Poor David Laws. My sympathy is total. From the moment he burst onto the scene as a member of the Liberal Democrat coalition-negotiating team it was plain that he had gravitas. That precious commodity is recalled more often than it is witnessed in today’s Whitehall. Members of a political generation who fought in wars, built businesses and employed people before they got elected often had it. The modern class of former lobbyists and special advisers lacks it as completely as a fish lacks feathers.
Mr. Laws is sophisticated, articulate and calm. In his first and last appearance leading for the coalition at the dispatch box he oozed authority. Here was a minister who understood his brief well enough not to need a crib sheet. Suddenly Vince Cable was not the only Liberal Democrat superstar and possibly not even the brightest. The minority party was advertising strength in depth.
So why did Mr. Laws fiddle his expenses? Why, above all other questions, did he accept cabinet rank with this career-crippling error unrevealed and lurking, toxic, in his accounts? He must at very least have feared that it would be exposed. Given the intensity of Liberal Democrat sanctimony about the issue throughout the election campaign he should have expected it.
Perhaps the story ends there. Perhaps, in light of public fury about the greed of our political class, Winston Churchill himself might have been brought down by £40,000 claimed from the public purse and paid in rent to a lover. But greed is not the main explanation here. It simply does not ring true.
Cynics will say that David Laws is not the first rich politician to claim money he did not need simply because he could. They will insist that he must be punished to persuade others not to repeat his offence. Never mind that the deterrent principle appears to have failed utterly. There is a bull market for rough, retributive justice. Mr. Former Speaker Martin - Gorbals Mick as we should call him precisely because it appalls him – made sure of that.
But David Laws’ apology in his resignation letter offers a more convincing explanation. While accepting that the electorate is entitled “to expect politicians to act with a sense of responsibility,” he insists that,” my recent problems were caused by my desire to keep my sexuality secret.”
This raises a question that has long demanded a considered response: are Liberals really liberal? If they are, why has their party nurtured so many politicians who have felt compelled to lie about their sexuality? Why did Jeremy Thorpe, Mark Oaten and Simon Hughes before him set the pattern by which David Laws has been publicly humiliated?
Part of the answer lies in a gulf between elite orthodoxy and popular attitudes. We teach equality, diversity and tolerance in our schools, colleges and universities. But we ignore at our peril the extent to which these ideals are ignored where authority stops. “Gay,” is still a favourite term of abuse among children. Elite sport is horribly homophobic. The message is ubiquitous but it is far from universally embraced.
A second factor is the conduct of Liberal Democrats in grassroots campaigns. Not for nothing are they known by their opponents as the party most likely to throw muck. Conditioned to perceive themselves as ill-treated underdogs, Lib Dem activists too often consider themselves entitled to use every filthy trick in the book to level the playing field.
When a party’s conduct plainly contradicts its principles, opponents make extra efforts to detect hypocrisy. This explains the repellent schadenfreude that has, in some quarters, greeted the outing of closet Lib Dem gays from Thorpe to Laws.
But the Liberal Democrats biggest problem is philosophical. In their long campaign to forge a coalition with Labour they lost sight of their founding ideals. A party founded in proud non-conformism has been corrupted by Labour’s authoritarian instincts.
The philosophers John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville taught liberals that the greatest threat to individual liberty is the tyranny of the majority. To be truly free the citizen must be protected not only from the arbitrary exercise of state power, but also from the prejudices of his peers.
Genuine freedom is freedom to dissent. But in cozying up to Labour, the party that believes the Man in Whitehall knows best and whose Attorney General, Sir Hartley Shawcross, notoriously declared “We are the masters now,” Liberal Democrats have lost sight of liberty. On issue after issue they have chosen the authoritarian solution in preference to the liberal one.
No liberal who understands the meaning of the word should support smoking bans. Freedom that does not include the right to harm oneself is not freedom at all. The Scottish Liberal Democrats’ pride in supporting a Land Reform Act that trampled on private property rights was horrible to perceive. So too their refusal to confront Labour over sectarian education in Scottish secondary schools.
Now, governing in partnership with Conservatives, Liberal Democrats need, urgently, to rediscover their love of awkward, cussed individuality. It is not enough to preach the rights of minorities and proclaim them in the manifesto. The party should make those who do not conform entirely feel welcome.
Beyond their rhetoric, the Lib Dems fail badly in this respect. The Conservatives now have the largest number of openly gay MPs with at least 10. Labour has eight. The Lib Dems do not release figures on how many they have, but it is probably only two. They are certainly the only one of the three main parties to have no black or ethnic minority MPs.
David Laws might have reduced the deficit so efficiently that any mention of his sexuality would be universally dismissed as rancid bigotry. Instead he is the latest Liberal Democrat to leave office because he could not face being himself before his constituents and his party.
Britain can ill afford to be deprived of such coruscating political acumen. But before Mr. Laws rejoins the cabinet, Liberals should ask themselves why their parliamentary party is gaining a reputation as the one in which gay politicians are humiliated as often as they are promoted. It is a regrettable flaw in a party born to promote absolute freedom in matters of morality and religion.