What I’m about to write should be stuck on a high shelf labelled ‘opinion’. You can add labels to that shelf yourself, should you wish, perhaps reading ‘abject nonsense’, ‘old-fashioning thinking’, or ‘the ridiculous moralising of a backward age’. You can even, if you’re so inclined, describe it as a ‘thought crime’. I can’t really help believing what I believe and thinking what I think. To do otherwise would be to submit to a form of group mind control and, despite the current state of political debate in the UK, I’m not sure we’re at that stage. At least: not yet.

This last week, a collective wisdom emerged regarding the adventures of John Whittingdale, Culture Secretary. That wisdom has it that our man at Culture is single and therefore has the right to a private life. Whatever he enjoys doing, wherever he enjoys doing it, and with whomsoever he enjoys doing whatever it is that’s being done: it’s none of our business so long as the what, the where, and the who all remain legal. He once dated a sex worker? A dominatrix? And previously he’d dated a porn actress? Well, so what? Nothing to see here. Now close the door and don’t turn back if you hear squeals of exquisite agony…

Whether you agree or disagree with this proposition, your viewpoint will be dictated by your age, education, wealth, gender, politics, and pretty much everything that defines you as a human being. Myself, I certainly sympathise with the argument that Whittingdale has rights yet I don’t hold with the general premise that all private lives should be set back from the public gaze. There are many areas where an individual’s private actions or beliefs would be of valid interest to the public. When we elect an official or one of our elected officials moves into a cabinet position, it is surely beneficial to the public to know more about the person to whom they’re entrusting so much power. We should know if our Home Secretary has ever had a serious drug problem, if our Education Secretary has ever beaten their kids. Is the new Health Secretary a theist who believes in miracles rather than modern medicine? Is the Defence Secretary a pacifist or a coward or did he skip National Service? Sometimes these questions will come down to matters of old fashioned morality. They are the old questions which have got older still in an age of reformed values. Is the minister an alcoholic, a serial adulterer, or does he consort with prostitutes?

You might still argue that none of this is any of our business. More bluntly, you might even ask: is it really in our interest to know which odd peccadilloes our elected officials enjoy in private? Alcoholism, adultery, and the use of prostitutes are not illegal. But does that make those habits ethical? Does it make them moral? There is a distinction, of course. Ethics are the values we generally agree upon but morality is individual. We might both agree that it’s wrong to kill wild birds, for example, but perhaps only one of us would think it our moral duty to feed them in the winter.

Rather than being matters of ethics, then, these are moral questions. They become even more difficult to address when they involve issues of sexuality where our boundaries are unique to each of us. We might all agree that consensual fumbling between two (or more) individuals is none of our business yet it’s harder to accept the primacy of that ideal when presented with an example that transgresses our individual moral code. We might say that we’d ignore everything an MP does that’s legal and consensual but does that really mean that a bit of ‘swinging’ is acceptable within the member’s lounge? How about boot sniffing? Sadism? How about sending photographs of their genitals to the Downing Street cat? In a world of prevalent sexting, is it reasonable for an MP to enjoy what is the US is known as ‘doing a Weiner’, after former congressman Anthony Weiner and his weiner?

The answer to all these questions would be ‘yes’ if we’re really serious about our liberal attitudes. To answer ‘yes’ would mean that there’s really no shame. Whatever your vice, it is a vice no longer. It is merely a choice, a natural craving, a predisposition. If a future Prime Minister were single and enjoyed the sex life usually enjoyed by the more hirsute members of a boy band, then, as a fully liberal and tolerant society, we’d be quite supportive. We would turn a blind eye, even to the ubiquitous sex tape…

Wouldn’t we?talking

I pose that, really, as a thought experiment. I don’t know the answer. You might share a libertine’s view of sex or you might be closer to Philip Larkin who described it as ‘like asking someone else to blow your nose for you’. The point is that none of us share exactly the same moral ground. By my own standards, I do know that I’m extremely uncomfortable with an MP and the chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport select committee taking part in an online dating scheme whereby he ends up meeting a professional dominatrix who he then takes on a free trip to the MTV awards in Amsterdam. Subsequent details released by the Mail on Sunday make me even more uncomfortable.

Even if every one of Whittingdale’s actions are permitted under the law and under parliamentary rules, and even if the British public is largely indifferent to the story, I still retain the right to say that, to me, it looks pretty squalid and hints towards a psychology that should not be in a position to decide the important matters of press regulation.

There are reasons why our culture puts so more store in monogamous relationships. Even when you strip away the religious baggage, marriage still means something to a great many people. Though many of the taboos of sex have gone, there are still reasons why, for example, access to pornography is restricted and why prostitution remains a vice, even if it’s largely a legal one. ‘O who shall me deliver whole / From bonds of this tyrannic soul?’ asked the body in Andrew Marvell’s poem, ‘A Dialogue between the Soul and the Body’. As the metaphysical poets realised, we are divided creatures. We feel the cravings of our bodies and also the moral restraints of our higher being. If pornography were simply a release for bodily pressures, as Larkin would say, like blowing your nose, then it would not be a vice. Yet it remains a vice because of its dangers. It is a vice that would know no end. Our physical passion operates against our will and makes us irrational, servile to a constant demand for bodily satisfaction. It would be fair, I think, to consider Whittingdale’s private life as being indicative of his psychology; his lusts, desires, wants, and habits. That is why the John Whittingdale story is an important one. It suggests that an insalubrious character sits in the Department of Culture, deciding the mores of our arts, news, and entertainment, and deciding what is or is not in the public’s interest to know.

Newspapers may claim that there’s no public interest in knowing what John Whittingdale did but, post Leveson, they would say that, wouldn’t they? They are staking a claim the moral high ground whilst slamming the BBC for breaking the story after it broke in Private Eye last week and the internet newsletter, Popbitch, the Thursday before. Yet the same high moral tone was absent when they recently gloried in the private details of Jeremy Corbyn’s distant relationship with Dianne Abbot. They quote no high ethical standard as they seek to unblock the high court injunction preventing them from reporting the sexual activities of one half of a ‘celebrity’ couple. Where, you might even ask, was the public interest in exposing the sordid adventures of Lord John Sewel?

It’s been some years since we’ve known a good political sex scandal to break in the UK so it’s reasonable to assume that we’re lost the knack of asking these difficult questions. What we’re seeing across the media and the social space is our sudden exposure to matters that makes us explore our own moral boundaries. It leaves us confused as to what constitutes shame in these post-shame days. Yet as people cry ‘there was nothing wrong’, then perhaps we should look at what’s really at stake. The public’s trust in elected officials has never been lower. Conspiracy theories merge with justifiable doubts about government transparency. Whittingdale decides the rules dictating the degree to which our media can investigate inconvenient truths. In these matters, transparency is vital, even if the stories are harmful to those that regulate our freedoms. Whittingdale himself should know this himself, given that his own half-brother was shamed by the press in 2014. Charles Napier was the treasurer of the ‘Paedophile Information Exchange’ and  was convicted of child sexual abuse offences thanks, in part, to the testimony of Francis Wheen, the deputy editor of Private Eye who waived his right to anonymity to explain how Napier had ‘put his hand down my gym shorts’.

It’s why this story is too important to simply write off as an invasion of privacy. It is a battle for our right to know what kind of people we place in positions of authority and that is surely one of the most important rights we possess.

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11 Comments on "Is it really none of our business?"

  1. I have to say that I totally disagree David, morals and politics mix like oil and water. What a politician does with their sex life or indeed their sexual preferences are their own business provided that they don’t break any laws, go counter to any public statements they may have made or constitute a danger to national security. On national security MI5 should know everything that ministers are up to as should the whips office so we are left with breaking the law and hypocrisy as justification for media intrusion, neither stand up to that test in this case. What I found least palatable about Whittingdales actions was the way he dumped his girlfriend when the newspapers approached him which suggests that actually his career does trump his lusts. He is in fact guilty only of using power/money to attract someone who physically would normally be beyond him, same as many men and no doubt women his age. Look at your average party conference, an unfeasible amount of young attractive people there connected to the various politicians who are generally old and unattractive, draw your own conclusions from that.
    Whittingdale doesn’t make policy on the BBC, the brief isn’t senior enough for that, he simply implements it. If he goes then he will be replaced by someone who surprise surprise has exactly the same views on the matter. I do think this is another one of those “oh look a squirrel” stories which when I see I always wonder what is going on elsewhere. The public has no real interest in if a minister smacks their kids or took drugs at uni, or is seen out with a different woman every night despite being married simply because many of them do the same things themselves and it doesn’t hinder their ability to perform whatever duties they have. Former home secretary Jacqui Smith admitted smoking cannabis, the nation shrugged it’s shoulders, Boris Johnson admitted taking cocaine, they shrugged again. When it emerged Paddy Ashdown had cheated on his wife of 30 years his popularity went up not down. A few years ago they found traces of cocaine in the toilets across the palace of westminster, of course they bloody did, no different to toilets in every workplace in London. If you want moral fibre in your MPs I will repeat what I said last week, you aren’t going to get it for a 50% premium on what a tube driver earns.

    • Thanks Rob. Appreciate the feedback.

      I knew you (or somebody) would disagree because literally *everybody* I know disagrees except for those people I’ve spoken to in person. It’s why I nearly didn’t publish this piece, why I agonised over it, but also why I decided to publish in order to express an opinion that’s not being reflected among the chatterati. I suppose it comes down to upbringing, income, education, and whole number of things. Friends and family I’ve discussed this with are in the North West, working class, and with a variety of educational backgrounds. Yet all shared my opinion that Whittingdale is a sleazy old roue who shouldn’t be in government. In the words of my sister, ‘it’s like we’re living in a different world’. For myself, I simply can’t believe we’re living in a day and age when Whittingdale’s actions aren’t consider deeply shameful. It also makes me wonder at which point it does become shameful?

      But, hey, what do I know? I’m utterly confused by the world. I’ve heard all the arguments in favour of Whittingdale and my opinion hasn’t changed. I’m probably more old fashioned and prudish than I’ve ever thought before or perhaps I hold people to higher moral standards.

      The idea that politics and morals mixing like oil and water is abhorrent to me. Just because it’s true (in that many of our politicians and the worst kind of people) doesn’t mean that it should be the rule.

      • I think your view is certainly a provincial one David, not so sure about working class as my family were very much of the peoples privatelives are just that camp. I think the problem when you get into talking about morals is that they are not only time and location dependent but also very subjective. You don’t feel that Whittingdale messing about with a dominatrix is very moral but how do you feel about a minister engaging in sodomy? If you think that having a homosexual as a mnister is ok then you would no doubt have a whole load of people screaming at you that you have no morals.From my understanding of history I would suggest that the type of people running the country now are in essence no different to what has ever gone before bar perhapsin terms of their abilitywhich seems extremely poor

        • Thanks for the reply, Rob. Always like these conversations which help me to think.

          The strange thing is that I largely agree with you. I’m a rationalist and on one level I do just see us as lumps of organic chemistry. Really, in grand scheme of things, it really doesn’t matter where one entity sticks a bundle of organic compounds inside another bundle of organics. To reduce the tone: a dog doesn’t think ‘eugh’ when it sniffs another dog’s arse. So, in that sense, there is no sin, vice, or ‘wrong’.

          However, I hold a more essentialist position in that I think we survive as a species because we exist in a natural condition that is improved if we act certain ways. Morality (and ethics) are real to us (or feel real) because without them we would be dissolute and destroy ourselves inside a generation. Monogamy, for example, is not dictated by any God but is dictated by our nature. There are anthropological reasons why, for example, incest is a taboo, as is child abuse. On the other hand, other things were once considered taboo but no longer carry any stigma. Some things are taboo is different contexts and we can reasonably discount them in our modern culture. In a primitive culture, sodomy might be considered taboo (along with masturbation) if a tribe was facing extinction because there weren’t enough children being produced. In the modern day, homosexuality carries no stigma (or, at least, among most people) because our culture is healthy. Instead, sexual diversity contributes to our culture. I don’t hold, then, that homosexuality is unnatural or unGodly. It doesn’t bother me (in any sense) what consenting adults get up to inside a relationship.

          That said, I don’t think that the libertine lifestyle suits a cabinet minister. What I suppose I’m struggling to find is a rational explanation for what I think is ‘shame’. Where that lies is probably in the question of a person’s psychology. If he is so ruled by his penis, then his is not ruled by his head (no pun intended). He is not grounded in the values that we need in our government and, more broadly, in our civilisation. That is the problem I have with Whittingdale. I am no champion of virtue for the sake of virtue or of people who live the most virtuous lives. However, in politicians who decide issues of morality, I think we should expect certain moral standards. It is a morality but not, I hope, one that is totally couched in reason.

          Lastly, regarding the actions of politicians in years past: yes, they lived amoral lives but the system protected itself by limited the details to those in the know. In the sense that it was practical, I don’t actually mind the hypocrisy. In a modern culture, I don’t think we can allow politicians the same leniency. There’s a slight but important difference between *suspecting* that our politicians enjoy sleeping around and *knowing* they enjoy sleeping around. One maintains the illusion of society. The other admits that we’re animals and divide our time between sh*tting and f*cking. In my darker moments, I suspect that’s the essential truth about human nature. On my better days, I hope we’re better than that. Whittingdale challenges my better instincts.

          • A very honest answer as I have come to expect David. I think one of the essential differences in our approaches to things is that you are I think at heart an optimist/idealist while I am a cynic/pragmatist. You still dare to dream of a better world while I believe that human nature and the evidence of the last couple of millennia suggest that that better world won’t emerge.

          • Thanks Rob. Very true. Beneath my thick layer of cynicism is an abiding optimism. I think it’s the nature of most people drawn to satire that, deep down, they want the world to be a certain way and believe that things can be better.

  2. Well done David for having the courage to publish. It cannot be easy to do so when you know your views are not widely held. It feels to me that we have become so cynical about politicians that almost nothing any more comes as a shock or a surprise to any of us. John Major having an affair with Edwina Currie or David Mellor and his exploits in a Chelsea football shirt. Many have such low opinions of Politicians that they do think “They are all at it” whether that is sexual or financial scandals. I wonder has it always been this way or have things changed or is our society so much more open now with Social Media and more Transparency that they simply just get caught more often. I think there is a hope amongst some that politicians will behave in a manner befitting their position and this may be seen as being unrealistic and may be Politics and Morals do mix as Rob says like Oil and Water. I do agree that some views and or actions are in the public interest and as your example says if the Defence Secretary is a pacifist we should be told. I also think if you go into public life its part of the package that your life no longer will be private and if you want it to remain so public office is not for you. As you rightly say as we speak we have the ludicrous position of an injunction preventing the reporting of sexual activities of one half of a ‘celebrity’ couple that is already published in Scotland and on social Media. My wife went on line last night and is 99% sure she now knows who they are but the Media in England and Wales are gagged!!! All very bizarre but it shows as I believe Twitter is awash with rumours that people have an insatiable appetite for a good scandal. I guess Politicians are only human and we should not expect them to have higher standards than the rest of us or should we?

    • Thanks Paul. I seem to go through my life criticizing politicians but it’s only because I cherish our political system. I do think they should be held to a higher level of behaviour, as I would hope I would act if I were ever elected to the Commons. From a simple point of view: I would stop swearing in public, something I currently do quite a bit. I would also stop dressing like a slob simply because I know people would expect better of me. Asking that our ministers don’t frequent lap-dancing bars or getting involved in S&M would seem like the minimum we could ask.

      It also worries me that we can apparently intellectualise ourselves into positions that, only a few years ago, would have been considered immoral. Reminds me of what I’ve read about the last days of the Roman Empire; when those in power were so absolutely certain of their cleverness that it destroyed them.

      The ‘case’ we can’t talk about is a perfect example and I look forward to writing about it, simply to make the point that simply being married to a famous person does not confer ‘celebrity’ on that person. I’m sure you’re wife knows who it is. We all do even if we weren’t interested in finding out. Which is why I think the judge reasonably ruled in favour of disclosure. Especially when there’s a stench of hypocrisy about the whole business.

    • Paul,it has indeed always been this way, the 19th century foreign minister Granville one remarked that he had known 9 prime ministers and 5 of them were adulterers. David Lloyd George was so promiscuous his nickname was ‘the goat’ he kept a mistress for 30 years whom he got pregnant on at least two occasions resulting in probable abortions. The media at the time didn’t report it. Sorry if the format of this is poor, I am writing on the phone from hell.

  3. Thanks Rob yes you are right about that of course. I see John Whittingdale has been under attack for “officially” visiting a lap dance club as part of an inquiry into Licensing but the evening was not recorded in the Committees published records. There is no suggestion of wrong doing as his visit were not secret just that his committee minutes should have listed details of the free hospitality which he enjoyed along with two other MPs. I guess I am being too cynical to think all this mudslinging is designed to stop him having a high profile role in the campaign to leave the EU but no doubt the Remain side will not be complaining.

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