Write about the impact of the current situation on David Cameron, suggested the editor. A friend sent me an email too, a Labour friend, half-teasing but half, I think, seriously. What does it all mean? Are we living through the end of Cameron’s term in office?
The second question is a fitting contribution to John Rentoul’s wonderful blog at the Independent (“Questions to which the answer is no”). The things we are learning about the practices at News International are disgusting; those involving the Metropolitan Police Service are frightening; and both are rightly the object of a judicial enquiry. But the idea that the Prime Minister is damaged because he once employed someone who may be found guilty, at a future date, of a crime which he previously denied committing to the Prime Minister, strikes me as extraordinary. There are consequences to demanding that we all accept moral culpability for the actions of our friends, ones I find abhorrent. I’ll come back to this.
The nadir of political debate last week was on Tuesday afternoon, when it became clear that last September the Prime Minister’s chief of staff had told John Yates that no, the Prime Minister did not want to be informed about something Yates had learned about his investigations. This was the “tipping point” according to the twitterati – my timeline erupted in a frenzy of “This is serious, Cameron in trouble” wishful thinking. I’m sorry? The Prime Minister should have stuck his nose into an active police investigation? Or at least he should have wanted to be briefed about where it was heading? In order to do what, exactly? My friend Tim Montgomerie is entirely correct about this. The scandal would have erupted had the Prime Minister attempted to interfere in such activities. Police investigations should not be controlled by the occupants of political office.
Ah, you will say, but what of the Prime Minister’s “judgement”, that he employed Andy Coulson at all.
Let’s leave to one side the hypocrisy that the loudest cries on this matter come from a politician who employs Tom Baldwin, formerly of News International and accused of, er, interesting journalistic tactics. Take Keith Vaz at his own self-estimate, that he is a humble tribune of the people, and ignore the serial accusations of corruption which he endured in the last parliament. Pretend we have the memory span of a fruit fly, and forget the previous administration’s employment of Alistair Campbell. Don’t, whatever you do, remember the death of David Kelly, or wonder at just how genuine is the outrage of these Labour politicians. From tragedy to farce: learn to accept Chris Bryant as a serious political force, and wipe the image of him in his Y-fronts from your mind. Just because the last Labour government was a seething pit of mendacity and smears, just because they employed a man that a civilized society should shun, doesn’t mean we can ignore their accusations now.
But what is this “judgement” we are supposed to practice, with regard to our friends? I have had an image in my mind all this week, a picture from the National Gallery, attributed to the workshop of Durer, called “The Madonna With The Iris”. It’s an example of a hortus conclusus, a Virgin in the Garden. The picture compels me because I find the concept – purity from intact isolation – horrific.
You can remain immune to the actions of your friends – by not having any. You can be pure in this world, you can maximize your degrees of freedom – by living alone. To love and be loved – to live as a social animal – necessarily entails fewer degrees of freedom – but much, much more joy.
If the loss of degrees of freedom, inherent in having friendship, is worth anything at all – and I’m pretty sure that it is – then such friendships are not to be tossed aside at moments of personal difficulty. A friend’s value is neither a function of his purity nor his utility. His “value”, of course, is his love, albeit a different form of love to that which binds us to our other halves.
To be banal: even if a friend were charged with a venal offence, he would still be welcome to my house for dinner – the great crime of which the Prime Minister stands accused being that he had Coulson for dinner, after he left his employment.
I told you, editor, that I cannot produce prose to match the hysteria we’re living through. But until someone can show me that the Prime Minister has broken a law, I’m happier not to join in all the shouting, particularly not when I see the company I would be keeping. I’m not on Keith Vaz’s side, or Alistair Campbell’s side, on many things. Certainly not in matters of political ethics.