THE BLOG

Hypocrisy Is the Least of Political Sins

11/02/2014 11:23 GMT | Updated 12/04/2014 10:59 BST

Everyone knows that you shouldn't be allowed to write and publish anything if you have to resort to cliché. Which reminds me of the words of Keynes: When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?

Do you see what I did there?

Hypocrisy seems to be the last resort of scoundrels, and the first port of call for politicians. David Cameron is imposing austerity on working families but exempting his city mates from tax. Hypocrisy. Ed Milliband rails against vested interest then accepts millions from trade unions. Hypocrisy.

We live in a world of nuance and tone. Not many people are Stalin, fewer still are Ghandi. How many times has a political debate been shut down because the politician raising it has some sort of past, or once said something, or had an independent thought? Then we (the biggest hypocrites of all) cry that politicians no longer give it to us straight, apart from the utterly shameless, the Johnsons and Farages of the world whose shtick is that although they may be bastards at least they are honest enough to admit it.

Hypocrisy is the inevitable by-product of democracy. Think about that for a moment, let it sink in. It is actually a message of hope and joy rather than of dishonour. No one accuses Kim Jong-Un of hypocrisy, because if he wakes up one day and decides that the sun rises in the west or that daffodils are decadent then that is the way it is. At the height of Mao's purges he was known to look down lists of district commissars, picking names at random to be denounced as class traitors, choosing to keep everybody on their toes rather than spend time rooting out actual enemies. Again, hypocrisy is not at the top of the list of sins.

This is not an invitation to defraud, dissemble or dissociate. Instead it is an invitation to do what is thought right, and risk the charge of 'hypocrite' as indicating that nothing else sticks. At the heights of their pomp, Blair was known as Teflon Tony and Clinton as Slick Willy. The very worst that political enemies can throw when no other punches land is the charge of hypocrite. Take points from him, ref. My fist would have connected if he hadn't moved his head.

So, willing to be a hypocrite myself, I don't defend hypocrites individually but hypocrisy generally.

Take the scandal of the week - and does it really count as a scandal if it only lasts one news-cycle, albeit one cut short by the flooding? - the resignation of Mark Harper as Immigration Minister. Harper is generally considered to have acted honourably by swiftly resigning on discovering that (depending on how you look at it) his cleaner was verbally dishonest to him, or that he was not rigorous enough in checking her credentials despite being the Minister responsible for telling people to be rigorous in checking immigrants credentials.

If nothing else, the Ministerial defenestration was swift and efficient, with resignation and acceptance letters exchanged with each other, and more importantly with the press, with such haste that it almost makes you wonder whether these things are kept ready on file.

Cameron's reply was couched in the gentle terms of thank-you for your service and see you back in Government as soon as the papers have forgotten your name. The crucial political phrase came however not in the pleasantries of letters but in the statement made to the press: 'There was no suggestion that [Mark Harper] knowingly employed an illegal immigrant.'

Which word in that statement is the objectionable one - knowingly, illegal, or immigrant? On the surface of it, it is difficult to say. For a minister, any minister, to break the law, knowingly or otherwise, is a sackable offense. But depending on the severity of the crime, taking action to correct a minor legal oversight the moment it comes to your attention, unless it was egregiously irresponsible or improbable not to know that you broke the law, shouldn't automatically be a resigning matter.

We all know the political semantics here. It is immigrant that is the political live rail; illegal is in a political sense not much more than a technicality, and knowingly is almost entirely irrelevant. Harper became political kryptonite the moment he realised that he didn't know his cleaner's legal status, despite being the Minister responsible for preventing illegal immigration. Knowing the explosive issue immigration is in the press and the Tory party, you would think that a prudent course of action would be not to employ a cleaner at all, given that it is a trade that illegal immigrants are known to target, or to find one with an obviously English background.

Harper took a bullet for his party so that charges of hypocrisy on the issue of immigration, where the Tories haves carefully cultivated a particular image, would be minimised. As a result, two people have lost their jobs so that the words 'Tory', 'Immigration' and 'Scandal' appear only once on the front page of the Daily Mail.

Crimes of omission are still crimes, and I am even sympathetic to the argument that politicians have a particular duty to the public to be seen to act within the letter of the law. But there have been many 'scandals' where the Prime Minister has thought it worth gearing up politically for a fight, most recently on the failure of the Work Programme on the watch of Iain Duncan-Smith, the introduction of the Bedroom Tax making thousands of already vulnerable people homeless, the employment of Andy Coulson and general cosiness with the toxic Murdoch empire, and the defence of Jeremy Hunt (and his subsequent promotion to Health Secretary) following lobbying on the BskyB take-over bid. But Cameron didn't dare touch the issue of immigration. Which means that he didn't want to have to publicly defend either the Minister, or (as I am minded to suspect) the policy.

In recent years, Ministers and senior politicians have been forced to resign in a number of scandals: Peter Mandelson resigned twice and still ended up in the House of Lords; David Blunkett broke the Ministerial Code on employing his lover whilst Home Secretary; Charles Kennedy was forced to resign as Leader of his party due to his widely-known alcohol dependency; Peter Hain accepted irregular payments of £100,000 to his campaign for Deputy Leader of the Labour Party; David Laws resigned as Chief Secretary to the Treasury and was suspended from Parliament after just seventeen days in the job due to expenses abuse; not to mention eight MPs and Peers jailed in the 2010 expenses scandal, and a ninth only escaping jail due to being found incapable of standing trial. Elsewhere, the Mayor of Toronto and current chutzpah World Champion Rob Ford is still in office even after admitting to smoking crack on the job. (Perhaps his constituents thought it better if he did.)

Each and every one of these what we might call 'proper' scandals involved in some explicit or unconscious way a political decision by an individual or a group that attempting to weather the storm was a better course of action than immediate dismissal, whether for the noble cause of standing by your friends, or the baser political desire not to be beaten by opponents or by the media. On each occasion, as we know, standing by the individuals in question just ended up adding to the scandal. To lose a politician so readily for hypocrisy (and let's be in no doubt - a Tory Immigration Minister knows the consequences of failing in that role), just further adds to the sense that politicians put party before country by being so willing to embrace the political defeat of losing a Minister to avoid the political defeat of temporarily looking soft on immigration.

I simply point out that although politicians' shenanigans are so capable of pushing our buttons, a generalised insistence that hypocrisy is bad, especially when applied to those issues such as immigration, Europe or benefits that make our blood especially boil, undermines our trust in Parliament and the political process by failing to discriminate between legal, moral and political crimes. It buys into the narrative that process rather than issues matter in politics; that personality and not policy counts. If we want politics to be a serious profession, it's time we treated it seriously.