Another terrible night spent tossing and turning, racked with worry over whether or not I have ever had sex with Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democratic party. It is not something I remember doing and on the face of it, both of us being heterosexual, it seems highly unlikely. But one can never be too sure. Given Mr Clegg’s singularly ectoplasmic tenure as leader of his party it seems to me possible that we may have had some desultory form of intercourse without my even knowing about it. He might have slithered in and then out again, wraith-like, while I was oiling the garden shears in the shed, or reading an interesting book by Will Hutton. The sensible thing to do would be to stop worrying about the whole thing entirely, as it is quite unknowable. Sex with Mr Clegg falls into the category of what Immanuel Kant, in the Critique of Pure Reason, called the noumenon — that which is not an object of our sensible intuition. Thinking about it, Mr Clegg, per se, may well fall into this category too. I should be worrying about other things at night — like sausages giving me cancer, or why Morgan Tsvangirai makes me feel a little twitchy, or the ultimate destination of my mortal soul.
Nick Clegg made a decision to reveal his number of sexual partners to a journalist of colossal stupidity and self-absorption, Piers Morgan, in the magazine GQ. Compared to Morgan, the surface tension of a bowl of pea and ham soup possesses both depth and intellectual gravitas. Politicians shouldn’t speak to this disgraced butter-faced public-school ape about anything, let alone how many women they’ve shagged. But he did, which was political miscalculation number one. Perhaps he was simply flattered that GQ had shown an interest. He then quoted a rough figure of ‘30’ before quickly backtracking and insisting that it was certainly somewhat less than this number, although he did not elucidate further. He confessed himself to be a reasonably competent but not especially memorable lover (much as I have intimated above, in fact).
The excuse for this sudden incontinence, this priapic spurt from the confessional, was that these days, apparently, we have a new and welcome openness in our polity. Candour, we are told, is the new spin. You are asked a direct question and you answer it directly, without recourse to rebuttal units putting out a press release saying ‘actually it was only 14.65 women he slept with, exactly the national average according to a recent survey in the Observer, and on each occasion the sex was wholly consensual and left his stakeholder partners feeling moderately happy and reasonably fulfilled’. As it happens, Nick Clegg’s answer was the sort of answer a spin doctor might well have given; devoid of excessive sexual braggadocio, which none of us find attractive, but displaying a raffish modernity (‘30 — but my latest one is the best!’). But whether candour or spin, whatever way you look at it, there is no answer to the question which would not draw an elongated, pinch-faced ‘Eeewwwww, no, please…’ from the vast majority of the electorate. If he had said that he had slept with 5,000 women, we might have raised an eyebrow and wondered about his imagination. If he had said, ‘Well, actually, none — but I masturbate like a wizard, I can tell you,’ we would have made our excuses and left the polling booth for ever. But between those two poles, any answer was bound to make us squirm a little and think slightly the less of him. As it was, his answer was impeccably moderate, perfectly au courant, and of course it has still landed him in trouble. We all squirmed.
I think that this all comes from a misapprehension about the nature and purpose of candour in political discourse. It is undoubtedly the case that we’ve had enough of ‘spin’. By spin, though, I mean little party whores like Tom Kelly (now at New Labour’s wonderful spin-off project, BAA) defaming the name of the dead government scientist Dr David Kelly by likening him to Walter Mitty in an attempt to get his repulsive masters off the hook. Or his boss, Alastair Campbell, taking an unguarded, insupportable, throwaway remark, to the effect that Iraq’s military capabilities may at some stage enable Saddam Hussein to target British troops in Cyprus within 45 minutes, and shove it on the front page of a dossier as a reason to invade a sovereign country. Or Blair’s blithe insistence, over five long years, that the little document to be considered by the European Union countries does not remotely amount to a European constitution. Or, indeed, Gordon Brown’s creation of five utterly meaningless stipulations which would allow the UK to join the European single currency. Now that stuff was spin. Spin is either being disingenuous or (more often) telling a downright lie on an issue of importance to the electorate in order to secure for your political paymasters an electoral advantage. By contrast, candour would be saying (to cite one example) the following: ‘We think the European Union should have a constitution; this is because we believe Britain’s future lies in a federation of states with a single identity and a common goal. The nation state, as both a concept and a practical entity, is dead and buried.’ That would be candour — and there are plenty on the Europhile wings of the major parties who would have welcomed such a statement. The sort of statement which Tony Blair, among many others, has been heard to utter in unguarded moments.
But candour does not mean doing what Nick Clegg has just done. We don’t think any more highly of our politicians because they put a serious face on and answer directly questions which, if they were asked of us, would result in — at the best — a glass of wine being thrown in the face of the interlocutor. It does not mean conniving with the moronic inquisitions of Jonathan Ross, or telling us all that you really like the Arctic Monkeys when, if truth be told, you have never even heard the f***ing Arctic Monkeys. That is not candour; that is spin by another name.