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Conservativehomeeditorial_17The BBC may have many faults but its ‘on demand’ web services are world-beating.  I’ve just caught up with this week’s ‘Any Questions?’ programme.  Francis Maude was in the Tory slot and his answers to two questions got me thinking:

  • Early in the programme (about 12 minutes in) the Tory chairman was asked if a national politician’s private life and conduct has any bearing on his ability and credibility to fulfil his public role.  The questioner was clearly thinking of John Prescott’s adultery.  "No, I don’t think so," was FM’s reply.  Politicians don’t stand for office as Popes but as legislators, he continued.
  • Later on the panellists were asked – by a vicar – what they did in their own lives to combat global warming.  Not one panellist complained about the question.  None of the politicians on the panel said what I do in my own life is my own business – judge me on the laws I propose to pass.  They all answered the questions with different degrees of success.  Francis Maude (about 39 minutes into the programme) told listeners "not enough".  He promised to buy a greener car when he replaced his current family car and we also learnt that he urinates on his compost heap to accelerate the decomposition process.

We are asked to believe that what politicians do in their private
life with regard to family life is none of the public’s business but
what they do in terms of recycling and motoring and foreign holidays
etc is legitimate for debate.  I offer three observations:

  1. Most private behaviours have public consequences. Private behaviours are of public interest because of what economists call externalities.
    When a person jets across the planet to go on holiday, drives a large
    SUV or never recycles their newspapers they are impacting the natural
    ecology.  When a family breaks up because of adultery or abuse there
    are big impacts on the social ecology and costs to the taxpayer.  The
    growth of lone parenthood has been one of the fastest growing costs to
    the welfare state and children in non-married families tend to give
    less to the economy in future years and demand more police and welfare
    resources.  Just last week IDS’ Social Justice Policy Group produced a
    ten page report detailing the impact of family breakdown on children (Download SJPG_family_brief.pdf).
  2. Indifference is worse than hypocrisy.
    British society seems to have reached a point where hypocrisy is more
    of a vice than indifference.  In the world where hypocrisy is the
    greatest sin it’s only fair to comment on a bike-riding politician who is followed by their government car
    when he has made a virtue out of his environmental credentials.  If
    he’d never aspired to ‘be green’ the public would no right to
    complain.  I actually prefer politicians who publicly aspire to do the
    right thing but fall short than those who can’t be bothered to aim high
    at all.
  3. We need to be proportionate in response to private failings.
    When a minister has an affair that causes damage to their families or
    owns a petrol-guzzling classic car we can be disappointed without
    saying that they’re not fit for public office.  Let’s just not say that
    private conduct has no bearing on their public and political credibility.

26 comments for: The public interest in private vices

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