Chris Huhne: A punishment that doesn’t fit the crime

Which emotion moves you more in this morality play: schadenfreude or sympathy?

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The Independent Online

Without wishing to offend  anyone who may fall under the following header, I think you would have to be a sanctimonious fool with necrosis of the soul to be anything other than deeply moved by the downfall of Chris Huhne.

It isn’t the incineration of his glittering career by a voraciously ambitious man that’s so distressing, though only the product of a staggeringly sheltered life, such as a tabloid editor, could regard his offences as colossally wicked. Goethe’s observation that he never heard of a crime he could not imagine committing himself has its limitations, as anyone unable to read a detailed account of a sexual assault on a child will agree. But as a succinct expression of humility, empathy, self-knowledge and common humanity, it isn’t half bad. Few of us are so saintly that we need explore the outer limits of our potential for wrongdoing before imagining the reallocation of a speeding ticket and lying brazenly about it afterwards.

As Dominic Lawson mentioned yesterday, other politicians have destroyed themselves by seeking to pervert the course of justice, and few liberal leftie hearts bled for them. Admittedly, the cases of Jonathan Aitken and Lord Archer were drastically worse, the former lying under oath and coercing a daughter to do the same for him, the latter pocketing a massive libel award with perjury of his own. But the fundamental fact is the same, and having taken sheer pleasure from their demises, it would be mawkish and hypocritical to overdo the sympathy for Mr Huhne for no better reason than he happens to be a politician whose work I admired.

What breaks the heart, on behalf of both men, is the texting exchange between him and his son, Peter, and especially one word in a message sent by Mr Huhne in December, 2010. “Tiger,” this began, “have you had any news from St Peter’s yet? Love Dad.” From that “Tiger” alone, you vividly sense the excruciation at his estrangement from a traumatised son who has come to hate him, and tells him so with wild brutality, for betraying his mother; the desperation of a father falling back on a nickname no doubt stretching back to toddlerhood in the delusional hope that this subconscious echo of warmer times might somehow melt the ice.

If reading these messages deposited a film of voyeuristic grime, writing about them leaves me wanting a shower. Whether they should have been allowed into the public domain, to unload another avalanche of misery on father and son, and on his mother, Vicky Pryce, I cannot quite decide. Somehow, any judicious weighing of the freedom of speech pros against the intrusion into private grief cons seems, no less than fixating on the crimes that will probably see Mr Huhne banged up, to miss the point. This has ceased to be a reworking of the familiar tale of hubris, deception and the self-immolation of a man in a hurry, and become one of unbearably poignant human suffering.

Not everyone agrees. Offered a choice of Goethe quotes, the Daily Mail, for example, would eschew the one above in favour of “Do not give in too much to feeling. An overly sensitive heart is an unhappy possession on this shaky earth.” In that newspaper, not only Mr Huhne’s disgrace but his catastrophic relationship with his son was met with glee. The Mail saw fit to use one of Peter’s replies, “You’re a pathetic loser, a joke,” as a headline. It also tried to adduce the News of the World’s role, with the revelation of Mr Huhne’s infidelity that began this dismal process, in defence of the tabloid methodology it regards as threatened by Lord Leveson. Perhaps it has a point. But for that world exclusive, Mr Huhne might never have left Ms Pryce, and the lives of father, mother and son might not have been torn to shreds in the public gaze over a traffic offence. So a positive there for the red tops to balance against their chronic failure to investigate the Jimmy Savile rumours of which they were intimately aware for so long.

Of course Mr Huhne was a rank hypocrite for campaigning on the family values ticket as an adulterer, of course he made himself fair game for the stern moralists of the News of the World  by doing so, of course he was wrong to cleave to Goethe’s line in Faust that “law is mighty, necessity is mightier”, and of course however bold and effective a Climate Change Secretary he was had no relevance to the justice system’s obligation to hold him to account.

And maybe it is an equally facile and worthless statement of the bleeding obvious to say that of course, short of a child’s death, there can be no more savage a human tragedy than separation from a child who has come to hate you with all the passion and ferocity with which you love him. The question, in this neo-Goethic morality play of a man who sold his integrity cheaply for a shot at political immortality and finds himself in hell as a consequence, is which emotion moves you more. Schadenfreude for a clever fool who broke the law in ways to drive the feeblest imagination to a whispery chorus of there-but-for-the-grace...? Or plain, lowest common denominator sympathy for a family cursed with unimaginable punishment that seems so incalculably unfit for the crimes involved?