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Shame and Redemption

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Shame and Redemption

Notes on a British political scandal Autumn 2014
Former British politician Chris Huhne served nine weeks in prison for lying to authorities about a 2003 speeding incident.
ALASTAIR GRANT/AP PHOTO
Former British politician Chris Huhne served nine weeks in prison for lying to authorities about a 2003 speeding incident.

Scandal delights us because it lends respectability to our prurience and allows us to indulge in the most pleasurable of all emotions: righteous indignation. Scandal also reveals important or successful people to have feet of clay and thereby soothes our resentment at not being important or successful ourselves. It is therefore not surprising that we in Britain are good at it.

In February 2012, a government minister, Chris Huhne (born Christopher Murray Paul-Huhne, a name he abandoned early in his career as too suggestive of privilege), resigned from Prime Minister David Cameron’s cabinet after being charged with a criminal offense—the first time in British history that a government minister had resigned for such a reason. He was charged with perverting the course of justice.

His wife, Vicky Pryce, was likewise charged. A high-flying economist of Greek origin, with public- and private-sector experience, Pryce served from 2007 to 2010 as head of the Government Economic Service, an organization of 40 economists that advises government departments (without conspicuous success, it appears to the average citizen). In early 2013, Huhne and Pryce were convicted and sentenced to eight months’ imprisonment, of which they each served nine weeks—an example of the common perversion of the English language by British judges, who know perfectly well that an eight-month sentence means nothing of the kind.

Back in 2003, Huhne, who had made a fortune in the City by starting a ratings agency and was now a member of the European Parliament, was caught speeding by radar camera in the south of England. Because he had been caught speeding several times before, it was likely that he would lose his license. This would be a severe inconvenience, so he persuaded Pryce to claim that she had been behind the wheel. All would have been well for the couple, and the deception never discovered (it is estimated that 300,000 people a year did the same until recently, when facial-recognition cameras were installed), if Huhne had not left his wife in 2010 for Carina Trimingham, a woman with whom he had started an affair in 2007—the year in which she had formalized a civil partnership with her lesbian lover. Pryce, with whom Huhne had three children (she also had two by a previous marriage), was understandably upset, to put it mildly, and she decided on revenge.

It happened that Pryce had recently befriended a judge, Constance Briscoe, who lived nearby. People considered Briscoe a role model, a shining example of how a disadvantaged background does not preclude a successful career. She was one of 11 children of Jamaican immigrant Carmen Briscoe-Mitchell, seven of whom were by her husband and four by another man. By grit and determination, Constance Briscoe, born in 1957, put herself through university, where she studied law, and then became a successful barrister. She was also the best-selling author of a childhood memoir, Ugly, in which she alleged that her mother had systematically abused her. The memoir sold 600,000 copies. (The British public seems to have an insatiable appetite for such misery memoirs, as they are known, the bookshop in my town having a special section for “tragic life stories” alongside “world history.”) Briscoe-Mitchell, then in her late seventies, took the unusual step two years later of suing her own daughter for libel. The jury found unanimously that the allegations in the book were substantially true, despite denial by some of the mother’s other children, and Briscoe-Mitchell was left with a legal bill of $850,000, losing her house to pay it.

Constance Briscoe was not feeling well-disposed toward unfaithful men when Vicky Pryce sought consolation and advice about her husband’s desertion. Briscoe’s own consort of 12 years, an eminent 76-year-old lawyer named Anthony Arlidge, who had four children by a wife whom he had deserted many years earlier but never divorced, was just leaving her for a 25-year-old junior lawyer. Between them, Briscoe and Pryce cooked up a scheme to punish Huhne.

Their plan was to leak to newspapers the fact that Huhne had been speeding back in 2003 and had induced someone else (though not Pryce) to take the blame. The publicity, they supposed, would ruin not only his career but also his reputation, and because he was a man of overweening ambition—he narrowly missed becoming deputy prime minister—the revenge would be complete. The two informed a newspaper, the Mail on Sunday (which has a circulation of more than 1.5 million), that Huhne had encouraged or forced a political worker in his European parliamentary constituency—whom they identified by name—to accept the speeding penalty on his behalf. Investigation by the newspaper soon showed that the named person had a clean license, so the story couldn’t be true; the two conspirators then changed course, saying that the person whom Huhne had coerced into taking the penalty was indeed his wife.

When the story was made public, Huhne denied it with all the fury of injured innocence; but an opposition Member of Parliament asked the Essex Police Force, in whose area the original speeding offense had taken place, to investigate. They interviewed Constance Briscoe, who told them that Vicky Pryce had confided that her husband coerced her into accepting the punishment that should have been his. Briscoe also told them that she had had no contact with the newspapers, that she was not close to Pryce, and that she was acting as a simple witness to fact. After a long legal tussle with the newspapers to get them to disgorge their sources, the police proved Briscoe’s story false and declined to use her as a prosecution witness because she was so unreliable.

By then, the prosecution had enough evidence to proceed without her, and both Huhne and Pryce were charged. At the last moment, having repeatedly and publically denied the charge and then tried to get the case dismissed altogether—in the process, running up an immense legal bill—Huhne changed his plea to guilty. But Pryce insisted on her innocence, mounting the unusual—and, in her case, amusing—defense of marital coercion. It would have been difficult to find a woman for whom such a defense would be less plausible. The jury didn’t believe it and found her guilty.

Just over a year later, Constance Briscoe was arrested and charged with the same crime—perverting the course of justice. She was found guilty and sentenced to 16 months’ imprisonment. In addition to her conspiracy with Pryce, she was found to have altered legal documents to explain the changes in her statements to the police. Her mother, now in her eighties, said after the case was over that she thought her daughter should have been found out a long time ago. The former judge is now under suspicion that she forged or otherwise tampered with medical documents that she had used in court to back the claims of her misery memoir. If she did, she not only will face a further criminal case but may wind up losing her own house to pay her mother back when the libel case is revisited.

But, while Huhne is no longer a minister or a Member of Parliament or Briscoe a judge, all is not lost for them, as it might have been in a more censorious age. Briscoe is said to be writing a prison memoir, though her sentence is not yet over. She will almost certainly become a media personality after her release, her opinion canvased on everything from cookery to criminals. As for Huhne, having been Minister for Energy and Climate Change (a title that itself suggests a wealth of potentially lucrative political correctness), he is now involved in the commercial exploitation of renewable energy, while also writing a weekly column in the leading British liberal newspaper, the Guardian, in which he delivers his opinions on such matters as the social value of imprisonment. Here, for example, is what he wrote about the incarceration of Andy Coulson—former editor of the now defunct News of the World, whom David Cameron chose as his director of communications—after he was found guilty of conspiring unlawfully to intercept private telephone calls:

[The] prosecutions needed to happen, but that does not mean Andy Coulson . . . should now be in prison. The custodial sentences are ridiculous; they serve no public purpose. The conviction itself will be the most severe part of Coulson’s punishment. . . . Coulson’s sentence tells us more about the vindictive nature of our justice system—and of public opinion—than it does about his crimes.

Many readers were disgusted by the self-serving nature of this article. If it was not consciously dishonest, it certainly took absence of self-knowledge to new heights (or depths). There was a time when disgraced politicians and other public figures retreated from the limelight; now, it seems that shame only deepens their thirst for attention and adds luster to their reputation, at least in the media.

Vicky Pryce, who once authored a book called Greekonomics, wrote a book after her release from prison called Prisonomics, the royalties from which (to her credit) she has donated to a charity that helps women inmates find work after release. She has maintained a high media profile, does lots of charitable work, has been offered many commercial consultancies, and has taken an unpaid job as economic advisor to the government. She has been widely rumored to be romantically involved with Denis MacShane—a former Labour Member of Parliament with a colorful past, some of it discreditable—who has spent time in prison for having fraudulently inflated his parliamentary expenses.

Sometime after Pryce’s release, a student group at Manchester University invited me to appear on a panel with her about the effectiveness (or otherwise) of prison. I accepted with trepidation, for I had reviewed her book unfavorably: it was hastily written, unilluminating (she had spent all but three or four days of her nine weeks in custody in relatively comfortable conditions), and the theoretical chapters about the economics of imprisonment were by no means profound. How much she had become an unthinking member of a privileged elite may be judged by the fact that, when she arrived for the first time in prison, she had more in her purse in loose cash—which she had not even remembered was there—than the average non-pension financial assets of nearly half the households in the country. If even part of her intention in writing the book had been to create sympathy for herself, this careless and lordly attitude toward what, for the great majority of the British population, was still a large sum of money indicates just how out of touch she was with the daily realities of most people—despite being an economist with redistributionist sympathies. If she had any imaginative awareness of these realities, she would have kept this anecdote to herself.

I confess, then, that when I appeared on the platform with her, I was prejudiced against her. If she realized that I had written an unfavorable, not to say damning, review of her book in a national newspaper, of course, she might have been prejudiced against me, but if she was, she didn’t show it. And in the event, I found that I could not dislike her. Though in the abstract I take a dim view of human nature, in person I dislike rather few people.

Reviewing the case quickly in my mind as I listened to her, I realized that her conduct, though unwise, had not been so terrible, such as to make her a worthy object of my execration. Perhaps wives should not take the driving penalties for their husbands; perhaps it is a perversion of the course of justice; but it would be a harsh and heartless world in which wives (or, for that matter, husbands) never did such a thing, and spouses never, in any circumstances, covered up for each other. A world of such absolute probity, of such sea-green incorruptibility, in which obedience to the public power always takes precedence over private feeling—though that is what the public power demands—would be a cold one in which to live.

Pryce’s desire for vengeance on her husband was surely humanly understandable (her children publicly took her part, and the text messages of the son to his father, which were used as evidence at the trial and established beyond doubt that Huhne had known all along what he was doing, make painful reading). Her husband had not only left her suddenly and cruelly but also for a woman whom she had supposed was no threat to her marriage: for when Huhne had told her that he was working late with his political agent, Carina Trimingham, she was secure in the knowledge that Trimingham was a lesbian. Having helped her husband considerably in his political career, Pryce must have felt that she had been made a fool, all the more painful for her own great intelligence.

Undoubtedly, the most discreditable part of Pryce’s conduct was her attempt to implicate an innocent third party by claiming that this individual, rather than she, had agreed to take Huhne’s penalty. This claim implies that she (or, at any rate, her coconspirator Briscoe) knew that there was a legal risk to the person who falsely claimed to have been driving at the time Huhne was caught—else why bother to elaborate the story? But a single discreditable act can hardly vitiate an otherwise creditable life, especially when it was committed in the throes of what must have been a terrible rage.

As for her defense, which might have pleased feminists but which the jury found unbelievable, one does not know and can never know what part her legal team played in it. Perhaps they advised her to try it—in which case, she was badly advised; perhaps they counseled her against trying it. But in the last analysis, her legal team could mount a defense only with her agreement and on her instructions; and the attempt to make an excuse for oneself, while inglorious and sometimes reprehensible, is something that most of us do at some time in our lives.

That is why, when she prefaced her remarks to the students by saying that she was sent to prison for having taken her husband’s penalty, I did not say that this was a highly edited version of the story, to say the least. But her editing was as nothing by comparison with that of another former prisoner on the panel, whose story, as she told it, was about as reliable as a history of the Russian Revolution written during Stalin’s dictatorship.

What she said, in essence, was the following: she, like many or most women sent to prison, had not been “in control” of her life. She grew up in a criminal environment, where criminality was accepted as normal. She was in an abusive relationship when she was sent to prison for ten years. For the first two or three years of that sentence, she behaved badly, fighting the “system”; then she decided to do something with her life. She studied for a degree, and her education made her realize how destructive and futile imprisonment was—among other things, isolating families from prisoners by stigmatizing them. When she was released, she decided to work for the rehabilitation of women prisoners, and traveled the country giving speeches and seminars.

Once again, I said nothing. Her story had many evasions, but I had no impression of deliberate dishonesty; whatever she may once have been, she had obviously changed for the better, and I liked her. She did not elaborate on her original offense, for to have described it in detail might well have destroyed the audience’s sympathy. It was most likely a killing, since women are rarely made to serve ten years in prison for anything less. She made no mention of the drugs or alcohol that probably played an important part in her story. The supposed acceptance of criminality in her environment was contradicted by the stigmatization that she said she suffered because of her criminal act; therefore a criminal environment could not have explained that act. Again, it was obvious that, far from having been futile, her prolonged imprisonment had been the making of her. Without it, what would she have been today? To her credit, she had found meaning in her life while in prison, and I suspect that prison had changed the focus of Pryce’s life, too, in the direction of service to others.

None of this could I say; to have said so would have appeared cruel and censorious, however true it might have been. Nor would I have wanted to tear down this woman’s defenses, which, for all her obvious improvement, I suspected were brittle. Deliberate public humiliation of the vulnerable, even in the interest of truth, is always despicable.

Yet on the other hand, I felt a mild irritation that someone should be able to go around the country misleading audiences because most of her interlocutors who saw the contradictions in what she said were too considerate to point them out. This meant that untruth persisted by default: and not just any untruth but one that could easily lead people to a false and sentimental attitude. If the attitude of the public eventually translates itself into policy, this reformed prisoner might actually be doing harm, or more harm than good.

Nevertheless, the experience in Manchester caused me to think of the proper attitude toward lawbreakers once they have served their punishment. Often, the question is put as if it were one of forgiveness, but this seems wrong. For example, neither I nor the law can forgive Vicky Pryce for having tried to implicate a third party; only the third party can do that. Since it is not in our power to forgive, neither is it in our power to withhold forgiveness; to speak of forgiveness at all, then, is a mistake. What we can do and often ought to do is agree to give someone another chance, to forget the past, not in the sense of expunging it from our minds—which is beyond our power, in any case—but not to dwell on it, not to treat people permanently as if only their bad or their worst acts counted (unless, of course, they are repeated to the extent that they define the person).

But this willingness to draw a line under the past—a willingness of which we all stand in need at some point—depends on the conduct of the person not only in the legal, but also in the moral, sense. It goes without saying that the person receiving a second chance should not repeat his actions, but he should also behave with a certain seemliness or decorousness. As far as I can tell, Vicky Pryce has done so; Christopher Huhne has not. And his shamelessness seems, alas, not to be his alone but that of the political class as a whole, who never face ruin but only temporary dislocation and inconvenience.

Perhaps it was ever thus; and perhaps I should enter as a caveat that I might think differently if I had shared a penal cell with Huhne as well as his ex-wife, for, like most of mankind, I am easily swayed.

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