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Columnists

Resignation letters

James Cary

JC.jpg

Cary

We do not live in a shame culture. Which is a shame. Honour seems to be a luxury in our current age. If the saying that we get the politicians we deserve is true, we would be able to see this shamelessness in our elected representatives. And we do. Everywhere.

What does it take to get a government minister to resign? In the 1980s, not very much. Politicians used to resign on principle regularly. A whiff of a scandal, a rogue civil servant, financial impropriety or even differences of policy would trigger the minister handing in his notice. (Or her notice. Okay, mostly him.) The minister would be pictured on the Six O'Clock News walking out of 10, Downing Street smiling at the cameras and vowing to spend more time with his family while sitting on the back benches.

Let us take a moment to recall some of the 80s resignation. Heseltine walked over a helicopter manufacturer, Westland. Nicholas Ridley went over some unfortunate comments about Germany and the EU in the Spectator. Nigel Lawson quit over monetarist policy. Sir Geoffrey Howe resigned because he just couldn't bear the Prime Minister any more. By today's standards, these are pootling issues.

In the 1990s, things were far more tawdry with plenty of scandals about extra-marital affairs, illegitimate children and dodgy dealings. Take a trip down memory lane by googling Tim Yeo, Neil Hamilton and Jonathan Aitken. Then there was Alan Clark who scandalized everyone with his candour and shameless talk. But it was mostly talk.

Perhaps a new kind of rot set in with David Mellor, who clung on to his ministerial post despite being caught with his trousers down while his party were espousing back-to-basics family values. The result of this gross hypocrisy was that he became a laughing stock for many years to come and brought shame upon his party, the government and the nation. He should have resigned.

Sadly, New Labour took Mellor's lead and turned clinging on to a ministerial job into an art form, as have the current administration. The following should trigger your memory: Keith Vaz; Jo Moore; Stephen Byers; Martin Sixsmith; Ecclestone and F1; the Hinduja brothers; Mandelson (twice); Robinson; Blunkett; Prescott; McBride; Jacqui Smith; and Cash for Honours. Oh, and that war. And now we have Dr Liam Fox. Or had.

There was never any question of these ministers resigning over policy. All politicians pride themselves on ideological flexibility, also known as not really believing in anything. Nor is there any prospect of people quitting over stories of massive incompetence, since pouring of billions down the drain can blamed on a series of predecessors and curiously nameless bureaucrats. The only crime in politics is being caught doing something indefensible with government funds (or on a government desk), and even then the penalties can sometimes be avoided.

In fact, the shameful impropriety can be turned into a post-political D-List celebrity career. The Hamiltons can milk their brown envelope schtick on the panto circuit. Lord Prescott can make money out  of commercials using jokes about his unnecessarily expensive cars and punching a member of the public.
The sad situation is that honour and shame have flown away. Stories about the misuse of power, inappropriate loans, expenses scandals and unprofessional behaviour have to run for weeks at fever pitch before the minister in question eventually caves in, issues a half-apology with a bunch of excuses before stepping down and waiting for his turn to come round again.

I mention this because the cockles of my heart were warmed during the St Paul's protest debacle. Within days of a rumpus, Canon Giles Fraser, Chancellor of the cathedral resigned on principle, with a passionate official statement that contained the words 'complete nonsense.' Sensational. A few days later, the Dean fell on his sword - and the Bishop said the Dean had 'acted honourably'. I hope you've been watching this, Westminster. Whatever else comes of this strange spectacle, the church has been showing the way on how to resign: quickly, with honour and con brio. Amen to that. n

James Cary