Hypocrisy, cant and the morass of public morals

`According to Norris, only abandoned women motivated by personal revenge are bothered about marital infidelity'
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The Independent Culture
THE ENDLESS farrago that is the London mayoral contest is proof of one thing, if proof were needed: that we don't have enough talented types in public life even to fill the ever-expanding demand for government posts that we have already, let alone to find even one more multi-talented star. The idea that we are in the position at present to find people to administrate another layer of local government is ludicrous. A mayor for London is, of course, a good idea, but not one that either of the major parties has really got a big enough roster of talent to bring to fruition. That is the real and only reason why things "keep going wrong".

It's a parlous state of affairs that doesn't just reveal a negative critique of the quality of people in public life. Too often we forget that our elected representatives really are just that. We get the leaders we deserve, and the reason why so few seem able to summon up a shiny enough history of personal or public moral probity to be a shining example of mayoral perfection is not just because politicians are uniquely vile beings, but because we are a nation of people confused about such things.

The deselection of Steven Norris by a "monstrous regiment" or "blue- rinsed coven" is a case in point. Certainly their decision has not been dictated by logic, as has been pointed out ad infinitum, but how could Diane Collins and her "bitter harpies" have applied any logic to their king-making process anyway? What is the general consensus on marriage and mistresses these days?

There isn't one. According to Steven Norris himself, only abandoned women motivated by personal revenge are at all bothered about marital infidelity.

"Back in 1993, when the tabloids first took an interest in my private life," said Norris, "Diane Collins, mother of the Tory vice-chairman, Tim Collins, and chair of my constituency, took against me. She herself had been through a messy divorce and had seen her husband go off with a younger woman. Hardly surprising whose side she would take in my case."

It is an interesting assertion, this one, which suggests that the only people who are troubled by marital infidelity are those who have been at the non-business end of it. What else does Norris believe? That people who are against stealing are bound to have had something nicked off them? Or that only people who want to live for ever are chary about murder?

Or just that lying to your wife and children, breaking vows and promises to them, hurting them, humiliating them and laying them open to the possibility (in this case spectacularly followed through) of the most public of humiliations, has nothing whatever to do with whether you're a decent person or not?

For that's what we're back to. The recurring argument that this kind of private bad behaviour is not any kind of indicator of what kinds of public bad behaviour a person may be capable of. Private decisions are made with the willy (or, in the case of women, erogenous areas all over the body), goes this logic of this argument, but for public decisions I use only my brain.

All of this was aired exhaustively throughout last year and the early part of this year as the Monica Lewinsky/ Bill Clinton case dragged on. In America a consensus appears to have emerged, at least on the left. It is perfectly all right to cheat on your spouse and still remain President of the United States.

In this country, even a Christian family man such as Tony Blair himself considers that it is fine to cheat on your wife and be Foreign Secretary. But I don't think it is, so where does that leave me? In the coven with Diane and her familiars? No, because her campaign to discredit Steven Norris is for obvious reasons barmy. As the mother of the Tory vice-chairman, Diane Collins could surely not have been unaware of what everyone else in politics and in the media knew at the time of Jeffrey Archer's selection. That while he might or might not have had anything to do with a prostitute, he certainly had been having an affair with somebody.

Clearly Diane Collins is willing to turn a blind eye to the personal morality of some people, but not others. It has already been noted that the infidelities of Jeffrey Archer and the late Alan Clark are somehow forgiven by the Tory ladies as rather dashing. Collins's main cause for anger over Norris is surely that he's a former used-car salesman who is in favour of binning Clause 28. That is the trouble with the blue-rinse brigade. They really don't know when their morality stops and their bigotry begins.

And these days, who does? There is much divisive rubbish being written about the married state.

On the right there is The Sunday Times journalist, Melanie Phillips, banging on about how women must withhold sexual favours to maintain "power" over men, and demanding that people must be financially bribed to get married and punished if their marriage fails (although a marriage entered into largely because of Melanie Phillips's financial incentives might seem to be rather doomed from the start anyway).

On the left there are legions of feminists burbling on about the rightness of their singlehood, and pointing to the decline of marriage as proof that they will inherit the world. Half the time, of course, these fighters for future freedom have no children, and appear not to notice that if everyone were as similar to them as they wished them to be, then questions of inheritance would hardly be relevant.

But, in fact, marriage hasn't got that much to do any more with society's having generally agreed views on what is decent behaviour. In any union, married or not, an unhappy partner should end the relationship, rather than hanging on to its advantages while mocking its stability. Doing otherwise is Not Very Nice.

Much as Norris and his supporters may spout on about how his five mistresses don't matter, and no matter how much he shouts that his relationship with his estranged wife is good, the fact is that being unfaithful to anyone who has a reasonable right to expect fidelity is as underhand and nasty an act as pocketing the valuables of someone who believes that they can trust you with them.

As "Shagger" Norris emerges as a harmless Lothario whose only weakness is the small and private one of letting down and hurting the people who loved and trusted him the most, we may like to think about what such betrayals really mean to people. Total misery is what.

There is too much of a feeling these days that inflicting such pain is something that doesn't matter at all, and that personal happiness is something that each and every one of us can achieve quite separately, without caring at all for the personal happiness of anybody else.

None of this is particularly Steven Norris's doing, and there is no reason why one rule should apply for Clinton the US President, and Robin Cook the Foreign Secretary, while another militates against him. But, in the meantime, it is worth noting that the London mayoral contest, which has served to expose too many inadequacies in so many areas, has thrown up yet another deep confusion that we would all do well to think about sorting out somehow.

Is infidelity just a fact of life - we all have to put up with it, and are foolish if we demand or expect anything else? Or is it a failure of human sensitivity that we nowadays find infidelity demeaningly easy to overlook?