In scene 9 of William Congreve’s The Way of the World, amid a fiendish tangle of desire, deception and general waywardness (Sir Wilfull Witwoud: ‘Ahey! Wenches? Where are the wenches?’), Lady Wishfort speaks for many of us as she cuts the discussion short. ‘This will never do!’ she declares.
This will never do. To my dismay this week, as the nation’s kitchen tables buzz with instant opinion concerning a particular politician’s private life, Filipina nannies, rail warrants, visa applications, DNA tests, security warnings, government cars, and the bearing (or otherwise) of any or all of these on a person’s fitness for public office, I find myself bereft of any reasoned opinion at all, beyond a matronly urge to sweep all arguments aside, and join Lady Wishfort in her conclusion. It won’t do.
It just won’t do. I can’t put my finger on why, but it won’t. I wonder whether there is more to be said.
The problem for a columnist and freelance broadcast commentator, however, is this: there’s a limit to the number of broadcast minutes or printed words to which one can spin out the Wishfort doctrine. ‘That may be your view,’ one’s interviewer is likely to reply, ‘and so far as you’re concerned it may indeed not do, but what in particular won’t do? And why?’
And at once one is in difficulty. Because there really isn’t anything in particular which so won’t do that the whole thing won’t do. It’s the whole lot together which won’t do; it’s the one-damn-thing-after-another that won’t do; it’s the ‘oh for Pete’s sake, not another unpleasant newspaper article about something else he/she is alleged to have done’ that won’t do. It’s the ‘that’s enough about Cecil P/David M/Tim Y/Edwina C/Peter M/David B, or Kitty O’Shea — Ed.’ which provokes the final Won’t Do. It’s not the ‘X did this’ (or that) which won’t do, it’s the growing feeling that X is trouble.
Any parent, or schoolteacher, or personnel manager, or employment tribunal chairman, or editor, or army officer, knows this. Anyone who has to exercise some sort of supervision over others will tell you how often it can be their difficult but unavoidable duty to conclude that though it is hard to pin upon a person any single misdeed so heinous as to warrant reprimand or expulsion, a ‘pattern of behaviour’ has been established which has become unacceptable.
A story, or a series of chapters in a story, or a string of otherwise unrelated stories, can attract an air of general waywardness, unseemliness, poor judgment or insubordination. The honest response to this is to say so: to admit that there is no hanging offence or smoking gun, just a nasty smell; and it won’t do. In an increasingly legalistic (even litigious) world, however, the appetite grows for the equivalent of a penal code, according to which an infringement must be found which is so serious as to warrant the ultimate sanction.
But when we do this — when we try to press into the language of the dock and the chargesheet what is really the language of general estimation — we become dishonest. We invest quite trivial incidents with inappropriate gravity simply because they may be easy to light upon, investigate and judge. I expect Peter Hain, the Leader of the House, was quite right to say that MPs are always being called upon to help acquaintances or friends with forms and applications, and if I were to tell you that Cabinet minister X is rumoured to have stopped a beggar in the street and, filled with sudden pity for him, offered to ‘fast track’ him into an overnight hostel, I doubt you would be calling for an inquiry, let alone a resignation. The ‘fast-tracking’ of a visa application, which is always illegitimate in a minister, gains or loses heinousness in our minds depending on whom he or she is trying to help, and why.
In the case now in the news, it was shrewd of the Prime Minister and the minister concerned to draw the media’s fire on to one allegation alone — rather like Brer Rabbit luring the fox towards the very brier-patch beneath which he knew his escape-burrow lay. I dare say that the harder we focus on this one alleged misdeed, the stronger will become our sense of a disproportion between the alleged misdeed and the media fuss. In the end, perhaps, it will be found that a degree of unwisdom was shown, but no grave dereliction of duty, and the headlines will be ‘Off the hook’. The mistake was to seek a single hook.
A similar dishonesty was shown in the way in which the media and the Commons of the day justified the destruction of John Profumo’s career. How neat, to say that it was ‘lying to the House’ which finished the Secretary of State for War. ‘“Oh what have you done?” said Christine/ “You’ve wrecked the whole party machine./ To lie in the nude may be terribly rude/ But to lie to the House is obscene.”’
The truth is that stories of partygoing in grand houses, naked swims at midnight, call-girls, alcohol, Soviet naval attachés and high-society contributed to an overall picture of cynicism and decadence for which the public and the press did not care at all, particularly in a Tory government which had been in power for some time. But you cannot sack a chap for that, most of it being little fault of his. It would have been more honest, however, if Harold Macmillan had told John Profumo that in all the circumstances, and taking into account the totality of his behaviour and that of others who were involved with him, it would not do. Instead, we arrive at a false doctrine that ‘lying to the House’ occupies some extraordinary category in the catalogue of political misdeeds; whereas in fact lying to the House was just the last straw, as far as many colleagues were concerned.
I wonder whether those critics of government whose instincts are to look for hanging offences, nailable lies, chargesheets, and committees of inquiry to look into them, may not unwittingly be making the task of calling our political class to account more difficult. There being few out-and-out villains in modern British politics, we are unlikely to make such charges stick. The supposed hanging offence will turn out to deserve only a caution; the committee of inquiry will deliberate long and hard and finally issue a nuanced conclusion.
Had we but a little more confidence in ourselves, then we might admit what few who exercise responsibilities in their own lives would ever doubt: that the last straw did not weigh any more than any of the other straws — indeed, may have been one of the least among the straws laid upon the camel’s back. Don’t waste too much time on this, that, or the last straw. Look at the whole bundle. It may be that which, in Lady Wishfort’s immortal words, will never do.
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.