My friends would concur in describing me as someone in whom the precautionary instinct is not as strong as it ought to be. But even I, were I Mark Oaten, would have asked myself whether running for the leadership of my party was a good idea. All over Westminster, all over Fleet Street and all over Britain, the reaction last weekend to the News of the World’s revelations was the same. Why, Mark, why?
Not why did he patronise rent boys. Most of my countrymen take a worldly if not approving view of the predilections of other men. There’s no accounting for tastes, we murmur — and who knows what drives a fellow human being? Maybe Mr Oaten wanted to be an MP, a husband and a father, but also to take a walk on the wild side. We can all put ourselves in the place of someone torn between ambitions which do not sit comfortably together but who hopes that by being discreet and careful he may hide the contradictions from the general view. And indeed it did look as though Oaten had been successful in that. How much interest would there have been in the story (which is to say: how much could someone have sold it for) if the MP had not been running for his party’s leadership? Not much.
So why did he ratchet up the risk by deliberately turning himself into a national figure? That was the ‘why’ on most lips at Westminster last week.
The easiest answer is the answer I gave, years ago, in the introduction to my book Great Parliamentary Scandals. There’s a streak of exhibitionism (I suggested) and a streak of derring-do in the make-up of a typical would-be politician. The risk of failure inherent in any putative political career is high. Most who start out on the path to Westminster fail: if not at the first fence — getting a Commons seat — then at a subsequent stage on the way to high office. The monetary rewards are very modest, even for the minority who do get to the top.
It is therefore probable that part of the motivation for a political career is the thrill of the chase, the kick men get out of the high wire and the cheers of the crowd — and perhaps the excitement inherent in the very risk of failure they run. Many politicians are by nature gamblers, with an exaggerated sense of their own luck, and a buccaneering streak. As with the obsessive mountaineer, fear of falling is not an argument against doing it: it is part of the thrill. One does not buy a lottery ticket on the basis of an actuarial calculation that this is rational: the irrationality — the flutter — is the point; and a political career is a sort of lifelong flutter for those who want to gamble with more than money: to gamble with their whole life. If this is the human type that is drawn to politics in the first place, should it be any wonder that a sizeable minority of them push risk-taking beyond normal limits?
That, as I say, is a persuasive argument, on which as a commentator I’ve often relied. It has the advantage, too, of sounding spirited, and makes for a rather jolly debate. I don’t resile from it. I do think there’s something in it.
But I have never quite been able to ignore a different and more boring explanation; and the longer I’ve observed political men and women, the more convinced I have become that in this, too, there is truth. The great majority of those who take what we call ‘stupid’ risks never pay the price. Are they, then, quite as stupid as we think? People in the public eye who take risks in their lives may not be entirely irrational. The quality which distinguishes them may be nerve.
I am as sure — on the basis of common observation and anecdotal evidence — as it is possible to be that most people never get found out. Disraeli took enormous risks both financially and in his dandified early life. Gladstone brought prostitutes into Downing Street. Rosebery may well have had an affair with another man. Lloyd George’s womanising was famous with everyone except the voters. Horatio Bottomley’s monumental financial extortion and generally cheating nature could have been established and exposed long before it actually happened. Lewis Harcourt’s unnatural interest in children was known about within his own circle for years before he fell.
When post-second-world-war scandals like the Christine Keeler affair, or Lord Lambton’s frolics with a ‘vice ring’ broke, there was a widespread view among the establishment (not the public) that this sort of thing was very common, and the exposed politicians unlucky. George Brown’s drunkenness was covered up for ages. The further we get from the Wilson epoch, the more disgraceful, grubby and bizarre it looks (Joe Haines’s and Bernard Donoghue’s memoirs ought to be dynamite, were Britain not so determined to be uninterested in the era).
Edwina Currie and John Major kept their extraordinary secret for a decade and a half. There were plenty of homosexual MPs when I was in the House; some were most indiscreet, and none was ever exposed (and look at the late Tom Driberg!). In the days when, as an MP, I used to cruise on Clapham Common I bumped into at least one colleague (of another I am less sure) and when, years ago, I saw a Labour minister emerging from a fairly low gay dive in Soho, it would no more have occurred to me to go to the News of the World than when I saw Charles Kennedy legless, years ago.
A decade hence we shall look back on Tony Blair’s ‘purer than pure’ years in power and marvel at the things that went on under our noses yet never quite came to light.
Some of these sins were committed in the unscrupulous pursuit of power, money or advantage. Others — the sins of self-indulgence — were committed gratuitously, for fun or private pleasure. What most have in common is that they were committed so incautiously as to be little short of brazen; so repeatedly as to be little short of habitual; and for so long as to become part of the background scenery at Westminster. Most, if or when finally detected, appeared so astonishingly flagrant that we all wondered (1) that it had taken us so long to find out, and (2) how the miscreant could possibly have supposed nobody would.
But of course (1) is the answer to (2). Given how long we have taken to discover what we have discovered, it’s a fair bet that much has remained undiscovered, and always will. Perhaps it is not risk-takers but risk-avoiders who fail to make the cool actuarial calculations. ‘It will all come out in the end,’ say the wise. Not in my experience.
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.