The British Environment Minister, Chris Huhne, resigned on friday in order to clear his name of charges of perverting the course of justice, related to an alleged attempt to conceal his responsibility for a car that was being driven over the speed limit. As is so often the case with such scandals, it was the cover up that did for him. Anyone with any understanding of British politics would have expected no other outcome the moment charges were announced. All in all it was something of a yawn event, a ‘dog bites man’ story … in the UK.
Were that to happen to a government minister around here, however, it would definitely fall into the ‘man bites dog’ story category. There are any number of points where it deviates from what could be expected to happen here:
- The usual outcome of any traffic offence is a bribe.
- If a policeman stopped a car carrying a minister, it would probably be the policeman who ended up getting in trouble.
- Certainly no-one would dream of writing him a speeding ticket.
- If a journalist just so happened to alight on such a tidbit while interviewing the minister’s ex-wife I would be much surprised if a newspaper would dare publish it.
- Even if serious allegations were made, the government would probably just ignore them as malicious rumour-mongering.
- And if – pausing for the flying pigs – charges were actually pressed, they would be dismissed as purely political.
- Never, would the minister resign.
None of which, I imagine, is much news to readers of this blog. But what it does remind us is that good governance is often achieved simply by people going about their ordinary jobs the way they are supposed to do. You do not need any anti-corruption commission* or such like. You just need simple honour and no excessive subservience amongst officers of the state. Furthermore, British politics benefits from the established norm and well-worn euphemism that the accused will be too distracted to also give all due attention to running a government ministry. Without guilt being admitted, the taint of improper conduct can thus be safely removed from the highest organs of government. (If eventually Chris Huhne is proven innocent, it is widely expected that he will re-join the British cabinet in due course.)
Doing one’s job properly, acting with honour and integrity – these are simple things, but also deep-rooted things. They come from one’s mind-set, and are determined by broad societal values. Unfortunately these are hard things to change.
* Normally I abhor short-termist funding that is endemic to the aid world, but I make an exception for anti-corruption commissions, and hereby suggest the MJ rule of thumb: if no senior figures from the current government – picking just on the previous bunch doesn’t count – have been caught and jailed within one presidential term, then the whole commission should just be disbanded as clearly ineffectual.