Saturday 29 May 2010

David Laws and a tragic failure of confidence in liberalism

Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own - John Stuart Mill, On Liberty.

Liberalism, if it means anything, must be about a society in which we all have the freedom and opportunity to flourish, and to realise as much of our human potential as we can. As John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty, it is not only law which can oppress this possibility, but also custom, tradition and social pressure toward conformity.

David Laws' resignation reflects an error of judgement in his expenses claims which the government believe made his position untenable. But its root cause was a lack of confidence in the liberalism of contemporary Britain.

The sad fact is that this liberal politician simply did not experience Britain, even of 2010, as a liberal society in which a gay man who was ambitious in his career in the City and then politics, and who wished to maintain relationships with family and friends, could openly flourish as himself. Sadder still is that there will be a widely shared sense that he was almost certainly wrong about that (though one can never underestimate the pain and difficulty of anybody's own personal and family relationships).

Laws' moving short interview with The Times about his sexuality makes very clear that not being 'out' was not for him rooted in a simple liberal preference for maintaining a private sphere from his public life, but a deeply painful difficulty in reconciling himself to who he really was.

“When I grew up, being gay was not accepted by most people, including many of my friends. I have kept this secret from everyone I know for every day of my life. That has not been easy, and in some ways it is a relief not to have to go on misleading those close to me about who I am ... I hope that others will now learn that it is time for people to be honest about their sexuality. Keeping secrets is much tougher than telling other people who you really are”.

While I do not share Laws' vision of a small state liberalism, it is a personal tragedy to see a political career cut short for that reason, accentuated because Laws' approach seems so unnecessary in a more liberal and open Britain in which civil partnerships have been celebrated and cherished for the last five years.

Yet we are all products of our experience and upbringing. The transformation of attitudes towards homosexuality has been very rapid, and that can easily be forgotten.

David Laws was born in 1965. His personal account shows how much more difficult it was for many to be 20 years old in 1985 than it was in 1995 or 2005 - and how difficult it can be to change our formative attitudes with which we enter adulthood. The unprecedented and welcome speed with which attitudes in elite politics changed happened just a moment too late for him.

Laws was active in politics as a Parliamentary candidate in 1997, and as the LibDem director of policy until 1999, before becoming an MP in 2001. Again, most of us would expect a liberal party to have had little problem with gay aspiring politicians by the time of the milennium. Yet, right up to 2005, every Liberal or LibDem MPs who were gay or bisexual had stayed in the closet, from Jeremy Thorpe to Simon Hughes. Laws' personal background, his Catholic upbringing and family, would seem to have played an important role for him personally. But he would have inevitably have had thrust upon him the identity of a 'pioneer' role in his own party. All parties need such pioneers, and those who come later have enormous reasons to be grateful to Chris Smith and others who are prepared to take those risks first, but that was something with which Laws would clearly have felt very uncomfortable.

So, instead Laws made the arrangements which have led to his resignation, combined with avoidable errors in his expenses claim after rule changes of questionable purpose (and yet which clearly reflect the public pressure to know about MPs' personal lives in the name of transparency). Some argue he deserves as little sympathy as anybody making the same case to the DWP or local benefits office, though despite his breach of these rules, Nick Clegg and David Cameron could have refused his resignation.

Britain became a much more open and more liberal society over the last decade. It might give those who have declared this to be a "liberal moment" pause for thought that David Laws' Cabinet career has been cut unfortunately short because, when it came to his own life, he did not yet have the confidence to believe it.

Despite the expenses breach, that seems a most unfortunate reason to end to a political career.

So many, whether political allies and opponents, will wish David Laws not only the time and space to find personal happiness but will also hope that his speedy and dignified resignation may also give him the opportunity to resume a frontline political role.


The S Word said...

The story here is about a millionaire government axe-wielder who decided that the best way to spend £40,000 of public money was on his own relationship who then orchestrated one of the most intensive attacks on the public sector since Thatcher.

This is not a about some sort of crisis of liberalism and it's shocking that people are getting taken in by such bare-faced spin.

Newmania said...

My god I agree with you, its a sad sad day

Unknown said...

"who then orchestrated one of the most intensive attacks on the public sector since Thatcher."

Isn't it heartening to see the Left so open to the idea of fiscal responsibility? The politics of the student union is still alive and licking.

Will the Left EVER grow up?

The S Word said...

By fiscal responsibility you're presumably referring to spending billions on a disastrous anti-humanitarian war which a clear public majority of Britain (and Afghanistan it must be said) are against and which directly creates instability across the world.

Presumably you're also referring to responsibly spending 75bn on a nuclear weapons system which, if ever used, would rather irresponsibly massacre thousands and create ecological, not to mention economic devastation on a massive scale.

Or maybe you're referring to the prudence of bailing out banks without curbing their irresponsible behaviour which created the very economic crisis which precisely those not responsible for it are expected to pay for.

Fiscal responsibility? The ruling class no nothing about it.

It's already quite clear that the Greek left are waking up. The same is true for Spain, Romania, Ireland, the USA and others.

Organisations like Can't Pay Wont Pay are going to ensure that the British left wake up too.

Zio Bastone said...

‘But its root cause was a lack of confidence in the liberalism of contemporary Britain.’

Really? Surely the root cause was actually the belief that, whatever else, the rental expense (a small amount for Mr Laws, as it happens) should be subsidised by the taxpayer. This is not about being a friend of Dorothy; we have moved on from grotesqueries of that sort. Nor is it a sort of special case situation in which David Blunkett, say, should have been allowed to flip his guide dog or Diane Abbott to be reimbursed for hair relaxer and/or skin bleaching compounds. It is about fraud.

If I were a gay man I should be angry at being patronised so outrageously. If I were a Liberal Democrat I should be angry at being let down.

For David Laws himself it is a misfortune, of course, though it is certainly not a tragedy; what befell Airey Neave was a tragedy. And it is a misfortune of his own creation, making it right that he should go.

Sunder Katwala said...


Thanks. I can't really disagree with your points. But the cause of his making that claim was his difficulty in dealing with his sexuality. I thought Julian Glover's piece about that was persuasive, while it also recognised he would probably have to resign.

(He should then, of course, made no claim at all and taken a financial hit; or arranged his affairs in some other way compatible with a claim).

That he did not do so is a mistake for which he has resigned; but that (mis)judgement is rooted in the strength of his focus on maintaining his privacy and concealing his sexuality. I don't get any sense he was insincerely claiming that was his motivation.

Ian Chapman said...

I think it's important to be clear that in breaking the rule David Laws was not attempting to fleece the public purse. If he and his partner had been renting - or buying - a second home in London the cost to the taxpayer would have been far greater. In the end, in attempting to protect his privacy, he's paid a much higher cost.

Finally, I think there are two points to add to Sunder's post (which I thought was excellent).

Firstly, alongside his Catholic upbringing, Laws' time in the City during the 1980s and 1990s is particularly relevant (I feel) in explaining his desire to keep his sexuality private. The City is - and remains - a highly intolerant environment and may explain Sunder's idea that Laws lacked faith in the liberalism of contemporary Britain. If you spent a two decades in the square mile I'm not sure how warmly you'd feel about your fellow man.

Secondly, Laws' fierce desire to retain his privacy may also reflect his own understanding of liberalism. Namely, that public and private spheres remain separate and distinct - Laws had no desire to be recognised as a gay MP as many strands of liberalism (cf Brian Barry) rejects such identity politics.

Possibly the only good that now comes of it is that Guido is £500 out of pocket having backed Laws to stay earlier in the day.

Jane Chelliah said...

Sunder, your piece is absolutely excellent because of the breadth of sensitivity it conveys towards David Laws' position. Liberalism isn't practised by everyone in the country, sadly. There are many pockets and groups who harbour very strong anti-gay feeling and make life very difficult for gay people. It is a sad day to discover that people feel unable, in this day and age, to live a liberal life and have to wait for a 'liberal moment' to be free.

The S Word said...

I agree with you about the city being an intolerant place. It's also a place where people like David Laws get filthy rich by playing risky games with the money that is not produced by them but by workers in the form of surplus products. It's a basic point but a crucial one.

Bankers and financiers are not 'wealth producers' but wealth exploiters. To see them as servants to wealth production we would expect to see them take servants wages. These people, like David Law, clearly receive "masters'" wages.

I myself am open about being gay in the same way that most people are open about being straight. It has nothing to do with identity politics but everything to do with being comfortable with oneself in relation to other people and not feeling like one should hide one's sexuality.

Of course I respect the right of people to publicly deny their sexuality though in truth I find it a very sad phenomenon when it appears to come down to a desire to get along with people who's alleged homophobia should not be tolerated.

To cow to the prevailing norms of the rich seems to be cowardly in a way that it wouldn't if the fear was that one would be attacked or otherwise threatened by being publicly out.

Frankly I don't see Laws' "Laws' fierce desire to retain his privacy" as being at all virtuous.

It wasn't just his family who were unaware of his sexuality but also his friends.

One doesn't choose one's family but one does choose one's friends. It's a shame that Laws chose friends who he seems to think would be scared off by his sexuality.

But that's to get away from the point that Laws did not need this money in any way and should have taken it out of his own, sizeable, bank account, not from the funds of a suffering general public.

Zio Bastone said...


I thought Julian Glover’s piece unhelpful in two specific respects: firstly in drawing an analogy between an MP and Lord Browne of BP and secondly in misreading how David Laws’ personal privacy worked in practice.

Firstly, Laws claimed because it was possible to do so. It wasn’t exactly obligatory. So is it proper for millionaires to claim in that manner? I’m not at all sure that it is. Surely politicians are elected as representatives, not for specific skills. And they have (or ought to have) more in common with members of juries than with award winning mathematicians or former CEOs of multinational polluters. That’s what I was getting at with my reference to ‘public service’ in one of my earlier posts. And in that (altruistic) context, shouldn’t expenses be more about the relief of possible hardship than about reward?

Secondly cause and effect work two ways. Laws’ declared wish for privacy about his sexual orientation was, I am sure, both genuine and legitimate. But the effect of remaining private was to shelter a fraud that (whatever its motivation) would have been discovered earlier (by the Telegraph or whoever) had he been either heterosexual or more open.


If I have £1,000 in the bank and defraud the bank of £17.50 I am still ‘fleecing’ the bank of £17.50. So here. It’s the principle of honesty that’s at stake, not the quantum of any loss.

Jane Chelliah said...

I have just been reading some of the comments that were posted on Guideo's site. The anti-gay jibes and innuendos simply, to me, confirm why people like David Laws wish to keep their sexuality to themselves. As a society, we need to examine our attitudes and stop expecting public figures to hold the key to morality.

Zio Bastone said...

Ambitious Mamas:

'As a society, we need to examine our attitudes and stop expecting public figures to hold the key to morality."

Aren't those two things in fact complementary? If we accept the sort of opposition you propose then we abandon the polity altogether under one of two possible flags.

Unknown said...

"He should have, of course, made no claim at all and taken a financial hit; or arranged his affairs in some other way compatible with a claim."

I think that about sums it up, it is of course a tragedy that Laws felt he needed to keep his sexuality a secret, but I am not convinced that claiming the expenses was the only way he could have kept his relationship a secret. I am certain he could have sought advice anonymously regarding the matter.

It was naive of Laws to think that any expenses fiddle (however innocent, I understand he didn't actually profit from this arrangement, as he could have claimed by other means?) wouldn't come under scrutiny after the expenses scandal and that is ultimately what has cost him his cabinet position.

13eastie said...

What is it with socialists that they cannot recognise any single person as an individual, but rather feel they should self-righteously patronise and pigeon-hole all whom they encounter, in order to either control or criticise their behaviour?

Based on a sample size of one, the conclusion being reached here is ludicrous!

Is it just conceivable that Mr Laws made a personal choice as an individual, just like all the rest of us do, regarding the extent to which he wanted his personal affairs to be publicly known?

Can logical analysis be withstood by a conclusion (based on one man's rather unusual response to what was, in effect, an accusation of fraud) that:

1) There has been a failure of Liberalism?
2) There is something wrong with his perception of the world he inhabits?
3) There is something wrong with his family?
4) There is something wrong with his friends?
5) There is something wrong with society at large?

Arguably, for Mr Laws to have behaved for years in a manner that differs from the expectations of the Fabians, and which might seem irrational to them, is a triumph for individualism and liberalism.

It is a failure of confidence in socialism that those on the left simply cannot stand it when people publicly reject the socialist sheep-mould you've been so busy making for them.

The S Word said...

"What is it with socialists that they cannot recognise any single person as an individual, but rather feel they should self-righteously patronise and pigeon-hole all whom they encounter, in order to either control or criticise their behaviour?"

Er, you what? Didn't you just patronise and pigeon hole just there? Tut, tut.

What about the thousands of "individuals" out there who have absolutely no say over their treatment at the hands of the government? (I would say ruling class, but I know it would be upsetting).

The thousands of "individuals" who don't have access to £40,000 to save their jobs, their education, their welfare? Those "individuals" who don't have access to bankers' bonuses (access which they should have because they create the wealth that bankers play with) who are going to be attacked by dictate from "individuals" like David Laws.

This has nothing to do with sexuality of even privacy in general but everything to do with abusing public funds for (yes, individual) personal gain without being prescribed by personal need.

Sunder Katwala said...


That seems a misreading of just about everything that was argued.
You are attacking "pigeon-holing" everybody and "a sample size of one".

Yes, the possibility you describe is "conceivable" in the case of Laws and/or somebody else. Does it apply in this case? Well, I was quoting Laws' personal description of his individual experience, setting out how and why he felt unfree and lacking in autonomy to be himself in this respect.

Of course (this was my main point), his experience will be different from that of others. Indeed, all cases have distinct individual features (as I wrote, particularly around family/personal background), while doubtless also being affected by the broader social climate.

I didn't claim "there has been a failure of liberalism". I argued that it seemed that Laws lacked confidence in liberalism as a philosophy and/or in the liberalism of contemporary Britain. That is very different.

I do of course think there was "something wrong with society at large" when homosexuality was barred; and still a problem for liberal autonomy when it was legal but very widely abhorred stereotyped, discriminated against and discouraged.

I would not support any call that everybody who is gay *ought to* be open about their sexuality in the workplace. That is different from being legitimately concerned if they felt they would not have the choice to be so (in, say, a city dealing room, football club or whatever) without being significantly disadvantaged. One is not seeking to put anybody into a "sheep mould" in defending those principles of liberal autonomy. Do you substantively disagree with that broad argument?

Roger Thornhill said...

For a Fabian blog to post that passage by Mill is just breathtaking hypocrisy. Fabianism is all about insidious, hidden manipulation of "society" to bring about a bankrupt ideology with "social justice" pushed, while Mill described the foundation for it - "social rights" - as "monstrous" and rightly so.

Laws maintained a secret, one that could have exposed him, the administration and thus this country to attempts at blackmail. That was irresponsible.

There was no real need to take £40k from the taxpayer, and if he felt that it was purely a cover, why not secretly donate it back to good causes?

Sunder Katwala said...


That's a hoary old stereotype of Fabianism. It doesn't really speak to a long tradition of Fabian campaigning on socially liberal causes. It would be difficult to explain the engagement of Fabians such as, say, Oscar Wilde, Granville Barker, Tony Crosland, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and others within your hostile interpretation of the motivations of Fabianism.

More generally, the Labour Party has has always been a coalition of different ideologies and interests, and has never been a wholly liberal party, but it has often been an important advocate and vehicle of social liberalism.

It was the political home of much of the radical liberal tradition and socially liberal political advocacy in the crucial period from the 1950s to the mid-1970s: for example Crosland's advocacy of social liberalism in the Future of Socialism and Roy Jenkins' period as Home Secretary. And I would not regard that equalities and anti-discrimination legislation as illiberal

GoodLiberal said...

The S word-

The Labour theory of value is nonsense on stilts. The transformation problem remains and 99.99% of economists have given up on Marxian economics. Some kind of rigid 'class' analysis is a relic and an obstacle in the pursuit of a society where all have enough life chances to find fulfillment. The left was be fueled for love of one's fellow man, not petty jealousy and outdated economics.