Terence Blacker: Politicians, prostitutes and scruffy morality

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The Independent Online

That old stand-by of British life, class prejudice, has made a terrific start to the new year, with a couple of obituaries that have positively crackled with snobbery. Marmaduke Hussey - "Duke" as he liked to be known (in his famous letters, Henry Root addressed him as "Your Grace") - received a pasting from one obituarist for being less of a toff than he claimed. The young Duke's school fees at Rugby, it was reported with some shock, had been paid by the public purse.

Meanwhile, the rather odd and eventful life of Lord Lambton was reduced in another obituary to a nerdish account of the various titles he had held. In line to be the Sixth Earl of Durham, he renounced his title in order to be able to sit in the House of Commons, but then insisted on calling himself Lord Lambton. It was all most irregular, apparently.

The career of men like "Lord" Lambton, a gamey mix of politics, grandeur and scruffy private morals, are apt to cause a twinge of nostalgia for the days when politicians dared to be themselves: eccentric, snobbish, randy, outspoken. Obituaries are rather useful reminders of how their lives now seem more silly than exotic.

How absurd, for example, to give up one pointless title to be a politician and then spend much of your life campaigning for the right to use another. There is nothing particularly wrong in being a toff - even a slightly fake toff like Duke Hussey - but the need to prop up one's position in society with an inherited peerage is a sure sign of a weak character.

Lambton's fall from grace, which makes John Prescott seem like a model of moral purity, was that of a bored, self-indulgent man. Photographed lolling about, stoned, with a couple of hookers in a Maida Vale flat, Lambton was caught out by his own arrogance. As a user of prostitutes, he went under the nom de boudoir of "Lucas" but, with a startling lack of brightness, paid with personal cheques under his own name.

Does it matter if politicians visit prostitutes? Lambton tried to be languidly sophisticated about it - "Surely all men visit whores," he said to Robin Day - and then argued that no breach of security had taken place. In fact, it was not the safety of the nation that was the problem, but the lack of seriousness and moral weight of a junior minister. No man who pays for sex and then suggests that it is normal and healthy can expect to be taken seriously in public life. He is, by the very nature of what he does, silly.

Lambton, wriggling around in search of an excuse, hit on the problems he had with his eyesight. He missed his books, he said, and so he just had to have sex with a prostitute. On those occasions, he liked talking about drugs. "It is a game I play."

I have recently been writing the biography of Willie Donaldson, who spent much of his life with prostitutes and with their clients. "Men are never more innocently employed," Willie once wrote, "than when letting the air out of a dangerously overblown desire. It's what they do the rest of the time that's a worry."

Lambton's life confirmed that there is a connection between overblown desires and what men do for the rest of their time. He showed himself to be a self-adoring lightweight, unfit to play a part in pubic life. Reading about him, one begins to rejoice in the merciful dullness of our great contemporaries, Alistair Darling, Chris Huhne and Dr Liam Fox.

Humans are the real menace

The terrifying death of a five year-old girl on Merseyside will spark the usual pointless debate about which breeds of dog are too dangerous to be pets. Yetit is humans who are the menace, not animals, which have been driven mad by cruelty and a lack of discipline and exercise.

Because we live in an age of exhibitionism, pets are seen as extensions of their owners' personalities - from cuddly to psychopathic - but the concept that self-expression is a contemporary right translates uneasily to the animal world. If dogs are allowed to dominate, that is what they will do. What breed they are is less important than the way they are treated.

It is time the ownership of living things was taken more seriously, and a licence for dogs would be a sensible start.

* This week, according to experts in the caring business, is one of the most stressful in the calendar. After a fortnight which began with hope and ended with a sense of bilious anti-climax, it is time for an uncomfortable reality check. For some, debt will be heavier than it was three weeks ago. For others, everything will be heavier. Relationships will have snapped under the strain of seasonal cheer.

At the very moment when we are supposed to be looking forward to the future, a combination of the weather, the lack of light and the post-Christmas hangover conspire to snuff out optimism. There will be a new Prime Minister this year - but it will be Gordon Brown. The sun is shining in holiday destinations across the world - and melting the polar ice-cap. 2007 is to be the year of the comeback - and among those coming back are Jade Goody and Genesis.

Frankly, the sooner we can skip into the lazy, hazy days of February, the better.