Fairy-tale villains in a modern melodrama

There is something about Geoff Hoon that has set the whole playground against him
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The Independent Online

Readers who feel embarrassed while talking to someone in a wheelchair, who get a thrill from attending funerals, who are impressed by wealth or think of someone else while making love to their spouse received something of a boost this week. A Psychology Today survey of experts on shame and self-exposure, published in these pages, has revealed that such taboos are entirely natural. Our baser evolutionary natures at work, apparently; even in our fantasies, our genes are telling us to associate with strength rather than weakness.

Readers who feel embarrassed while talking to someone in a wheelchair, who get a thrill from attending funerals, who are impressed by wealth or think of someone else while making love to their spouse received something of a boost this week. A Psychology Today survey of experts on shame and self-exposure, published in these pages, has revealed that such taboos are entirely natural. Our baser evolutionary natures at work, apparently; even in our fantasies, our genes are telling us to associate with strength rather than weakness.

Reassuring as it was, this account of what were described "the seven deadly sentiments" of modern life seemed strangely incomplete. All around us, there is evidence of the greatest deadly sentiment of them all - sentimentality itself. The last few days have in particular revealed how a sort of infantile emotionalism, a general acceptance that an ounce of feeling is worth a pound of analysis, has taken hold.

It was this knee-jerk sentimentality, to take an obvious example, that prompted our Home Secretary to announce jauntily that, on hearing that Harold Shipman had hung himself in his cell, his first instinct had been to crack open a celebratory bottle of champagne. Later he explained that his joy was tempered by the realisation that many families would now never discover how their elderly relatives had died.

No one, least of all Mr Blunkett himself, seems to have considered whether, in an allegedly liberal, nominally Christian society, it was seemly or moral for a senior member of the Government to crow openly over the suicide of another human being, however ghastly the man may have been. There was no hint that, as the minister responsible, Blunkett might actually feel a sense of accountability for the fact that there are on average two successful suicides (and many more attempted) every week in Her Majesty's prisons. Instead, the Home Secretary's response was unthinking and emotional, the kind of unattractive gloating that was once the speciality of low-grade tabloid hacks pandering to their bloodthirsty readers and, in a culture where feelings - of anger, remorse, revenge or whatever - are what matter, no one was more than mildly surprised or shocked.

The question of ministerial responsibility is now decided by the standards of the playground: ministers who are publicly disliked are taken to task, while others are given a relatively easy time. Those identified as villains (Lord Falconer, Margaret Hodge, Charles Clarke) can expect to be held accountable for the smallest setback in their areas of responsibility, while others (Blunkett, Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling) are allowed to remain above the fray.

For some time, the Aunt Sally of British politics has been Geoff Hoon. There is something about the man that has set the whole playground against him - his soft yet stubborn face, perhaps, or his clothes, redolent of Burton suits and balding Hush Puppies, or maybe it is his oddly mulish name. None of it squares with a man in charge of the armed forces. To make his situation worse, he has insisted on defending himself, and in the process has revealed that he lacks all-important political for a politician, the ability to emote.

Hoon might have escaped bullying if he had been given an appropriately grey area of responsibility - Transport or Trade and Industry - but unfortunately he has political control of the Army and, such is the yearning for heroes in an unheroic age, soldiers have become the white knights of the moment. The country may go to war, thousands of enemy civilians and soldiers may die without their numbers even being counted, but our new, emotional approach to world affairs demands that, when one of our boys loses his life in action, someone must be held personally responsible. If commentators and Opposition politicians were thinking rather than feeling, questions about the supply of ordinance would be asked of senior officers, but they, for the moment, are the good guys while Hoon is the fairy-tale villain.

For the emotional melodrama to be complete, there must naturally be a tragic victim, preferably an ordinary person pitted against the wiles of Whitehall. For the past fortnight, it has been Samantha Roberts, the luckless widow of the first British casualty of the war. Before that, rather more questionably, it was Dr David Kelly. Daringly, foolishly, Hoon has expressed the opinion that, in spite of the personal misery involved, Kelly was no martyr. By any analytical standard, this view, while tactless, is intellectually and morally valid, but at a time when the correct emotion is expected, it has been seen as further evidence of the minister's general culpability.

At almost any other moment, applying a naive fairy-tale morality to public affairs would be merely absurd, but these are serious times. There was a real war in which real people died. Now is hardly the moment to allow sentimentalism rather than judgement to set the political agenda.

terblacker@aol.com

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