The Blog

The Shadow of the Past - We Should Not Hold Old Stories About Who Mr Khan Once Rubbed Shoulders With Against Him

There are many reasons which may make us vote for or against Mr Khan but these incidents from many years ago are surely not among them.

Some jokes are recycled generation by generation and they are often not very good ones. Take this as an example. A man walks into a restaurant and orders soup. When it is served it looks horrible:

Customer: "This is disgusting, waiter. What is it?"

Waiter: "It's bean soup, Sir"

Customer: "I don't care what it's been, what is it now?"

It is not very funny, is it? Although it will go down a treat with an eight-year-old who has not heard it before, that is a narrow market and can hardly be the reason for its survival. No, to find that you need to seek something else, a deeper truth perhaps, a hidden meaning, and if you apply the last line to men rather than soup you will find it. The point is that it isn't what people once were that matters: it is what they are now.

That may seem obvious enough in the abstract but it isn't the impression you would get from the campaign to be the next Mayor of London, where one of the issues raised is that in 2003 the Labour candidate, Sadiq Khan, then the chairman of Liberty, spoke at a conference to support prisoners in Guantánamo Bay. The other speakers included a man who had been convicted of terrorism in Egypt and another who called for attacks on British troops and was involved in training terrorists.

Nobody thinks that Khan is in any way sympathetic to terrorism. Indeed he is a leading spokesman for moderate Islam and has himself been the subject of a fatwa. Nor was his contribution to the conference, a speech on representing a 9/11 conspirator and criticising two anti-terrorism bills, anything other than what might be expected from a leading human rights lawyer. Nonetheless his participation at the conference and a number of other broadly similar incidents (you will find them listed on the conservativehome website) has provided grist to the political mill and has led to the questioning of his judgement.

It is of course fair enough that those putting themselves forward for public office become open to scrutiny. After all, the leaders of both main political parties have had to make their tax affairs public following the publication of the Panama papers. There is nothing wrong, either, in focusing on who they rub shoulders with since that can give a clue to their political outlook.

What is striking here is that these events are so long ago. Now it may be that Mr Khan was unwise in his choice of speaking engagements in 2003. Perhaps he was: perhaps he was not. But either way it is about as relevant to his ability to perform the role of Mayor of London as is David Cameron's undergraduate membership of the Bullingdon Club to his suitability to serve as prime minister. Most people change their views as they get older. The gathering weight of experience and the curbing of youthful exuberance see to that. It is not always for the better, of course, but the fact of change is fairly universal. If that was not the case we would all still have the views which we held as teenagers.

Nowhere are these changes more evident than among politicians. There they are driven by the pressures of their profession as well as by nature. Politicians are naturally ambitious and will tend towards the allegiances which they think will take them forward. When they are young they need to get themselves noticed and will often associate with radical causes. Once they have established themselves, the game changes. Then they need a broader base of support and will be found slithering gradually into the political mainstream. That isn't just self-serving manoeuvre. Exposure to political life and office teaches them that simplistic solutions will not work, and the change of views is often quite genuine.

Election campaigns are aggressive. The parties fish around for anything which they think will give them an edge and, in the heat of the moment, anything will be seized on. Actually the use which his opponents have made of Mr Khan's past has been fairly restricted. No one is trying to paint him as an extremist, they merely say that he has rubbed shoulders with the wrong people and that that shows a lack of judgement. Still, it is almost certainly a tactic which will backfire.

Raking over someone's past does not sit particularly well with the British way of life. The sentences handed down by British courts are shorter than their transatlantic equivalents - reflecting a greater emphasis on rehabilitation rather than punishment. The public believes that those who have erred should be given a second chance and it is widely accepted that the prison system should focus on helping prisoners to rehabilitate and not just on locking them up. Perhaps that attitude derives from the place of redemption and forgiveness at the heart of the Christian faith, a faith where men like St Paul could achieve canonisation despite what can only be described as a very ugly early life.

But it isn't just generosity or philosophy which should make us reluctant to hold peoples' pasts against them. Often the best of them have behaved badly in their youth and to deprive ourselves of their talents on that basis is simply a foolish waste. Shakespeare, of course, hit on that very point by making a dissolute past the curtain raiser to Henry V's heroic reign. To test the matter further you need to ask yourself one question. Would you prefer the country to be run by those who never made mistakes while young because they always accepted the wisdom of their parents and followed the conventional line? Or would you rather include those who have a more adventurous past, eventually learning to curb their rashness on the anvil of experience? There can't be many who would vote for the first lot.

Looking at people as they are now and trusting them despite past mistakes can certainly bear fruit. Churchill is an extreme example. The public could have taken the view that the mess he made of Gallipoli meant that his judgement was too compromised for further public office. Luckily, they didn't.

There are many reasons which may make us vote for or against Mr Khan but these incidents from many years ago are surely not among them.

Republished from the Shaw Sheet