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Public life, private life and public trust – reflections on two consecutive TV programmes

It was a peculiar juxtaposition of programmes. First I watched the latest episode of Spooks, on BBC1 TV, and then I watched the BBC Ten O’Clock News, without pushing any buttons on the TV because that was on BBC1 TV also.

The News was dominated by David Blunkett‘s difficulties, largely self-inflicted, it would appear. There will be an independent inquiry into whether Blunkett fast-tracked a visa application for his ex-lover’s nanny, and the Prime Minister announced that he was confident of the outcome, which was an odd combination of circumstances. If the Prime Minister is so sure, why the independent inquiry? Why can he simply not say why he is so sure of the impeccability of his Home Secretary? And as another talking head opined, it would now take a brave independent inquirer to fly so completely in the face of Blair’s clear statement of what he wants the answer to be. Which means that if the independent inquiry does endorse the Prime Minister’s view, the suspicion will remain that this was because of the Prime Minister publicly demanding that answer instead of because the answer is true. So whichever way the independent inquiry goes, the stink will either be strong, or strong.

Spooks (a programme I have had cause to mention here before) was a even more lurid soap opera than usual – of junior Ministerial wrongdoing (he murders a girl, then resigns to spend more time with his family (sound familiar?)), of a famed rock and roll couple (she has her baby kidnapped to keep them in the news, but it goes wrong, the baby dies, and he finally murders her in a rage and then shoots himself). Downing Street was presented throughout as relentlessly manipulating a deranged state of public sentimentality (not least in calling in the Spooks to sort the matter in the first place, instead of leaving it to the Police), as in the grip of electoral desperation, as total hypocritical, and generally as a huge cover-up machine. If this show is any clue as to the state of public opinion, out there in Middle England, we have our answer to that question about why the Prime Minister does not want to explain why he believes his Home Secretary to be innocent of all wrongdoing. Middle England would not trust such pronouncements further than it could spit them. The Prime Minister is not trusted. It is perhaps worth mentioning that the actor who personifies this Downing Street ghastliness in Spooks is a man called Oliver Mace, who is played by Tim McInnerney. McInernney is probably most famous for playing Captain Darling in Blackadder Goes Forth. But since doing that he played a fixer for Sir Ian McKellen’s wonderfully fascist and scary Richard III, a virtually identical character to the one he now plays in Spooks. So the equation is inescapable. Downing Street is the haunt of Shakespearian villains. Whether the Prime Minister is one of them or merely the manipulated façade (Richard III or more like Richard II), is really a matter of individual taste in how you choose to interpret such things.

For my own part, I doubt the claim, also strongly made by the Prime Minister on the news, that a Cabinet Minister, just like anyone else, is entitled to have his private life kept private, and free from public criticism. The underlying implication is that, in particular, marital infidelity is a purely private matter. I know that this is a widely held view nowadays, what with so many people now cheating on each other, and then getting divorced, but I do not share it. I think that when people break their marriage vows by committing adultery, that impacts upon the public realm. Typically, married people have promised, often with just such words, not to commit adultery. And they did this, if not exactly ‘in public’, then in something a lot more open than complete secrecy. That half of the Cabinet, or whatever is the exact fraction, have dabbled in adultery, just as a massive proportion of the rest of us have, makes public life a lot harder to do. Yes, I lied to the wife about my infidelities, but no I am not now lying to you about public policy. (I can – see the comments on Perry’s recent Blunkett posting – be trusted not to abuse a compulsory ID card system.)

I just does not , to my eye, add up. I strongly disapprove of the whole principle of no fault divorce. Enthrone that principle, and the next thing you will get is no fault politics.

And if anyone mentions France, where, allegedly, they take a more mature and rational view of these things, my answer is: precisely. Cynicism about private life is directly to be associated, I would say, with cynicism about the more public side of things. French public life is relentlessly corrupt and cynical, and they are oh-so-rational about adultery. I do not think these facts are coincidental.

My telly has just shown me the front page of tomorrow’s Telegraph, which was something along the lines of: “Prime Minister says Cabinet Ministers should not be morally criticised for their private lives.” That would suggest that they think something along these lines too.

Some people, of the sort who confuse (or who like to pretend for propaganda purposes that they confuse) libertarianism with libertinism, might expect a libertarian like me to rejoice at any collapse in marital fidelity. But my libertarianism is about the right to choose what promises you make, not about the right to break them with impunity, to the point where you are not even to be criticised for such cheating.

And other more subtle-minded persons might expect a libertarian like me to rejoice that the state of modern morals (or immorals) is making politics so much harder to do with any dignity.

But cynicism about public life is one thing and the belief that the government should do a lot less than it now does – that public life ought to be smaller, so to speak – are two quite distinct matters. I wish they were not distinct matters, but sadly they are. Libertarianism is a strong and forthright attempt to see the affairs of the world governed far more in accordance with morally upright principles than it is at the moment. The sort of ideas I saw proclaimed on my television this evening are far more likely to lead people to believe that any such principles are either sentimental hot air or else an exercise in hypocritical manipulation and to dismiss them with a resigned shrug, than to believe that these principles are right.

30 comments to Public life, private life and public trust – reflections on two consecutive TV programmes

  • bill

    Your reflections remind me of Tocqueville’s view that a child learns to trust public figures by first learning to trust the fidelity his/her parents show to one another in the “private” realm of marriage.

  • Bernie

    “Yes, I lied to the wife about my infidelities, but no I am not now lying to you about public policy.”


  • Bill Bulkeley

    Well said. Libertarianism depends utterly on the fidelity of the libertarian him/herself. Libertinism (and its abuse) is why the state has found it necessary to establish laws about marriage and infidelity.


  • I remember all the crap about how sophisticated the French were about tolerating Mitterand’s longstanding affair. Was there no connection at all between his failure to honor his vows of loyalty to his wife and his failure to honor his vows of loyalty to the Third Republic, that he broke when he became a Vichy colaborator?

  • I always wonder at how easily people break their marriage vows these days. Seriously, if you have no intention of staying faithful to your spouse, it’s probably best NOT to get up in front of your God, your pastor, your family, your friends, and your spouse and vow with every cell in your body to remain faithful. Something like 83% of the American people believes in a God–do they think he takes kindly to people breaking their promises to Him? Is this so difficult that so many people struggle to comprehend it?

    If you don’t want to stay faithful to one person for the rest of your life, don’t. But if you have no intention of fidelity, don’t pretend you do. Rewrite your wedding ceremony, “Until boredom do us part.” Don’t make a promise to God and the world you have no interest in keeping.

  • It all started going bad when the death penalty for adultry was abolished. That Jesus feller corrupted a significant part of the world with that bit. Worse people are carrying that idea much further than was ever intended.

    And then all those wretched English Kings. Hardly a fitting example for the peasants.

    The Wahabis have the right idea.

    By maintaining strict private standards they promote incorruptable public officials.

  • One of Ross Perot’s standard lines when he was running for president was that a man who will lie to his wife can’t be trusted not to lie to his country. Perot had many faults as a politician but on this point he was right.

  • Ronald Reagan was one of the most corrupt politicians America ever had.

    Proof? He was married to one woman Jane, while going out with another, Nancy.

    What more proof do you need of his corruption?

  • It is just possible, gentlemen, that the correlation coefficient between a politician’s private life and his public life is small.

    The problem is the stupid regulations, not the private life of the politicians.

    What is it about libertarianism you don’t understand?

  • M. Simon misses both of the points of this post, I think. First, optimizing information means that voters cannot possibly assess the details of any politicians actual work or proposals. All they can do is assess the basic outlines of the politicians personality, and what type of spouse he is says a lot about him. If he cheats on his wife he is not a person who is honest or who honors important commitments he has made, who gives in to his ordinary human weaknesses instead of resisting them, which means he is a person of weak character. These are relevant considerations. There is no meaningful divide between a person’s private character and his public life. He is the same man. M. Simon may choose to disregard these sort of facts. Other voters won’t and I would say the weight of evidence is that the other voters are right not to disregard information which they find to be relevant.

    The other point of the post is more profound. I think that M. Simon does not understand libertarianism very well if he misses it. A society based upon contracts and trust between individuals, with a minimum of state action requires that promises, contracts, trust be the bedrock of that society. This means nothing that the American founders did not know. A free society means that its citizens must be guided by an inner moral compass, they must be self-governing individually as well as communally. Merely saying “the problem is the stupid regulations” is to confuse a symptom for a disease. The problem is a society in which people prefer to refer their problems to a faceless, unaccountable bureaucracy than to their neighbors. They prefer to seek a compulsory solution to a negotiated one. Why? What would it take to move away from this model?

    The only society which approximated a free and open society of the sort that libertarians dream of was one in which contracts and promises and personal and professional rectitude were deemed to be sacred and severe social sanctions were imposed on persons who violated that code, particularly if they did so in some scandalous way. A politician who quietly had an affair might get away with it, so long as no one knew about it. But if he left his wife openly, he’d be finished. Marriage was a promise, promises are sacred, and society rests upon the solidity of such promises.

    You could make a deal on a handshake in such a world. A woman could walk across London at night in safety in such a world. It was free of stupid regulations and it cared very much whether its leading citizens were men of their word. It is not coincidence that these things occurred together.

  • jon

    “I always wonder at how easily people break their marriage vows these days. Seriously, if you have no intention of staying faithful to your spouse, it’s probably best NOT to get up in front of your God, your pastor, your family, your friends, and your spouse and vow with every cell in your body to remain faithful.”

    I got married by a judge, had no mention of God, and could have done it in front of complete strangers (I could have even married a complete stranger if I was so inclined and also able to find one willing to reciprocate). My marriage is just as valid to the state as is those that take place in a church, temple, synogogue, mosque, or Disneyland. Marriage is a civil ceremony that can have a religious aspect, not a religious act with civil results.

    As for cheating and lying, that’s something some people do whether they include their wives in it or not. Some scumbags tell their wives everything about their public failings and keep an honest marriage. Some lie and cheat everywhere. Some lie and cheat only to their wives (and this may have some societal effects, but not necessarily). There are many types of scum in the pond.

  • If Mr. Blunkett had bypassed the regulations as a favor to his wife would you be singing a different tune?

  • Judged by the standards presented here there will never be a libertarian society.

    A few good men may be enough for the US Marines (thank the Maker I was Navy), it can not possibly provide enough good men to run the society you envision.

    Now let us deal with real men. And what the public thinks about them.

    Alan Keyes vs. Jack Ryan to give a prominent Illinois example. A lot of people think the “immoral” Ryan would have gotten quite a few more votes than the “moral” Keyes.

    So the question becomes how to you make a reasonably functioning society given what you have to work with?

    In America we ignored Osama for a number of years so the Republicans could play “Wag the Dick”. Was that moral?

    Clinton from time to time would say “now there is this feller Osama” and the Republicans would scream that Clinton was just trying to distract us from his dick. Thing is I fell for it at the time. Private morality and all that. Even though in my heart I was no better than Clinton (I thought Monicas was cute – personal taste).

    These days there is a war on. I sing a different tune. I was stupid to believe that because Clinton was getting BJs (while talking to Arafat – I’d say Clinton was making excellent use of his time) that what he had to say about Osama was of no account.

    I do understand the thrust of the argument here. I just don’t believe it.

    Personally I’m a Jack Ryan Republican. A flawed man. A libertine. I still believe in honest government. The less government the more honest.

    BTW doesn’t any one care to deal with the immoral Ronal Reagan? He cheated on his wife and won the Cold War. He was not perfect and yet he called the Soviets evil. Shouldn’t he have included himself?


  • Jim Bennett: about Mitterrand and Vichy.

    As far as I know, Mitterrand never swore alleigance to the Third Republic (which collapsed in1940). Whilst I am happy to damn the man several times a day, I can’t pin betrayal of the third Republic on him. He was a member of a extreme-nationalist youth group at the time, and not a public official.

    Also, once Vichy was established and de Gaulle was operating in London, it was a moot point which was the “legitimate” authority. De Gaulle was a minister in a government that had dissolved itself, handing power to Marshal Pétain. Where Vichy lost its moral authority was in its later actions, such as allowing/aiding the deportation of Jews and allowing the shooting of political hostages.

    In fairness to Mitterrand (!) at some point, he changed sides. I would date Mitterrand’s slimyness from when he re-invented himself as a Socialist in the 1960s.

  • Let’s not forget Rand — having her own kicks at the emotional expense of Barbara Brandon over Nathaniel.

    On Ronny, it seems he did a reasonable thing upon finding himself in love with another woman, not his wife. He divorced his wife, married his “true love”. In Hollywood I wouldn’t be surprised if he cheated on Jane with Nancy first — but he might not have (I don’t care much). I don’t believe he ever cheated on Nancy.

    While it IS reasonable to give Reagan some shame for his broken marriage — it should be much, much less than Clinton for his numerous lust cheats.

    Men CAN change — read St. Augustine. That’s also the promise, and one of the strengths, of Christianity. All are fallen, sinful — but one can always repent and “sin no more.”

    As a libertarian paternalist “Conservative,” I think no-fault divorce is a problem, but taking marriage vows lightly is a bigger problem. Yet marriage behavior is both a reflection of and contributor to a culture of “responsible promiscuity”.

    I call it consumer sex, and it is one of the actual problems in any materialistic society, especially without God or an afterlife. The British idea of honor, mostly adopted by Americans (cowboys and superheroes, especially), helps society far more than regulations.

    The rational Prisoner’s Dilemma action with only one interaction — cheat.

  • I wouldn’t pay that much attention to Spooks, which is becoming sillier and sillier. It may reflect something of what the hip urban crowd believes, but that doesn’t necessarily extend to the rest of Britain.

  • The first series of Spooks was good, the second series is dross IMHO.

    A shame.

  • Of course Blunkett is unmarried. I don’t know if he has ever been married but he isn’t now. His lover, though, was a married woman so the moral lookout is more hers than his.

    The specifics of this case aside, Brian is absolutely right. Breaking binding legal promises made as openly, publically and solemnly as marriage vows is not libertarian.

    There is no role for the state whatsoever, of course, but those innocents who are thus cheated on by their spouses should be able to sue for considerable damages. Unilaterally breaking marriage vows is extemely immoral and should be open to full legal recourse for the aggrieved party.

    However in a libertarian society people will be able to chosse their own bespoke marraige contracts and won’t have to make do with the monoploy state contract which is now hypocritical in its wording compared to the law and which often people who get married don’t want. Thus state monoploy leads people into making promises they don’t really want to keep and demoralises the population.

    Contracts should be freely drawn up but taken seriously. That way lies the moral recovery of the nation, not through facile appeals to tradition or religion.

  • Parsi

    From a libertarian perspective, Blunkett has many faults. But he has not lied to his wife. Nor has he been unfaithful
    to his wife. He does not have a wife. He divorced his first (and only) wife in 1990. Long before he met Mrs. Quinn.

  • What Paul Coulham said.

    M. Simon writes:

    A few good men may be enough for the US Marines (thank the Maker I was Navy), it can not possibly provide enough good men to run the society you [Lexington Green] envision.

    If there aren’t enough honest people to make a libertarian society function, I don’t see how you can ever get an honest government, especially given that dishonesty is practically a requirement to getting elected.

  • And a wise guy (I won’t mention names) says that the reason we need social laws is because other wise people will not act in accordance with what he believes is best voluntarily.

    Has the Church of England gone evangelical? Are they holding tent revivals?

    The people of the world want Democracy, Whiskey, Sexy.

    Why not see that they get it in theleast harmful way possible? Or is that too libertine an idea for libertarians?

  • To get closer to the root of the problem….Those who claim to be following Jesus Christ do not live his principles in their lives. For example, the church leaders say the 10 Commandments are no longer in force, so the congregation takes them for their word, and lives just like all the world around them.

    But God wrote it on stone with his finger for a reason – it’s for our best good to follow it.

  • Johnathan

    In a free society, it paradoxically becomes more necessary for people to develop reputations for honesty and trustworthiness in order to avoid the need for heavy state regulations to govern behaviour. That is not the same as saying that adulterous Home Secretaries should be stoned to death. (Although in Blunkett’s case the idea does have a certain appeal).

    In any event it is true that cheating husbands can make perfectly good CEOs or even politicians, as human experience may suggest, but the broad thrust of Brian’s article makes a lot of sense.

  • James

    Tom Grey:
    Men CAN change — read St. Augustine. That’s also the promise, and one of the strengths, of Christianity. All are fallen, sinful — but one can always repent and “sin no more.”

    Sounds like the modern justice system. “Commit a crime? Repent and ye shall be saved (to commit more of them, which you can then repent at a reduced community service rate if you agree to get ‘counselling’) Don’t worry, it’s all in the repenting, not the commiting!” Please, spare us the Christianity-as-miracle-cure hypothesis.

    But God wrote it on stone with his finger for a reason – it’s for our best good to follow it.

    Okaaayyyy then…(Backs away slowly)

  • mike

    What Paul Coulam said.

    James: I think Tom Grey’s point about redemption is a good one actually. Sure, we can all have a laugh at the die-hard christians, but it’s the psychology of redemption that’s interesting not the theological trimming. The best illustration I can think of is the whole redemption sequence with Robert De Niro’s character in The Mission. Describing it here for you would be too much of a digression, but it is one of my all-time favourite film scenes – it is almost shockingly believable.

    Anyway, I thought the best point in Brian’s article was about the totalitarian attitude of Blair. Now he has stayed loyal to his wife (so far as we know) but I doubt anyone here would express admiration for anything he’s done – even for something some of us might agree with like the invasion of Iraq.

    The breaking of marriage vows has an adverse public ‘impact’ and may be a legitimate focus for the criticism and distrust of a public figure, but the keeping of them would not be considered a legitimate reason for trusting a public figure. IMHO.

  • All the stories (including the leftie PBS version) I’ve ever heard about Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman had Wyman leaving Reagan for being such an anti-Communist and embarrassing her with her Hollywood friends. It wasn’t until much later that he met Nancy.

    I actually don’t think this has anything to do with anything but M Simon wanted an answer.

  • People can, and do, compartmentalize their lives, and live part of their life as upright, honest, moral people while behaving abominably in some other part of their lives.

    So it’s possible that a man can be a good, honest, politician (of nearly any political stripe) while being an unfaithful husband; it’s equally possible that a man can be a faithful, devoted, and loyal husband and father while repeatedly lying, covering up, and “trimming” for political advantage.

    For example, I have no reason to believe that John Kerry is anything but a model of probity in his relationship with Teresa.

  • Karol,

    I heard that he was having a relationship with Nancy while still married to Jane. But I did further research and foud out I was wrong.

    But I failed to mention Iran/Contra. Where “The weeks-long congressional hearings in the summer of 1987 heard an array of administration officials, present and former, reveal a web of deceit and undercover maneuvering in the White House.” Reagan

    He promised not to trade with terrorists. He lied. About public policy.

    Still it all worked out well in the end. Except for Iran. Which is now a big problem.

    Well any way my point in all this is that virtue may or may not be in evidence in all parts of a man’s life.

    How do we get a system that works for and with men of less tthan perfect virtue.

  • mike

    M.Simon: seconded – the design of institutional restraints on power is more important than the virtue (or otherwise) of the individuals who rise to power.

  • dmick

    I agree with M. Simon. Some of the comments on his this thread remind me of the Bernard Shaw quote “The British churchgoer prefers a severe preacher because he thinks a few home truths will do his neighbors no harm.”