The perils of being honest

Observations on political careers

In a roundtable on love that I took part in recently, for the Philosophers magazine, I made mention, in passing, of a teenage crush I once had, where I thought I was in love, but how now, several years later, I can see it was probably just the result of a stoned summer. This comment appeared in the write-up of the event.

Was I wise to let such information slip? I have no current plans for a political career, but who knows what I may want to do in the future? Or what if the piece makes its way to American immigration, and I am never allowed to go shopping in New York again?

In a poll of the 1997 intake of new MPs, nearly a quarter said they had tried illegal drugs. Such youthful indiscretions tend not to bother the public. Neither his non-inhalation of marijuana nor his extra-marital affairs affected the popularity of Bill Clinton. Nor has George Bush's admission of having "made some mistakes", which some think meant cocaine as well as alcohol abuse, stopped his re-election.

The public may not care, but the media certainly do. Make a careless admission and you risk, for years to come, such lines as: "Ellie Levenson, who once admitted to taking drugs, announced today that . . ." The alternative - to say that you lied, as the England rugby union captain Lawrence Dallaglio did when he "admitted" to cocaine use - is no more palatable. Then you get: "Ellie Levenson, who once admitted to lying, said today that . . ."

More and more people now enter politics without ever having any other career. The younger you know that you want to enter politics, the more likely you are to ensure either that your behaviour corresponds with how people expect a politician to act, or that you cover your tracks. But if politics is to be representative, and to make use of the different skills people can offer, we need to ensure that this is not the only type to enter political life.