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12 May 2011

The Laws and coming out

It is impossible to detach consideration of David Laws’s misdeeds from the cultural acceptance of ho

By Graeme Archer

Homosexuality is not an exoneration, of course not, no more than are the guy’s political talents. No one is saying that clever people, or gay people, or even clever gay people, should not be made to abide by rules governing parliamentary expenses.

Neither David Laws’s guilt in claiming housing expenses to which he was not entitled (because his landlord was his lover), nor his acceptance of that guilt, are in question. What remains to be determined is the fitting level of punishment.

To answer this question, I don’t see how it’s possible to ignore Laws’s sexuality, because (in my mind, anyway) the punishment for venality should be of an order of magnitude stronger than that for an attempt to maintain privacy.

Jacqui Smith rented a room from her sister and designated it her “main home”. That wasn’t out of a desire to prevent her sororal habitation habit from being known: it was from a desire to maximise her cash take. For that, she was censured by, but not suspended from, the Commons. Her eventual expulsion from the House by her electorate was one of the most powerful arguments against AV, by the way: giving first-weight preferences to the last-placed candidates in her constituency could well have returned her to the green benches. (Update: Jacqui Smith has posted a comment below to challenge my reading of events).

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So, to repeat, because it matters: I’m not arguing that Laws should go unpunished, or that he didn’t act wrongly and against the rules. I’m not even pointing out the strangeness of the “No lover as landlord” rule (does a single act of intercourse with one’s landlord break the rule? Or must intercourse be carried out repeatedly over time?).

I’m asking that the most probable reason for his actions be taken into account in order to deliver a just punishment. And I can’t – of course I can’t – separate Laws’s sexuality from my thinking about this.

The best counterargument I’ve read came from Tom Harris, that good man and Labour MP for Glasgow South, who said to me on Twitter last night that I was “Wrong [to suggest that Laws’s homosexuality is part-explanation for his behaviour]. He could easily have afforded not to claim rent at all, thus staying within rules and not outing himself.” Means testing for MP expenses? Well, why not? I’m sure with hindsight Laws would have sympathy with this.

It’s tempting to reply to Harris, and those who agree with him, thus: you simply have no idea what it’s like to live as a gay person.

For all the movement towards legal equality of esteem, we do not inhabit a world where we are treated the same as people who are not gay.

In corporate life, at the start of my career a couple of decades ago, I sometimes noted my own lack of “clubbability” (my inability to socialise with ease, not the desirability of treating me like a baby seal in the 1980s), and asked myself if it was holding me back.

Do you see what I mean? I’m not accusing other people of treating me differently; I’m asking if something unresolved within our cultural etiquette of social interaction (because the liberated gay person is a relatively modern fact) prevented me from being as straightforward with colleagues as I would have been, were I a different person.

You will find this impossible to understand, I guess, but certainly in my twenties I found it almost excruciating to take part in any workplace conversation that moved on to the topic of families, children, schools, holidays, weekends – that is, almost anything.

There seemed no way of participating in such conversations without making a political point, which was the last thing I wanted to do (“Are you seeing anyone?” “Yes . . . [awkward silence] . . . I’m gay! Since you didn’t ask”).

Now, I’m about as openly gay as it’s possible to be, and consider myself liberated: I don’t put up with rubbish from anyone. But were I even to a mild degree more diffident, I think my professional (and private) life would be markedly less successful: I would prioritise privacy (for fear of censure) over the joy that comes from living life openly.

For the third time, and in conclusion, let me underline that I’m not claiming that any of this implies that David Laws should not be punished for his expense claim faults. He should be humbled in front of the House and repay every penny that should not have been taken. After that, though, I’d rather let the voters of Yeovil decide whether or not he should be removed from the Chamber.

Whatever happened to that rather excellent Tory initiative on voter recall?

Graeme Archer is a regular contributor to ConservativeHome hoping to remain on the Tory party official candidates’ list. In real life he is a statistician. On Twitter he’s @graemearcher.