What decency? What fair play?

Geoffrey Wheatcroft on national myths that are wearing thinner by the day

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AROUND THE beginning of this century, the Italian prime minister Giovanni Giolitti used a riveting phrase when he spoke of the "beautiful national legends" which every country needs, and which unite a people. The context in which he used the words was just as interesting: he was explaining why he didn't want the Italian state archives opened to prying scholars, whose researchers might tend to undermine those legends.

We laugh at other countries' legends, but we have plenty of our own. The idea of English decency or fair play has been so successfully fostered that the German word for "fairness" is die Fairness. That might have seemed quaint to the Irish massacred in the 16th century, or the American Indians, or the Australian Aborigines whom the settlers killed by leaving out poisoned food.

Then, again, there is the beautiful legend of English honesty, especially in public life. Americans, Australians and Africans get up to all kinds of shady backhanded dealings to secure the Olympics, and poor old Manchester loses out, on account of our national honesty. Italian and Irish politicians take bribes, but not ours. British politicians may commit adultery, or expire while engaged in bizarre erotic practices. But no one who enjoyed the enormous honour of being a Member of Parliament would ever do anything so contemptible as to accept financial reward for asking a parliamentary question, would he?

We know better now. This particular beautiful legend is looking thinner than ever. In the last few days, we have seen a former Tory cabinet minister admit to accepting a sweetener and then lying about it. More startlingly, we have learnt that the most eminent of all eminences grises, a lawyer who was the intimate adviser to Labour prime ministers, systematically looted a client of pounds 1m. What are we to make of this? Is any sympathy for these tattered reputations in order?

Few tears are being shed for Jonathan Aitken, or should be. If anything, his career, from long before the Guardian and Mohamed Al Fayed found a way to destroy him, illustrates just how blase we have become about standards in public life.

What brought Aitken down was accepting a thousand-pounds-worth of hospitality at the Paris Ritz in contravention of ministerial rules, and then thinking that he could lie about the defalcation and get away with it. It is for this that he is likely to go to prison. But was it worse morally than his long and perfectly open career as a fixer selling arms to sundry despots who would use them to kill large numbers of their own citizens, or the conscripts of neighbouring countries, or British soldiers, as the case might be?

The only consolation for poor Aitken might be to look at other battered reputations. Within less than two years in office, Tony Blair's government, not to say his "project", has suffered a number of casualties on a scale that would have seemed surprising on the morning of 2 May 1997. I suspect that they will prove to be more damaging than the Prime Minister realises, just because he is who he is.

The self-righteousness or amour propre of New Labour means that its defenders have to insist that there could be no comparison whatever between these little local difficulties and the torrent of sleaze which engulfed the Tories. To the contrary, not only could there be such a comparison, a devil's advocate might say that it was not obviously to the Blairites' advantage. A thousand pounds is very much less than the pounds 370,000 Peter Mandelson borrowed from Geoffrey Robinson. Accepting cash for questions is despicable, but not actually illegal; making a false declaration on a mortgage application is, strictly speaking, a criminal offence.

Instead of shrieking that "we can't be like the last lot", it would have been saner to acknowledge that the left has no monopoly of virtue, which is after all what the history of the Labour Party suggests. In 1936 JH Thomas, sometime head of the National Union of Railwaymen and Labour cabinet minister, by then Colonial Secretary in Baldwin's "national" government, was obliged to resign after the Porter Tribunal found him guilty of leaking budget secrets. (Thomas lachrymosely told young King Edward VIII, "Thank God your old Dad" - George V - "is not alive to see this.")

In 1948 the Lynskey Tribunal investigated the peculation that had ended the career of John Belcher, a junior minister in the Attlee government. The tradition was kept up by Desmond Donnelly, a Labour MP from 1950 to 1970 (although latterly expelled from the party), who ended his life in a West Drayton hotel room in 1974 with the fraud squad hot on his heels.

In the same year, John Stonehouse ("politician and confidence trickster", as the Dictionary of National Biography succinctly describes him), a Labour and Co-Op MP from 1957, merely pretended to do himself in, as part of an elaborate scam to escape justice. And Robert Maxwell was a Labour MP on top of his other multifarious activities.

Even before he ended literally stealing hundreds of millions from widows and children and then plunging from his yacht, Maxwell had never been regarded with enthusiasm in the Labour Party. By contrast, Arnold Goodman was not only "Mr Fixit" but seen as a secular saint in progressive circles far beyond Harold Wilson's strange kitchen cabinet. Bernard Levin once wrote a cloying piece making play on his name: he is truly such a good man.

Even Joe Haines, Wilson's press secretary, who has just told us that he is prepared to believe that Goodman milked Lord Portman of millions, repeats the self-serving myth that Goodman "invariably opposed his clients suing for libel". Haines could not have written that if he had attended a seminar in London a few weeks ago, organised by Brian Brivati, who is writing Goodman's biography.

Its purpose was to discuss what was jocosely known in the Labour Party as "the Venetian blind". A socialist conference in Venice in 1957 was attended by three Labour men, the MPs Aneurin Bevan and Richard Crossman and the party general-secretary, Morgan Phillips. A light-hearted article in the Spectator had described them as puzzling "the Italians by their capacity to fill themselves like tanks with whisky and coffee ... Although the Italians were never sure the British delegation was sober, they always attributed to them an immense political acumen."

The three sued for libel, with Goodman acting for them, and won large damages after testifying on oath to their complete sobriety. As they all knew, at least one of them, Phillips, had been drunk the whole time, as indeed he habitually was, something Crossman admitted in my presence 15 years after the event. And, as Arnold Goodman might himself have said, it has now been demonstrated beyond peradventure that he knew his clients were committing perjury.

All of which is a cautionary tale for Mr Blair. Having said before he became prime minister that sexual

tittle-tattle would not be held against his ministers, he very creditably stuck to this in the case of Ron Brown (and even, arguably, of Peter Mandelson, until Mandelson discovered two days before Christmas that disloyalty is the Labour Party's secret weapon).

But it is not as simple as that. The truth is that the Prime Minister has made himself an unprecedentedly popular leader and won a landslide election by the brilliantly simple device of emptying politics of its content. Political struggle became purely a matter of personality: New Labour was distinguished from old Tories by being more plausible and personally attractive (not hard).

After bitterly denouncing corrupt funding of the Tory party, Mr Blair was caught accepting a million-pound donation to his party funds from Bernie Ecclestone, an entrepreneur with a huge interest in influencing government policy. All the Prime Minister could think of by way of a defence was to say: "I think most people who have dealt with me think I'm a pretty straight sort of guy, and I am."

About the only thing to be said in Jonathan Aitken's extenuation is that he never uttered words like that. He could not have done so with a straight face, and would have been laughed out of court - or Commons, or even his own elegant home - if he had tried.

It is not much of an extenuation, and there is very little chance of a public reaction in Aitken's favour. His case demonstrates in fact the distinction between sympathy, which he doesn't deserve, and pity, which is always an appropriate human response to anyone who has been brought down by greed, lust or any other weakness. Though perhaps even pity would be wrong in the case of Arnold not-a-very-good-man, whose career more than almost any other surely demolishes the beautiful myth of British virtue.

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