Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Keith Vaz: the nature of "scandal"

While Jeremy Corbyn is reported as saying that "he has not committed any crime that I know of, as far I'm aware it is a private matter", Theresa May indicated that it was for Keith Vaz to make his decisions about his future course of action. But Theresa May did preface her remark by saying that it was important that people feel they are able to have confidence in their politicians. In other quarters, it is the apparent conflict of interest between Keith Vaz's chairmanship of the Home Office select committee, which has included drugs and prostitution in its recent considerations, that presents the main problem.

The reporting of the scandal is at the BBC news site (here and here)..... and with rather more lurid detail on the website of today's Daily Mirror. Since Keith Vaz's own statements have been very limited, there is only the Sunday Mirror and Daily Mirror reporting to go on as far as the circumstances of the meeting with the male prostitutes is concerned; and this leaves some uncertainty as to the exact circumstances (was it, for example, a "sting" by the newspaper?)

The comment on Radio 4 yesterday morning came from Peter Tatchell. He was clear that the scandal did not represent a resigning matter, that there was no inconsistency between Keith Vaz's public view in favour of gay rights, legalisation of sex work (Peter Tatchell's phrase) and against the criminalisation of party poppers. Since Keith Vaz had not broken the law in any way, and had not hurt anyone (Keith's own apology, quoted in the Sunday Mirror, for  the hurt particularly to his family would seem to gainsay this), it was an entirely private matter and there was no need for him to resign.

A first thought is that it is quite wrong that Keith Vaz should be vilified for his behaviour in the print and electronic media. Whatever he has done, he still has a right to his good name, and to be treated in a manner that respects him as a person like any other. Likewise, he should not be subject to bullying with regard to his future decisions.

A second thought, though, and it is the one that Theresa May's remark touches on, is a question about how far citizens and fellow MPs can now have confidence in Keith Vaz as an elected representative. Given the fallibility of his private life that has now become public knowledge, is it possible to trust Keith Vaz in his public/political activity? Can we really live with a complete separation of the principles of integrity and probity in public life from those same principles in private life? Or should we be able to expect from those who hold public office, and perhaps to a degree determined by the level of public office that they hold, more by way of a unity of these principles across both the private and the public realms than we would insist on from others?

A third thought is prompted by the phrase "moral relativism" as a reaction to Peter Tatchell and Jeremy Corbyn's comments. Has Keith Vaz actually done anything wrong? I suspect that our society still retains an implicit sense of there being something wrong with using prostitutes (despite the cultural re-wording to "sex worker") and something wrong with cheating on your wife and family, though at the same time there is an unwillingness to articulate that uneasiness in terms of moral right and wrong. From a Catholic point of view, he has certainly done something that is morally wrong,  and perhaps we should not be hesitant in saying that. And, particularly because his behaviour sets an adverse example for others with regard to the institution of marriage, that moral wrong has an impact for the common good of society as a whole. Whilst a personal persecution would be quite wrong, I think it is unfortunate that the question of whether Keith Vaz's behaviour is morally right or wrong does not form part of the public conversation.

And the final thought arises from this third thought. Keith Vaz's behaviour is a "scandal", in the sense that it has caused a political and media furore. It should be recognised as a "scandal" in a second sense, too. When someone in public office does something wrong, it sends a message to society as a whole, and the idea of "scandal" communicates that there was something untoward about it.

One might end with some words of Pope Benedict XVI, speaking in Westminster Hall in 2010:
If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident - herein lies the real challenge for democracy.

1 comment:

John said...

I don't see that your final citation of what Pope Benedict said is particularly apt to the Vaz scandal. Whether or not Vaz has a good grasp of the moral principles underpinning the democratic process is not at issue. Maybe he does; maybe he doesn't. The issue here is whether somebody who has been publicly exposed as acting in an exceptionally reprehensible manner is fit to be a public representative.