Public or private affair put to the test

A month that saw the death of John Profumo and the clobbering of John Prescott serves as a reminder that there's always some woman with an appalling taste in men. In their opposite ways Profumo and Prescott were hardly the immediate targets for sensuous, attractive women. I met Profumo occasionally when I lived in flats in or near Toynbee Hall during my time in parliament and I often wondered how it must feel to be constantly reminded of the events of 1963. I doubt if a single week passed over those forty years without some media reference to "the Profumo case".

Such is the public delectation for sexual scandal. Rarely, be it noted, for financial misdeeds or for alcoholic over indulgence - and certainly not for gross administrative errors - but only for titillation. It sells newspapers, and, whenever there is a saintly call for media restraint, one ought to demand an immediate hypocrisy test. Frankly, I've enjoyed every column inch of the Prescott affair, but that may just be because it couldn't happen to a more worthy guy.

The question is whether the public and political cost of making money out of such exposure is worth all the exculpatory holier than thou claims of a right to know. What right? Politicians are no more nor no less likely to have affairs than any other group in society, but they may just have more opportunities. From my experience I reckon that politics is a rather more honourable profession than much of business or the church, but it certainly gets more exposure.

The problem that follows such exposures is that fewer and fewer able men and women are prepared to be candidates for parliament. Alas, the only individuals who could possibly withstand the spotlight and the investigation are likely to be so dull and boring as to be lousy politicians. If you like, the Al Gores of this world rather than the Kennedys or the Clintons.

Politicians and sexual scandals have always been linked but it is only since prurience and cupidity came together in recent years in the battle of the tabloids that exposure has been the rule rather than the exception. Gladstone went out on late night forays to pick up prostitutes, ostensibly for moral assistance, but hardly without some element of fantasising. Asquith wrote intimate letters during Cabinet meetings to the young Venetia Stanley. Lloyd George had one "parliamentary" household with Frances Stevenson whilst his wife remained rooted in his North Wales constituency. The exposure of Charles Stewart Parnell in 1889 as co-respondent in a divorce case forced his resignation and probably contributed to his early death, thus denying Britain the most able potential successor to Gladstone.

In more recent times Labour pioneer Hugh Dalton was well known for his invitations to promising young socialist men, while Tom Driberg was a predatory homosexual in those dark days when homosexuality per se was illegal.

The French view the British obsession with such matters with bemusement. The press acknowledgement after his death that François Mitterand had had a long term affair made little impact; the main interest being in his daughter, Mazarine Pingeot, from that liaison. There are signs, however, that even the French press is beginning to enjoy a scandal. The right wing contender for the post-Chirac presidency, Nicolas Sarkozy, found the story of his recent affair and the departure of his wife exposed in some of the more salacious French newspapers. They used the age old excuse that they had done so because Sarkozy had paraded his wife and son as part of his bid for the presidential nomination.

At the heart of the public exposure of such affairs lies the almost invariable anguish of deceit. The intrusion into the innermost aspects of a couple's life together, and the impossibility of shielding their children from vulgar attention, is unjustifiable. In such cases, plagued by traumatic revelations, the innocent suffer more than the guilty. The pressurised attention given to how Mark Oaten's wife, Belinda, reacted to the revelations of her husband's extraordinary sex life, was wholly unwarranted. How on earth would any partner react? Drawing a defensible line for an MP's right to privacy may be difficult, but there should be no argument that the innocent partner and children are off limits.

John Prescott made the statutory declaration that he wanted to be left alone "to rebuild his marriage;" In the full sense, a marriage can never be rebuilt and; one might say; in the light of the behaviour his infatuation with Tracey Temple led to, it's a bit late for that, but like so many others the attempt has to be made. And it can only be made in private.

Where should the privacy line be drawn? To some extent the remedy lies in the politician's own court. When Simon Hughes was pressed recently to acknowledge that he was gay, he should simply have told reporters to get lost - no stronger expression would come from him - and refused to comment. To start to admit, leads to stronger pressure, which leads to further admission. There is no line in the sand after the first incautious words.

Given all the many and various failings I might have been challenged with, I remember ruefully how ridiculous were the allegations made against me many years ago. The embarrassment was painful but the necessity from day one was to go to court and prove their falsity. I recall the excellent advice given to me by the leading libel solicitor, Paul Davies: "If you are prepared to go on to the end, you will win. But if you are not prepared to do so, do not commence an action." Reaching the end took four years, with the attendant possibility of losing my house in the process, but the Murdoch and Maxwell press had finally to admit that the stories were false and had to pay substantial damages. However, even at this distance of time, I can say that nothing compensates for the misery even wildly inaccurate allegations cause.

My question then, as now, was and is, why should I and my family have to be vulnerable to such exposure simply because I chose the public life? Whether true or untrue the intrusion is detrimental to public life and politicians need the same right to privacy as citizens in any other profession. The test must be, did his or her actions affect the quality and integrity of decision making in the public domain? The walk on the tightrope is too difficult for many able people who will not now come forward. The House of Commons is the worse for their absence and for the victory of prurience.

Any other standard is self-fulfilling in its encouragement of a view of politicians as sleazy, venal and untrustworthy. A few are, some are angels, but most are just like the rest of us. If every MP who had a night of passion with a researcher, a secretary or a party worker had to resign, there would a never ending stream of by-elections. Politics gains nothing from the attacks of those who want to justify their own disenchantment, but it will gain greatly from a mature awareness of the fallibility of individual men and women, even if they are politicians.

1 May 2006