I made a point of watching Question Time last night, and was glad that I did. It’s on much too late, and sometimes gets my blood pressure up, but it remains a welcome part of national political debate. Zac Goldsmith, who is my age, was on again and performed very well – he’s certainly a bright spark, and not a playboy who is just toying with politics.
I tuned in because of Simon Hughes. The more I thought about yesterday’s revelations
, the more sympathy I had for him. I’m making a bit of a habit of defending Lib Dems
, for which I make no apology. I think it’s usually best to call it as you see it.
I’ve never met Simon Hughes. It has, however, been apparent to me for some time that he is a decent, very hardworking man, who has served his constituents and the Liberal cause with distinction. His is an attractive brand of liberalism, much too economically left wing and pro-EU for my liking, but nonetheless worthy of consideration. He is an intelligent and fair-minded commentator, and the House of Commons would be much the poorer without him.
Simon Hughes won his seat in Bermondsey against a backdrop of homophobic campaigning against Peter Tatchell. Simon has made clear that he regrets that campaign, and Tatchell has forgiven him. In my view Simon’s devotion to his constituents (some of whom will of course have homosexual tendencies), coupled with his contrition, means that he can now be absolved.
(Incidentally, I am not of the view that a privately gay man has to tick all the boxes of the gay rights agenda to avoid being a hypocrite. I know at least two openly gay men who are less liberal on parts of that agenda than I am. It is a flawed agenda to which no-one should wholly subscribe.)
There has been speculation about Simon’s sexuality for years. At times I was under the impression that it was an understood fact that he was gay, at others I was led to believe, in part by his occasional statements on the matter, that he was a heterosexual who had been unlucky in love. It seems now that he is, or has at least been, bisexual. A bisexual man is not being untruthful as such if he answers the question “are you gay?” in the negative. It is however likely that Simon must have known that such an answer gave a misleading impression.
As many of you will know, I worked on a book by Peter Oborne that catalogued deception by politicians. Peter makes a persuasive case that politicians' lies, however trivial, have a cumulative, undesirable effect. In this case, I think Simon Hughes should be forgiven once more. In order to protect someone else’s confidence, or one’s own privacy, it is sometimes necessary to dissemble, for the simple reason that the response “it’s none of your business” is all too often taken as an affirmative answer. And Simon had every right to be private about his sex life.
We each of us have our insecurities and frailties, and they may come as a surprise to others. Many people will not understand how I can be so fearful of asking a girl out on a date when I am also throwing myself into stand-up comedy. I can’t understand how a man who has served in the special forces can be unnerved by the prospect of making a speech. But we SHOULD understand why, and we should similarly understand that a man like Simon Hughes might be able to go on TV shows and hold forth about politics, but be uncomfortable talking about his private life.
In a democracy, you must have a secret ballot. We do, and it means that we can decline to vote for someone for all sorts of reasons. Those reasons may be offensive (e.g. racist) or absurd (e.g. because someone is bald). That is our right. It does not mean that we have an unlimited right to as much information as we wish for about a candidate’s life. If someone deceives their spouse (Simon is a bachelor by the way), that may tell us something of their character. But I do not conclude that a politician’s sex life should be up for grabs. If the media discover something by fair and legal means I think they are entitled to run with it, but they should not invariably expect cooperation, and I wish they would sometimes exercise restraint (perhaps they sometimes do).
Yesterday Simon looked terrified as the media swooped on him on his way to the studios. He did so again as he waited to come in and face the Question Time audience. Unless someone is a major league asshole, I do not delight in their discomfort. Simon Hughes is a good man – to some extent frail and flawed, as we all are – and he has won my respect. We are unlikely ever to share a political philosophy, but I hope he will have a large role to play in political life for many years to come.