Privatise sex, Mr Redwood

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The Independent Online
Yesterday John Redwood effectively endorsed Peter Tatchell and OutRage. His prospective policy was that homosexuals could join the Cabinet, as long as they "were on the public record". It was all part of his "moral ministers" crusade. Upright John does not want ministers in his government who have secret pasts. Nor sordid ones.

Heterosexual aspirants to cabinet rank under JR do not have quite the same confessional obligation as gays. They had just better have nothing rattling in their cupboards, waiting to crash out. Mr Redwood has seen what scandal has done to the Major administration and he will have none of it - no sleaze.

It is one of those odd features of British political discourse that this word "sleaze" stands for both corruption and hanky-panky. So the private preferences and sadnesses of anybody in the public eye are on the same level as greed, criminality and illegality. That is why a period of intense press interest in the private lives of politicians has ended up with a serious contender for high office talking about a form of moral self-screening for ministers. But is it right?

Those who support taking such a stance will generally use one or all of these three arguments: that the private and public persona are inseparable, that those involved in scandal become unemployable and, finally, that hypocrisy must be exposed.

The first suggests that if a politician is prepared to lie to his or her spouse and family, then he or she cannot be trusted to speak the truth to the nation. But are those with spotless private lives noticeably more candid with public and parliament? Of course not. For most of us there is little relationship between the way we conduct our complex emotional lives and how we do our jobs. Most pundits would commend Alan Clark and David Mellor as two of the most honest Tories around.

The second argument - that politicians with their pants down bring their profession into disrepute - is more insidious. Mr Mellor was an excellent Heritage Secretary, but it was argued that his liaisons meant that no one would take him seriously. The problem here is that accepting this view has created a one-way ratchet effect; every time someone is caught out, the tabloids seek to get enough lipsmacking details to force a resignation. As a result good people are being forced out of public life.

The third argument - the one about hypocrisy - sometimes has force. If a public figure fulminates against a sin while at the same time committing it, then he or she deserves to be exposed. But certain people have taken this notion so far as to argue that - in the light of John Major's back- to-basics campaign - virtually any revelation of Tory infidelity constitutes an attack on hypocrisy. This is nonsense. It is possible, for instance, to accept that the family is a good thing without committing yourself to complete sexual fidelity.

There can be no hard and fast rules. What happens in private between Hugh and Liz, Dave and Dave, Fred and Wilma or John and Gail, while exciting public interest, is only really to be judged by those involved themselves. Most of us have done something in our lives that we regret, or that we would be mortified to see in the Sunday papers. Most of us would fail the Redwood test. If anything needs privatising it is the sex lives of politicians.