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Huhne and Pryce went to jail despite their privilege, not because of it

Chris Huhne and Vicki Pryce broke an important law and, after a fair trial, got rightly sent down for roughly the right amount of time. It's as simple as that, writes Alex Andreou.

New Statesman
Supporters of Vicky Pryce, the ex-wife of Chris Huhne, wait for her arrival outside Southwark Crown Court. Photograph: Getty Images

I found the obsessive media coverage of the Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce hearings quite illuminating. The extent of it was almost certainly down to the high public profile of the two players. It is, after all, a very rare pleasure to witness the actual moment when The Arrogant discover that the sun does not, in fact, shine out of their backside.

The tone of it, however, hid something much darker. As I watched broadcast after broadcast, a pattern began to emerge: Paula Harriott on Channel 4 News, having discussed the process of losing “jewellery and nice clothes”, was asked by Jon Snow: “Is it worse for a middle-class, successful professional woman?” 

“Do you think it is a case of the higher you are the harder you fall—I mean, harder for someone like yourself or Chris Huhne than someone who has been through the process before?” asked Adam Boulton of Jonathan Aitken on Sky News. The presenter and the disgraced former minister then share a joke about how the strict rules of Eton might prepare one for jail.

Lord Taylor of Warwick, jailed over expenses fraud, comments on the eight month sentence on Newsnight: “It’s not the length. It’s the going to prison that is the real punishment for people like this.” He proceeds to advise Chris Huhne to “just go down to the same level as every other prisoner.” 

The same people who demand tougher and longer sentences for people who dare even look at their BMWs, the same people who unquestioningly repeat Cameron’s “criminality pure and simple” when it comes to the 2011 riots, are full of furrowed brow worry when it concerns one of their own. These strivers, entrepreneurs, hard workers and leaders of men, are apparently in grave danger of falling apart when taken out of their greenhouse, with its carefully monitored politesse and humidity.

Explicit in these interviews, the idea that prison is somehow easy-peasy for those who have thus far had a brutally traumatised existence. This actually makes sense to these white, highly educated, middle class reporters, with six-figure salaries. If your life has been utterly shitty from birth, losing your liberty is not only unremarkable, but par for the course. If you have nothing to go back to when released, this only makes the time pass more pleasantly. Your skin is hardened, the squalid conditions natural to you, your Dickensian existence fits neatly into Holloway.

Less explicit, but no less present, is a sense of shock that people like “them” would do something like this, get caught, get convicted and end up doing time. Sarah Williams describes her shock when she got caught having convinced her mother to take her speeding points: “I’m hardly a hardened criminal: I’m a successful businesswoman, running my own marketing firm… I kept waiting for someone to say we’d been very naughty and that they hoped we’d learned our lesson, before sending us on our way. As two respectable, middle-class ladies, surely we’d be able to apologise our way out of this.” 

It is important to note that Chris Huhne already had nine points on his license (as did Sarah Williams above). A few weeks later he was caught driving while on his phone and his license suspended anyway. It could have been a little girl on her bicycle that stopped him, rather than the police. There is a compelling public interest argument in keeping people who habitually break safety rules off the road. There is a compelling public interest argument in the punishment falling on the person committing the offence. 

Impressive statistics are being wheeled out to demonstrate the insignificance of the crime. The AA estimates that thousands of people “swap points”. Well, thousands of people beat their spouses. Thousands of people drink and drive. Thousands of people dodge fares. Thousands of people evade taxes. The prevalence of a damaging practice is an argument for, not against, harsher sentences with a deterrent effect.

How many teachers, nurses or cops could we employ for the cost of the two kids sent to jail for four years for drunkenly posting an invitation to a riot which nobody attended? Who was the victim of their crime? What about the student jailed for six months for stealing water from Lidl worth £3.50? What is her future when she is released, lacking as she does Huhne’s property portfolio estimated at £4.8m? 

All these misconceived objections appear to endorse the oft quoted maxim: “the poor commit crimes; the rich just make mistakes”. The rich have much less reason to offend in the first place. They get to influence the laws which oversee their behaviour. They get access to better quality of legal advice when they do break the law. Studies consistently show that the denizens of higher socioeconomic strata get caught less often, charged less often, convicted less often, sentenced more leniently and released earlier. The deck is stacked.

We live in a country where David Laws, Liam Fox and Andy Coulson deserve second and third chances, but peaceful protesters in Fortnum & Masons are viewed as vandals; where tabloid journalists are arrested in dawn raids, but their editors by convenient appointment; where benefits “cheats” are given a prison term, but MPs defrauding the state of dozens of times the amount are just asked nicely to pay it back; where you are sent to jail for not paying a month’s worth of council tax, if you’re a nobody, but get to negotiate £4m of your tax bill, if you’re Vodafone; where the concept of personal responsibility is lauded, while that of government responsibility eroded. 

I disagree. Those who believe they are above the law, who are convinced they can manipulate the system and get away with it, are a tangible danger to others. And when they happen to be in positions of great power - whether in politics or in the media or in an investment bank – that danger is amplified. This arrogance, this hubris, this sense of invincibility conferred by position is precisely the link between the Huhne case, the financial crisis, the Savile scandal and the phone-hacking affair. 

***

Here is a thought experiment for the many experts who have offered their opinions on the outcome of the Huhne/Pryce case, readily and loudly.

Start, if you will, from the far-fetched idea that manipulating the legal system by conspiring to lie is quite a bad thing for the administration of justice and it would be desirable to avoid it. Next, consider the preposterous theory that a jury with the real responsibility of someone’s liberty in their hands—having heard hours of submissions, been privy to all the evidence, had access to every telephone recording and every email—may have arrived at a verdict more carefully considered and better informed than yours. Finally, entertain the fanciful notion that a judge, trained, skilled and experienced in such matters and following detailed guidance, may understand sentencing better than you do.

Do this and you arrive at quite a radical conclusion: Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce broke an important law and, after a fair trial, got rightly sent down for roughly the right amount of time. Not because they were privileged. Despite it.