Philip Hensher: At last – a public figure who refuses to deny their past

What is so heartening about Louise Mensch’s response is the sight of a strong-minded person standing up in her own name against a mean, rat-like prig

Share
Related Topics

Once in a great while, a politician does something which gives us hope for the future. Unexpectedly, the latest is a Conservative lady. With a minimum of encouragement, she agreed that it was "highly probable" that, in her twenties, years ago, she got wasted with Nigel Kennedy on a dancefloor. I could get all teary-eyed about this heartening response. It feels like the British doing the Obama hope-y, change-y thing.

Louise Mensch is a new Conservative MP who, by the current, Milibandish standards of MPs, has a colourful background. She worked in her youth for the record company EMI and has carved out a career as a novelist under a previous name, Louise Bagshawe. She is also rather hot on the subject of journalistic propriety, and as a member of the Commons select committee on culture, media and sport, gave the Murdochs a memorable grilling a couple of weeks ago.

She received an email from a soi-disant investigative journalist, calling himself David Jones. (It is worth saying that this person proved not to be the David Jones who writes for the Daily Mail, and the real author of this email, and the publication he writes for, have not been identified). This person confronted her with three allegations. First, she took drugs and danced while drunk in front of journalists. Secondly, she was sacked for writing a novel "of a sexual nature" on an EMI work computer. Thirdly, she made derogatory remarks in her novel about her line manager.

Ms Mensch replied that not only had she used her line manager's name for a minor character, she had used the names of other acquaintances. As for writing the novel, actually she was sacked for leaving early, not turning up at all, and turning up inappropriately dressed. As for the drugs, drink, journalists and Nigel Kennedy allegation – "This sounds highly probable ... I am not a very good dancer and must apologise to any and all journalists who were forced to watch me dance."

Magnificent woman, and her response, which she published herself, is within the best, eff-off Tory traditions. In December 1824, the Duke of Wellington had a letter from a well-known blackmailer, Joseph Stockdale, saying that a famous prostitute of the day, Harriette Wilson, was about to publish her memoirs of her famous clients, including some letters from the Duke. His response was instant: "Publish and be damned."

More recently, the politician and diarist Alan Clark got away with something truly deplorable by just refusing to engage with denial. The New Statesman was told that, as a minister, he had referred to sub-Saharan Africa as "bongo-bongo land" in a departmental meeting. They challenged him; he merely said: "Well, I don't remember saying it, but it sounds rather like me." The scandal failed to ignite.

By contrast, almost every genuinely damaging political scandal emerges when a politician denies something disgraceful; goes on denying it as the media enjoys itself; produces a totally ludicrous explanation when proof of the behaviour emerges; finally admits it, and has to resign.

In this situation, it hardly matters whether anyone really cares about the bad behaviour. Almost certainly, the journalists writing it aren't remotely concerned. As I write, one Sunday red-top's lead story is that the Today programme broadcast some foul language to its audience which, we are told, "includes children". The foul language, in fact, were the words "bollocks" and "bullshit". I would be surprised if there were an eight-year-old in the country unfamiliar with these words; still more so if any of the tender souls who actually write the Sunday Express were genuinely shocked to hear them.

A comparable hypocrisy is often apparent when journalists address stories of bad behaviour. Is "David Jones" so shocked and surprised that, in the early 1990s, now-respectable people sometimes got drunk and even occasionally took drugs before venturing on to the dance floor? Is it so very horrifying that someone wrote a novel on their work computer? I can see that people might prefer it if their MPs didn't take drugs while they were supposed to be working on their constituency casebook. But if "David Jones" had gone ahead and published this non-story about Ms Mensch, would a single one of his readers have cared about things that had happened nearly 20 years ago? Of course not.

When hypocrisy meets hypocrisy, they unite, and egg each other on. Mr Ron Davies joined the ranks of the immortals by his acts of denial. The MP was discovered in the middle of the day in a gay cruising spot by a motorway. Challenged, he first denied that he had ever been there. Then he said he had been going for a short walk. Then he said, unforgettably, that he had been "watching badgers". What these blameless nocturnal animals had to do with anything, God only knows. But by the end of the affair, Davies would have been much better off saying "Yes, I'm gay, and I just felt ... I don't know ... extremely randy at the time".



What is so richly heartening about Louise Mensch's response to these allegations is the sight of an honourable, strong-minded, responsible person standing up in her own name against a mean, rat-like prig who hides under someone else's name. Pretending to hold moral attitudes while writing under a pseudonym, or pretending to be someone else, is contemptible enough when it happens in the online comments under an article, or in a blog. When it is engaged in by someone claiming that they want to get at "the truth", the author deserves to be hauled out and publicly shamed.

Ms Mensch may have done British public life a grand favour. For years now, people with an ordinarily colourful life may have been discouraged from entering public life for fear that a past episode will be held against them. Others, already in public life, have been persuaded that they ought to lie, and conceal, and deny everything to the very point of being drummed out of office by a red-top campaign.

With four words, Ms Mensch may have changed all that. I genuinely hope that the next time a politician is doorstepped with some marginally discreditable episode from his or her past – one which obviously creates no real problem for their ability to do their current job – they have the nerve to reply as she did. "This sounds highly probable". Now bugger off.



React Now

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

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: You will also work alongside their seasoned sa...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Property Manager

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you looking for your first step into...

Recruitment Genius: Mechanical Design Engineer

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This innovative company working...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Lib Dem MPs have criticised David Cameron's decision to ask the retail tycoon Sir Philip Green (above) to lead a spending review when his Arcadia company is registered in the name of his Monaco-based wife  

So, the people who always support the Tories... are supporting the Tories? Has the world gone mad?

Mark Steel
Crofter's cottages on Lewis. The island's low population density makes it a good candidate for a spaceport (Alamy)  

My Scottish awakening, helped by horizontal sleet

Simon Kelner
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat