Hywel Williams

The oldest truth in political history

The oldest truth in political history
Text settings

Poor Derek Conway. The allegations about how he used his allowances have been an opportunity for an avalanche of homophobic gossip about his son and a tidal wave of sneering about class. I hold no particular candle for the Conways - apart from having once spent a very enjoyable week stalking with them in the Scottish highlands. For the record -a nd since declaration of interest seems to be the order of the day - I recall her as being the better shot of the two, and I’m worse than either of them.

The last time we had quite such a nasty attack on a family in the public eye was when William of Wales split up with Kate of Middleton. ‘Doors to manual’ has now yielded to stuff about boys who went to secondary modern schools sending their sons to Harrow, and finger-pointing at wives who still wear furs.

There are of course all sorts of reasons for not wanting to be an old - or young - Harrovian, fear of being thought spivvy would certainly be one of them. But it’s always been a school with a good record for taking the sons of commerce by the hand and smoothing away a few edges. And Conway mi certainly seems to have a nice turn of phrase if his coinage of ‘Blond, bouncy, and one for the boys’ is anything to go by.

But do we really have to go through all this stuff about class and education yet again in British public life? George Young and Nicholas Soames - the two members of the Select Committee who seem to have been particularly exercised by Conway Inc. -  are members of the Toff Tendency, a genetic condition over which they have no control. But why should that fact be used to explain – as some have tried to do - the depth of their horror concerning the Conway cause celebre?  Possession of blue bloodedness is no automatic guarantee of an inability to decide a case on its objective merits - even if meritocracy may not be one’s cup of tea.

The ‘public interest’ angle comes into play with the allegation that Conway ma and Conway mi have both been paid by Conway pere to do very little work. Hand wringing and pompous stuff then gets written about politicians breaking promises, being worthless, having no great causes, being on the take, belonging to a class which transcends party divisions et hoc genus omne (as they might say in the classical div in Harrow ).

But ‘Connection’ is the oldest truth in political history and far more important a force than political ideas (as well as being more interesting). From Rome’s senatorial aristocracy onwards those who wish to do the state some service have invariably wanted to do their families some good as well. Derek Conway’s clientage system certainly seems to have been more ambitious in scope than is fashionable these days. But it’s the naivety which is striking rather than any corruption.

Those who want to get into the political family business at a respectable level of start-up enterprise and within the rules should look instead at such exemplary patricians of the left as Mr and Mrs Balls, since it is in fact the left which produces political dynasties these days and not the right. Derek Conway might not have had the foundation of a political dynasty in mind when he signed off on those salaries. That is surely a pity. Henry Conway’s volume on the history of knitting must be a better read than the latest policy wonkish pamphlet from CPS, Politeia, Policy Exchange and other centres of the higher dullness. England has need of such men in these dreary times.

Henry’s father was just operating the system – as so many MPs have done before him - and being indulgent towards his sons - which is a rather attractive trait. The true scandal is that such allowances are made available to MPs at all. If the Conway sons didn’t do the work-then who did?  The real lesson to be drawn from this sorry episode as it rumbles on is that back bench MPs can get away with doing really very little work all day long. All they need is a secretary who can spell, reply to e mails, and pass on the correspondence to the relevant minister. And all those PAs of theirs would be better off knitting.