Anthony Trollope should be living at this hour. Recent events in the cathedral city of Bury St Edmunds would have provided him with a story wonderfully suited to his gifts. On the one side we find the Very Rev Frances Ward, the Dean of St Edmundsbury Cathedral. She has been giving pastoral support to her friend, a widow who used to be the partner of a powerful local figure, but who one night in March was treated abominably by him, for which he was given a caution by the police.
This powerful local figure was and is the Member of Parliament for Bury St Edmunds, David Ruffley. He felt ashamed of his behaviour, and hoped if he said nothing about it, the story would gradually die down. His ex-partner may also have hoped so: she at least made no public comment. His friends certainly hoped so, and Mr Ruffley has many friends. They find him a tremendously enjoyable man to talk to about politics: witty, incisive, indiscreet, independent. They like the way in which, unlike some old-style Tories, he lets his emotions show, and admits to personal vulnerability. And they still remember with admiration the way in which, as a member of the Treasury Select Committee, he attempted to rough up Gordon Brown, in the days when Mr Brown appeared to be an invincibly successful Chancellor of the Exchequer. Mr Ruffley never accepted Mr Brown was infallible, and on that point Mr Ruffley turned out to be right.
It seemed Mr Ruffley’s calculation in his latest embarrassment might also turn out to be right. If he said nothing, and his former partner said nothing, and the police saw no reason to press for charges to be brought against him, what more was to be said? Even the most disobliging parts of the media find themselves obliged at length to fall silent when there is absolutely nothing new to be said about a story. But the Dean rose in her wrath. She at least would have the courage to break this despicable conspiracy of silence: this sordid agreement that domestic violence was not really such a serious matter, and we all sometimes did regrettable things on the spur of the moment, and the best thing was to forget about it.
Dr Ward knew that her friend had suffered an atrocious ordeal, and could never forget. The Dean also knew that in this day and age, it is no longer tolerable to seek to minimise or dismiss as unimportant so horrible an offence as domestic violence. How well Trollope would draw, in his novel about this story, the impeccably modern morality Dr Ward applied to the affair. It was quite clearly her duty, as one of the most senior figures in the affairs of Bury St Edmunds, and a person of authority in the Church of England, to take action. Others might wish to hush the whole affair up. Even the victim, though distraught, might not thirst for vengeance. But Dr Ward would not be party to this shabby Establishment cover-up. If a Dean does not know the difference between right and wrong, who else will? She decided to write a letter.
This letter was reported, in full, by Guido Fawkes. From this moment Mr Ruffley’s fate was sealed. The story might not be of enormous interest to the national media, but it was certainly of enormous interest to The East Anglian Daily Times, the local BBC channels and the other media in that part of England, which contains at least four marginal seats currently held by the Tories: Great Yarmouth, Ipswich, Norwich North and Waveney. In each of those seats, the Conservative MP could expect to be asked if he or she supported Mr Ruffley. And in each case, even the most tepid expression of sympathy would lead to the unremitting accusation that in that case, the MP in question was also prepared to support domestic violence. For the sake of his colleagues, Mr Ruffley had no choice but to stand down, which last night he did.
For the avoidance of doubt, I do not support domestic violence. Nor, I would guess, does Mr Ruffley. No one in public life supports domestic violence. Nor does the law of the land, under which Mr Ruffley received a caution, but was not charged. But as Trollope would have described so well, the full unanswerable force of moral condemnation was now unleashed against him. He no longer had a private life. His previous public services were of no account. In order to demonstrate how upright our society is, he had to be destroyed.
Macaulay saw how unfair this procedure was:
“We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality. In general, elopements, divorces, and family quarrels, pass with little notice. We read the scandal, talk about it for a day, and forget it. But once in six or seven years our virtue becomes outrageous. We cannot suffer the laws of religion and decency to be violated. We must make a stand against vice. We must teach libertines that the English people appreciate the importance of domestic ties. Accordingly some unfortunate man, in no respect more depraved than hundreds whose offences have been treated with lenity, is singled out as an expiatory sacrifice…If he has a profession, he is to be driven from it.”
Mr Ruffley is so steeped in politics, one imagines he will find some other way of practising that profession. For Dr Ward, a bishopric is the least that can be expected.