In defence of David Laws

Well, there’s a title I never thought I’d find myself writing. I’d barely heard of Laws until he emerged first as a significant figure in the coalition negotiations and then as chief secretary to the Treasury, but what I had seen I hadn’t liked: someone who gave every appearance of being a dessicated calculating machine, outflanking even George Osborne in his eagerness to implement public spending cuts with what David Aaronovitch memorably described as “an avidity bordering on the erotic”.

And now his world has fallen apart. And to my considerable surprise I feel sorry for him, and for the first time find myself actually rather liking the guy. Suddenly it becomes apparent that the reason he appeared less than human was because he felt it necessary (tragically, unnecessarily) to hide a central part of his humanness from the world.

First off, even if one doesn’t find it particularly admirable for him to claim reimbursement for rent charged by his partner – and let’s face it, it’s not like Laws needed the money – it was clearly within the rules for him to do so when he started doing so.

When the rules changed to prevent MPs claiming for rent charged by their spouses, partners or close family members, I can imagine Laws finding himself in a terrible bind: should he stop claiming the rent – and thus reveal the true nature of his relationship to his colleagues and the outside world – or find some way to interpret the rules so that he could continue claiming? Well, he went for the latter option: and now he is facing the consequences of that decision.

But it’s still far from clear that his interpretation of the rules was invalid, let alone that he deliberately, even criminally, flouted them. If the rules have loopholes or are ambiguous, blame the people who wrote the rules.

In short, this isn’t a story of “snouts in the trough” or financial greed. This is a story of human complexity, of an intelligent but clearly very private man making what turn out to have been spectacularly counterproductive decisions to preserve a secret that surely didn’t need to be kept secret any more (as Tony Grew points out in his utterly superb, must-read post on the subject).

I don’t care for David Laws’s policies or his enthusiasm for cuts with barely any apparent recognition of the human consequences. But I certainly don’t want to see him become the victim of yet another self-righteous, media-driven, Twitter-fuelled, Girardian public lynching.

So I hope he survives this; I hope he can (as Tony Grew puts it) “step out into that new sunshine” created by the pro-gay policies of Tony Blair and New Labour and “escape his former life of concealment” – and I hope that it makes him a better, more human, politician. Because in the end that will benefit all of us, given the influence that will be wielded by him (or whoever holds his office) over the next year or two.

Update: regrettably (but perhaps inevitably), David Laws has now resigned. Here is his resignation letter. It seems to me to show real integrity – as well as real pain and anguish.

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11 thoughts on “In defence of David Laws”

  1. I don’t look for a particular sexual orientation in my politicians. I don’t look for a particular style or temperament – what is more important is the substance.

    What I do look for is the ability to weigh evidence and make intelligent decisions, if necessary displaying a bit of creativity and innovation in doing so.

    Faced with this “terrible bind”, Laws could have:

    a) decided to make a statement about making no further claims; let the world speculate, and politely refuse – as many other politicians have, with little fuss – to comment on his private life. (Can we really presume this was a *secret*, with no other ‘clues’ that might have triggered the story? I suspect not.)

    b) changed his domestic arrangements – moved house, tinkered with who paid whom rent, anything! – and used this as a supporting case for his cessation of claims. More hassle for him, but less public speculation…

    c) done nothing, hoping it wouldn’t come to light one day.

    I really would have expected a man of his brainpower and experience to have done a little better than c). Chief Secretaries face terrible binds all the time. It’s part of the job.

    I can’t see where he can go from here.

    1. You may be right. I can certainly see his position may be untenable. That said, it does seem to be possible – indeed, so common as to be almost universal – for people to make much poorer decisions in relation to their personal affairs than in their “professional” affairs.

      I certainly think (and this applies in response to Maria’s comment below as well) that Laws may have exaggerated in his own mind the amount to which people would in fact have noticed/cared/drawn conclusions from a change in his arrangements at the time. But again, people nursing a secret can easily be hypersensitive about these things – the lurking fear that everyone knows, that you’re about to be found out…

      I’m sure it’s also significant that he probably never expected to find himself in government, so was perhaps a bit less careful than he might otherwise have been. (See also: Mark Oaten, who seemed blissfully unaware that anyone might actually recognise the Lib Dems’ home affairs spokesman!)

      As for “clues”: it was fascinating to be read yesterday’s Guardian, which had a profile of Laws in which it was reported that he had told people that his only reason for not joining the Tory party was the Conservatives’ support for Section 28. I only got round to reading the article today, and that point did rather leap out as having acquired extra significance since being printed – along with other details, such as the description of him as “a cat who walks alone”. (The poignant reference in his statement to him and Lundie having “separate social lives” was telling.)

  2. If this was the case, I really don’t see why he couldn’t have just stopped claiming when the rules changed. There was little scrutiny of expenses claims at the time, I think it’s a bit of a leap to think someone would have concluded he was gay – especially as we’re told MPs etc were generally aware he was gay already. He managed to stop claiming in September last year. I wonder why that was? This defence just doesn’t stack up. He knew what he was doing, he knew it had become against the rules, he carried on doing it until there was a danger it would be revealed. And all the while he pointed the finger at others. And this week has stood up and talked of belt tightening for the rest of us while he, a millionaire, claimed for years what he did not need. ‘Within the rules’ of not, let’s not forget that; a millionaire public servant claimed nearly a thousand pounds a month from the public purse ON TOP OF his salary. Hey, there are adverts asking us to shop poor people who do this. Legal or not, at the very least it’s immoral; our sympathies should not lie with Laws.

    1. Maria: I agree that people would probably have given a second thought to a decision by Laws to stop claiming rent. Equally, as I said above in reply to Paul, I can well imagine that things rarely look the same way to the person on the inside of a secret that dominates their life.

      I’m not saying he made the right decision – I’m just saying that I sympathise with the predicament in which he found himself, and find myself warming to him a little as a person on finding a bit of human complexity and imperfection. And that I find his explanation for his actions essentially credible, even if that doesn’t mean his actions were the right ones.

  3. Yes, let’s not have a Girardian public lynching. However, let’s also remember that the victims of such lynchings are not always entirely innocent. Excessive sympathy for victims of scapegoating can lead to miscarriages of justice, just as scapegoating can. Although one may be able to sympathize with the personal predicament that Laws faced and feel disgust and distaste for those who seek to scapegoat him (on account of his sexual orientation, or political status or affiliations), we should not allow such sympathy to blind us to the important questions of whether he broke the rules and, if he did, whether he has the credibility necessary to carry on in his present role. The victim who can do no wrong is often merely an inversion of the scapegoating theme, rather than its true rejection.

    1. Alastair: I agree that if he is found to have actually broken the rules (rather than exploited an ambiguity/loophole within them) then he must go. The “Girardian” element of the proceedings stem from the fact that many people seem to have already made up their minds that he’s a “thief” who has broken both the rules and the law, when in fact this is far from clear.

      I also agree that even if he is found to have been within the letter of the law, this may still render his position politically untenable, because Labour will be crying “£40,000!” every time he stands up to speak.

  4. As a gay man myself I remember all too well the huge hurdle that was telling my family even though that was many years ago.

    People who haven’t had that personal experience don’t know how great a problem this can be.

    However I feel that David Laws could perhaps have found a way to make sure he was within the new expenses rules and still kept his relationship secret from his family.

    Claiming expenses inappropriately was not an option.

  5. I’m in two minds on this. And of course, now, he’s resigned, done the “honourable thing”.

    No love for the man at all, or what he’s done in his job. But I do think you hit the nail on the head with this:

    “But again, people nursing a secret can easily be hypersensitive about these things – the lurking fear that everyone knows, that you’re about to be found out…”

    And as someone who has been in a not totally dissimilar position (having to come out to the man I was married to) I do have some sympathy with that. And not being able to tell his parents who he really was, I have a lot of sympathy with that, too, as I’m sure you can imagine.

    I say this despite the impact that the savage cuts he’s been a huge part of making have had a real impact on me and those around me already.

    In some ways, I hope this is a relief for him. Not the ideal way for him to have to come out to his parents but maybe now they can start to accept him for who he is, and he can live his life more openly.

    1. Ruth: yes, let’s hope this turns out to be a blessing in disguise for him.

      There’s a hint of that in his resignation letter. Do I detect something almost approaching relief? Relief that he can now acknowledge and prioritise “the interests of those I love most”?

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