Tuesday, 7 February 2012

What Chris Huhne’s departure tells us about British politics

So, Chris Huhne has left the cabinet. Entire forests have already been destroyed over the interceding months, since the story broke about the speeding points allegedly taken for him by his wife. He will now be charged and is innocent until proven guilty: that is the fair play to which he is entitled.

We will never know – or at least, not for a while – whether Huhne genuinely went willingly, or was pressured to resign to avoid being sacked. But we’re also in new territory entirely: this is the first time a cabinet minister has been charged with a criminal offence in as long as anyone can remember, no-one quite knows what the rules are. And here’s a thing, which some have questioned: would it be right for a cabinet minister to have been made to go under such circumstances, given that he has not, as yet, been convicted of anything at all?

Yes, it is. Because this is not a parking fine. It’s a criminal charge, and criminal charges have to be taken seriously. Here’s what can happen when you don’t.

Mariano Rajoy, now Spanish prime minister, was last year in a similar position to Cameron and Clegg. But his judgement was another: that he was happy to let one of his party’s main figures, Francisco Camps, stay in post after being charged with a criminal offence. Although Camps later changed his mind and resigned anyway, the point was that, not being able to tell whether he was innocent or guilty, Rajoy had bet his party’s reputation on Camps. He lost.

Rajoy is now paying the political price for his calculation: the credibility of Spain’s ruling party, not to mention its justice system and the country’s “brand” abroad are now seriously threatened by this and other scandals, despite – and partly because of – the fact that Camps was acquitted two weeks ago, throwing a cloud of suspicion over the whole legal system in the process. It’s a mess.

The message Rajoy’s action sent was clear: the political class doesn’t have to answer to the same laws as the rest of us. They are above the law. Imagine the CEO of a multi-national being kept on while they answered criminal charges – it’s largely unthinkable, because the shareholders wouldn’t stand for it.

The point is that grown-up political parties cannot afford to take the risk of all that.

Two countries, two different decisions. In Britain Cameron and Clegg indicated fairly clearly before the announcement that Huhne would have to go if charged. In other words, they chose to protect their parties, the government and the judicial system by giving a signal that they take such allegations seriously. They have acted correctly, although they might have acted much earlier. Many thought this affair would blow over. It has not.

Those who have cried “witch-hunt” will know whether or not they are right shortly. Huhne may be found not guilty, or guilty. The trial might even collapse. But, in circumstances such as Friday’s announcement, we have a distinct choice: we can act like Britain and protect our reputation by removing the possibility of a direct association back to government, or we can act like Spain and risk it. We cannot know for certain what the truth is about Huhne, only probabilities, and for the moment we must keep that speculation to ourselves.

But it is right to act to protect the good name of our political system, just in case. It surely cannot be a bad thing that at least, unlike in many other countries, it is a highly unusual event for a senior British politician to be charged with a criminal offence. For all its faults and occasional lapses, we still have quite possibly the cleanest political system in the western world. We should be proud of that.

This post first published at Labour Uncut

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