The English way of life and death

Like many men of his generation, Dr Kelly's entire sense of self was bound up in his work

No death in modern times, with the possible exception of that of Princess Diana, has caused quite so much soul-searching and self-examination as the suicide of Dr David Kelly. A shadow has been cast over public life, we are told; the way that the government, civil servants and the media act and present themselves will never be quite the same. Because we live in a guilt-ridden world where sorry is the easiest word, the mood of name-calling and blame-shifting that preceded Dr Kelly's death has given way to an atmosphere of sombre apology.

We are all guilty, it seems. The Government was obsessed by the need to get its own way and used all the black arts in the PR handbook to convince backbenchers and the public of the rightness and morality of its position. Senior civil servants were concerned above all to keep their distinguished noses clean. Journalists, from Andrew Gilligan to this week's bad-guy, Nick Rufford of The Sunday Times, embellished the truth - or perhaps lied - to get a better story and then, in various ways, let down the source of it. The BBC governors were blinkered in their defence of Broadcasting House and all its works.

Living in an age where the protagonists of news stories are expected, like soap-opera characters, to be heroes or villains, evildoers or victims, commentators have agreed that the tragic death of a good, public-spirited man has provided a wake-up call to those in public life whose hard-eyed ambition has allowed them to drift away from simple values of decency and propriety.

There is, of course, another largely unmentioned, possibility: that the fault-line lay less in public institutions (although few of them will emerge with much credit) than in David Kelly himself. It might be thought that to gaze too closely at the personal elements of this tragedy is indelicate and shows lack of taste, but frankly it is rather too late for that.

The suicide of an apparently sane and successful man has never been subjected to such open and detailed scrutiny. If the painful process of the Hutton inquiry is to have been worthwhile at all, its findings will provide lessons not only on matters of public life, but of private life as well.

Hooked on cliché, those who have written about this week's testimony to the inquiry have portrayed the details of his life - the house, the garden, the family, the pension worries and so on - as being typical of a certain traditional, middle-class Englishman. Its unshowy regularity has been implicitly compared to the tacky, publicity-crazed world with which it collided so painfully.

But perhaps it is worth asking, without wishing to be insensitive, whether the quiet, simple existence presented in the feature articles was quite the model of normality that has been assumed. By all accounts, Dr Kelly loved his job as a weapons scientist. Like many men of his generation, he went further, pouring his soul into his work to the extent that eventually his entire sense of self was bound up with it.

So when some sleazy spinner from the MoD leaked the lie that he was a middle-ranking official, or when the over-excited Labour MP Andrew Mackinlay described him as "chaff" before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, he was unable to behave with the strength that he had shown while in Iraq during the early 1990s. Those claims "really challenged his identity of himself", according to the inquiry's suicide expert, Professor Keith Hawton. Unable to keep the normal, healthy divide between work and life, he cracked.

But only inside. Dr Kelly has been described as essentially a "private man" as if there were something understandable, maybe even morally commendable, about a man who talks to no one about his inner turmoil, who allows it to build to breaking point while acting normally in company, who spends seven hours mowing the lawn rather than opening his heart to his wife.

If the Hutton inquiry were allowed to look beyond the political, it might suggest that this way of conducting yourself - living for and through your work, keeping your head down and nose clean, ensuring that feelings of terror and insecurity are kept hidden for fear of appearing weak - is, if fate conspires against you, a shortcut to pain and unhappiness.

It was not Tony Blair or a ruthless press or the general brutality of contemporary life that killed David Kelly. He did. At some stage, perhaps months or years before he was forced into the public eye, the weapons scientist discovered that his own personal defences were shot. Under different circumstances, the discovery might have occasioned no more than a difficult pre-retirement crisis. It was Dr Kelly's tragedy that events cruelly played on his inner vulnerability.

A brave man took the defeatist's way out; a kind man committed the ultimate act of cruelty. Having led, in many ways, an exemplary life, David Kelly may, in his death, have provided sobering insights into the perils of the traditional, hard-working, buttoned-up English way of doing things.

terblacker@aol.com

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