality, when any sex “scandal” comes along – provided it’s not a rape or underage, or otherwise a clear offence without consent – Lib Dems should queue up to say, ‘So what? They were adults, they knew what they were doing, and it’s none of your business. Good luck to them,’ and never say anything that can sound like a word of canting criticism. For a Liberal party, we may not attack people for having sex but we make ever such codedly disapproving noises.

It’s not just about self-protection, though goodness knows we could have done with a bit of that earlier in the year, but improving the political and social culture. Constantly humiliating people for deciding to have sex just does nobody any good. What’s the point? So we might upset a few curtain-twitchers. Well, they’re unlikely to vote for us anyway.

What’s happening now is nothing to do with public interest. It’s more the ‘Mum’ test; it’s taken as read that it’s a scandal if a paper publishes something you wouldn’t want your Mum to read about / look at. Well, big deal. I’ve done plenty that falls into that category, and if you haven’t, dear reader, you should get out more. More to the point, so have the most faithful and well-behaved husband and wife who have children. It’s just rubbish to say that’s a “scandal”.

Just this once, I have to disagree with the brilliant, amusing but censorious Jonathan Calder, owner of the best blogging headline of the year (sorry, James, for not voting for your Russian spunk) and his amusing, at least to us, remarks about the Rector of Stiffkey, who someone [edited because someone other than Jonathan said it] called the “first sex scandal”. Surely that was Oscar Wilde? Because, yes, people having gay sex are even more likely to get it in the neck than people who have straight sex. Yes, I too wish Mark Oaten would shut up; once you’ve beaten your breast and labelled yourself as a scandal, still seeking the limelight simply brings the word “scandal” up again, and it’s no longer standing up for yourself but willy-waving. But anyone who doesn’t think there was a viciously homophobic motive to the publication of gaydar pictures of Chris Bryant and Charles Anglin – including the latest Liberator – needs their head examined. The answer is not, ‘Oh, isn’t it frightful, these people like to have sex and in a way you probably wouldn’t like,’ nor to talk in sonorous tones about what a tragedy it is. It’s to say, ‘So what?’ and ‘None of your business,’ ‘What’s the problem with having sex?’ or ‘Each to their own, if they enjoy it.’

I’m (probably) not going to suggest we adopt as our formal slogan, ‘Liberal Democrats: the party that says sex is all right’. Still, we’ve had worse, and – if slightly tongue-in-cheek – I’ve yet to hear a better suggestion for one likely to make people sit up, take notice and think, ‘Oh, that’s what the Lib Dems are for, and I like it.’

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On Jonathan Calder and the ‘first sex scandal’…

I can’t find this in his text now; perhaps he fiddles with his posts as much as I do mine, or I saw it somewhere else. Anyway, I still think Lib Dems having a go at Mr Oaten achieve exactly the effect that Mr Oaten’s self-promotion does: further linking the words ‘Lib Dem’ and ‘Scandal’, or ‘Sex’ and ‘Scandal’, neither of which conjunctions strikes me as a brilliant idea.
I quite agree - the media love to pick on perceived 'weakness', whether it's being working-class or gay.

But I think you let us, the public, off too easily. I blogged about this, back when Michael Barrymore was being rehabilitated via Celeb BB -

There's way too much hypocrisy surrounds all this from all sides.
Quite agree.

Perhaps we should adapt the old Trudeau catchhrase"the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation".

"The nation has no place in the bedroom of the statesman"
Thanks, both. I have to admit I like the odd gossip too, but being critical of other people's sex lives seems just morally wrong for a Liberal. And the equivalent of sticking on a 'kick me' sign (as all those clips of Mr Prescott having a go at Tory sex 'sleaze' testify).

Good point, Stephen, and good blog. One of the reasons I think we should take this position (as it were) is to stand up to such attitudes. The trouble is, however Liberal we are on policy issues - not always as much as we think, remembering being in a minority of one on the FPC in backing the initial, most Liberal draft of our 1993/4 paper on prostitution - if we sound at all preachy about other people's sex lives the nuances just make us sound hypocritical.

Ironically, on the working class 'weakness' you mention, the more mendacious Labour spinners have been desperate to paint Mr Prescott's bad headlines as 'snobbery' - as if only working class MPs had ever been pilloried for their sex lives - but Richard pointed out that while the fuss over him playing croquet is genuine snobbery, while some of it's been from the Daily Mail, it's largely from his Labour colleagues and of the inverse sort.
I think you must have seen it somewhere else. One of my constant themes is that nothing is as new as we think it is - sex scandals included.
Thanks, your Lordship. I’ve put in an appropriate edit - opinionated rather than inaccurate, that’s me. Well, mostly; of course, it wasn’t Oscar Wilde, either, but if I didn’t say that it'd spoil the segue…
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