Truth is more important than speed

I was never very keen on Chris Huhne as portrayed by the popular prints. If he were a regular reader of this site, he would probably not be keen on me.

If on the other hand we met anonymously at a party (as long as it was not a political one), we might get on quite well, laughing ruefully about life’s little misfortunes and how you never actually achieve what you’re aiming at.

What sort of little misfortunes? Well, being caught by a speed camera, for instance. And then thinking it might be simpler if you pretended it was your wife who was driving.

Not much harm in that, is there? And denying it afterwards? Well, it’s all pretty trivial, isn’t it?

National newspaper columnists have not gone along with this wholeheartedly.  Some of the verdicts: “error upon error”; “dodging and scheming”; “a display of hubris and ego that is utterly bewildering”; “a very minor misdemeanour”; and “a series of stupid, utterly avoidable decisions”.

Again, we’ve all been there. But Cabinet ministers, even Lib Dem ones who are in office almost accidentally, are expected to have high standards. Where Mr Huhne went wrong was in deciding wrongly which standards were more important.

Clearly he thought that at all costs people should not know he had been exceeding the speed limit. In order to cover this up, it was worth the risk of lying and, when the lie was exposed, it was worth the risk of lying again.

I know this is hard to believe, but during the last war (and for a long time before and after) cyclists had to use lights after dark. The trouble was that because of the privations of war, batteries became unavailable. As a result many cyclists, who depended on their machines to get to and from work, were prosecuted for riding without lights and fined.

The injustice of this was raised in the House of the Commons, and the Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, said that the police “should exercise a wide discretion”. He had no doubt that “in any individual case the police will take account of any mitigating circumstances”.

You may wonder about the relevance of this to Mr Huhne. It lies in the nature of the speed camera, which knows nothing of mitigating circumstances and exercising discretion. In fact it knows nothing of the quality of driving. All it knows is that something went at a certain speed and therefore had to be photographed, and that as a result, someone had to be punished.

This is actually a deplorable way of administering justice, and so one has sympathy with Mr Huhne. If it had been revealed by self-righteous journalists that the Energy Secretary had been caught speeding, I would have thought no worse of him. It happens. It did not mean he was driving carelessly, or that anyone was in any danger. No-one got hurt.

Up to that point, anyway. It was what happened next that hurt. In protecting himself from being exposed as a fast driver to the kind of people who find that deplorable – the kind of people who would back most of his lack-of-energy policies – he decided that it wouldn’t matter so much if he lied.

But he was completely wrong. Speed by itself is not a problem. Lying is. If he is willing to lie about one small thing – and worse, to deflect the “guilt” on to someone else – why should we believe him when he says we need 32,000 new wind turbines and have to wreck the landscape to save the planet? Or that speed cameras are a good idea?

A better system of justice might have enabled him to contest the “trivial” issue of speed. But lying is a different kettle of fish. Of course we all know that politicians lie about policy. But lying on such a personal level is a symptom of a deeper problem.

Nevertheless, I refuse to go along with those who will paint him for ever as “shamed” or “disgraced” politician Chris Huhne. I believe in redemption, and that goes for Cabinet Ministers, Lib Dems and Energy Secretaries as well as less exalted human beings. For all you know I have done worse than Mr Huhne, and he probably has qualities that outshine mine.

He has reached a low point. It is up to him, and not us, where he goes from there.