As he and Vicky Pryce are jailed, Chris Huhne shows politicians should steer clear of driving

We expect our politicians to be blemish-free - so any misdemeanour can end a career

Share
Related Topics

Road travel is risky at the best of times, but politicians have more to lose than most of us when taking up the driver’s seat. Sadly, Chris Huhne is only the latest to have come a cropper for crimes and misdemeanours behind the wheel.

The most notorious political road accident has to be Senator Edward Kennedy’s brush with death at Chappaquiddick in July 1969. What is a matter of record is that late one night, Kennedy’s car drove off a bridge near Martha’s Vineyard, and that the Senator escaped from the water below, while his passenger Mary Jo Kopechne drowned. Over ten hours passed before he reported the incident; and he only did so after he had been contacted about the car and Kopechne’s body had been found.

Numerous rumours circulated in the following days – including that he had been having an affair with Kopechne, and that he had been drunk behind the wheel and waited to ensure that the last traces of alcohol disappeared from his bloodstream. Kennedy denied them all vociferously, but even though his distinguished Senate career continued, his chances of ever becoming President were dealt a mortal blow.

Republicans opposing Kennedy’s re-election made sure that their attack ads came with a backing track of “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, while National Lampoon magazine ran a memorable spoof advert depicting a VW Beetle floating on water with the caption ”If Ted Kennedy drove a Volkswagen, he’d be President today.”

British MPs’ road mishaps have tended to be less sensational.  The case which the Huhne-Pryce saga most brings to mind is that of colourful MP Sir Gerald Nabarro. In 1971, when he was charged with driving the wrong way around a roundabout in Totton, Hampshire, he insisted that his secretary had been at the wheel – although eyewitnesses disagreed. It is difficult to see quite how the distinctive MP, with his fulsome handlebar moustache and balding head, could have been mistaken for a long-haired woman at the wheel of his Daimler with the personalised numberplate “NAB 1”.

Other MPs have had brushes with the law over speeding. In pre-speed camera days, Alan Clark’s career survived numerous driving bans which covered everything from speeding to driving with a lady on his knee. Conversely, in the 1970s, police were tipped off about one “careful” drunk driver whose car was doing around two miles an hour; the incident was later written into an episode of Yes, Minister, although the writers refused to reveal the identity of the government minister involved.

The very first British politician to be closely identified with a motor car was Edwardian Prime Minister Arthur Balfour. Those were more genteel times: until 1896, a maximum speed limit of 4 mph was in place, and all cars had to be preceded by a small boy waving a red flag, to warn onlookers about the oncoming danger. Balfour’s government oversaw the Motor Car Act 1903, which introduced car registration and increased the speed limit from 14 mph to a recklessly thrill-seeking 25mph. In the 1920s, Winston Churchill also took driving lessons, but still relied on drivers to transport him; indeed, he piloted a plane more frequently than he drove a car.

The dangers of our roads brought about a memorable backlash in the form of Lieutenant Commander Bill Boaks, who tried to highlight the issue of road safety by standing against high-profile MPs in a string of elections in the 1970s and 1980s (and invariably coming last), as a “Public Safety Democratic Monarchist White Resident”. Ironically, Boaks himself later died in a road accident.

As cars grew faster and road networks more complex in the twentieth century, so the scope for mishaps increased, and with it, the danger to those in public life. It is little wonder Huhne was keen to evade a driving ban. We live in an age when every past misdemeanour is aired in attack leaflets from political opponents.

The political climate is so unforgiving that we actively encourage our politicians to present a blemish-free picture of themselves. That leaves aspiring politicians like Huhne with three options: cover-up of past misdemeanours, a lifetime of chauffeurs, or permanently using public transport.

And politicians daring to take the train may feel a pang of victimisation, given that the first person ever to be run over by a locomotive was the MP William Huskisson in 1830. In today’s era of bland, uncontroversial, risk-averse, indentikit politicians, what is an MP to do?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Savvy Media Ltd: Media Sales executive - Crawley

£25k + commission + benefits: Savvy Media Ltd: Find a job you love and never h...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Solicitor NQ+ Oxford

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CORPORATE - Corporate Solicitor NQ+ An excelle...

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Muslim men pray at the East London Mosque  

Sadly, it needs to be said again: being a Muslim is not a crime

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

The young are the new poor

Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

Greens on the march

‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

Through the stories of his accusers
Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

The Meaning of Mongol

Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible