Leading Article: Just in time, some facts come out of the dark

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The decision of The Guardian to publish privately-obtained evidence on the conduct of MPs is a contempt. Whether the Commons judges it to be a contempt of Parliament remains to be seen; that may well be affected by the likely Labour domination of the Commons after the election. The Guardian's actions have helped Labour, and the party is unlikely to punish the paper for that timely assistance. But whatever Parliament decides, it was certainly an act of contempt in the non-legal sense: contemptuous of the Prime Minister's decision not to help speed up publication of the report and contemptuous of the actions of some of the MPs involved.

This newspaper shares that contempt, and therefore applauds The Guardian's decision to publish the documents. They do not add greatly to the general state of knowledge or public belief about the individuals concerned, but they fill in fascinating detail. The MPs have complained that, because the paper has selected from a much larger mass of documents, the full story has not been told and they have been denied natural justice. This is not an argument to dismiss out of hand; we need to beware Salem always. But there are competing interests here. On the one hand, the dignities of Parliament and the rights of individual members, who are shortly to be candidates. But on the other is the right of the public to know specific and important things about people putting themselves forward for election to the House of Commons - which is still, in spite of everything, our single most important institution.

By refusing to let the relevant committee sit on, John Major had deliberately and with calculation sought to deprive voters of this information. Accused MPs had protested, apparently sincerely, that they too wanted the report published before the election to clear the cloud of suspicion over them: so the leader of the Conservative Party was denying his party's prospective candidates the justice they claimed they needed. A very strange business indeed. We would have hoped that Parliament itself would have revolted at it; but we did not expect it to. Nor did it.

So in these circumstances, The Guardian broke the rules, and it was right to do so, because it was acting in the wider public interest, exposing things which those in authority had wrongly tried to keep hidden. That attack yesterday provoked a counter-offensive of denials and injured protests from some MPs and indeed from Mr Major himself. But we can all now see what the Prime Minister wanted to be hidden during this campaign, and his moral authority on the subject is low, particularly after his eruption of anger about "smears" in the House on Thursday.

What now? The first lesson is straightforward. Britain has ceased to be a country where things can be hushed up easily. Once upon a time, British businesses might have done favours for MPs, and had favours done in return, and no whistles would be blown, and no documents would have been leaked. Today, public servants are less deferential, many of the key business figures are non-Establishment outsiders - from the al Fayeds in one way, to Richard Branson in another - and the old SW1 omerta is impossible to guarantee. It may be that this passing generation of MPs has been more tainted than any other. It is equally possible that envelope-stuffing for MPs has been going on, in quiet corners, for years: we simply never knew.

The second lesson is a subtler one, and partly answers the first. In this more open democracy, we have to stop thinking of MPs as a class. They are more varied than almost any other profession and it is important, as this sleaze story slithers on, to remember that some are dishonourable, and very many are not. A badly behaved backbencher or three should no more taint our view of politics generally than a bribe-taking official makes us give up on public life - or, dare we say it, an incompetent journalist should lead one to assume that everything in the papers is nonsense. MPs generally have become butts of public ridicule and hostility. But if things have recently got out of hand, then we shouldn't blame only the miscreant members: the rest of us should be careful of our own reactions. As voters and democrats, we need to discriminate; discrimination, indeed, is our duty and our power.

Finally, there is a simple moral lesson, which has not changed much since the first humans sat in the back of a cave and traded arrow-heads. If you make a secret deal with anyone, you put yourself at their mercy forever. Only politicians with very little understanding of human nature would be happy to do this. After all, we all know that people fall out. Friendships sour. Business alliances shift.

Neil Hamilton, Tim Smith and the others who took money from Mohamed al Fayed seem not have understood that basic point. They gave away not just their independence, but also their political fates. For that almost unbelievable, bone-headed stupidity, if for nothing worse, they proved themselves failed politicians. Now that their electorates have the facts that Mr Major would rather have kept hidden this spring, we hope that the democratic machine will kick in, by kicking them out. We deserve better politicians than these.