If the fall of a great man through the operation of a flaw in his character is the definition of tragedy, then modern politicians, however badly treated by circumstance, are not tragic figures. The very exercise of democratic politics in the modern world erodes any greatness a personality may possess. If politics doesn’t actually lead to dog eating dog, it leads at least to dog pissing on another dog’s lamp post.
The fall of Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, for instance, with his bunga-bunga cavortings can obviously be classed as comic. Jeffrey Archer, writer and sometime deputy chairman of the Conservative party was jailed for perjury, Lord Taylor of the same party for petty fraud.
In Britain today an ex-minister of the government and a prospective future leader of the Liberal Democratic Party has suffered a precipitous fall. Chris Huhne resigned his ministerial post and parliamentary seat, pleaded guilty to perverting the course of justice and on March 11 was sentenced to eight months in jail.
At the same time and in the same court, a judge sentenced Huhne’s ex-wife Vicky Pryce, a high-flying economist and consultant to the treasury, to an equivalent sentence.
The fall from grace of Huhne and his ex-wife is a story of a victimless crime and of petty revenge that went wrong. Ten years ago, the couple were still married and Huhne was an elected British member to the European Parliament in Strasbourg. He returned one evening from that city to Stansted airport, picked up his car and drove home at 80 miles an hour down a stretch of the highway called the M11.
A police camera recorded the speed which was in excess of the 70 mph limit, noted the registration number of the car, traced its owner through the vehicle licensing agency and sent out a statutory notice to Huhne preliminary to convicting the driver for speeding.
These police cameras can identify cars but aren’t always positioned to identify the driver. The investigation, nothing more than a form to fill in and sign, asks for the name and licence details of the driver in charge of the vehicle at the time of the offence. British traffic laws specify that for every traffic violation such as speeding or going through a red light the driver gathers a specified number of ‘points’ on his or her licence. Once a driver has gathered 12 such points, he or she is banned from driving for five years.
Huhne already had nine points on his licence and would have faced a ban if he had told the truth on the declaration form. So he asked his wife to say she was driving the speeding car and ‘take’ his points for him. This means lying to the police.
It is estimated that this ‘taking’ of points for a friend or associate is not uncommon and, though a criminal offence, by and large goes undetected.
Then five years ago Huhne left his wife Vicky Pryce for his PR consultant, one Ms Trimingham, known as, and unashamed of being, of bisexual inclination. It was a minor sensation though not really a scandal as Huhne was not the first politician whose marriage had come under strain and ended. His wife, whom he divorced, was devastated by this reversal and subsequent divorce.
She wanted revenge. She went to the Mail on Sunday, a newspaper which is openly against Huhne’s Lib-Dem Party and told them that Huhne had passed on his speeding points illegally to avoid a ban. What she didn’t tell them was that she had ‘taken’ the points in his stead. She named a secretary in his office as the person who had illegally received the points. How did someone who has been called a world-class economist think that her role in the crime of lying to the police wouldn’t be discovered?
When the story broke, Huhne denied that he had passed on his points. He was nevertheless threatened with prosecution for perverting the course of justice. His fall from grace, the fruit of his ex-wife’s revenge began. More than a year after the story broke he stepped down from his cabinet and parliamentary positions, pleaded guilty to the offence, confirmed the fact that his wife conspired with him in perverting the course of justice and submitted himself to the sentencing of the court.
Pryce, on the other hand, pleaded that Huhne coerced her into committing this act of perjury. The judge didn’t believe her.
This fall of small titans was seen by some in the British press as a ‘tragedy’. For me it’s a very British comedy of pathos with its adultery, feminist indignation, tabloid press exposé, solemnity about perverting the course of justice and ruination of two very rich and ambitious people. Would an incident that started with a traffic offence end in this way in any other country? I can think of places in which the only perversion of justice, of driving over the speed limit or even of killing people by driving when drunk onto a city pavement, would be the case never coming to court.
Farrukh Dhondy is an author, screenplay writer and columnist based in London. The views expressed by the author are personal.