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In a truly liberal society, Mark Oaten’s career would not be over

September 16th, 2009 Posted in UK Politics by

mark-oatenSome Liberal Democrats are  aghast– but not necessarily surprised – that Mark Oaten is in the newspapers again. This time with a lengthy article in The Independent providing excerpts from his new book, the rather bluntly-titled Screwed Up!

I was the Head of Media for the party during the protracted downfall of Charles Kennedy and the subsequent leadership race. On the Saturday that the news about Mark Oaten broke, I was just about to head the south coast to watch Saints lose at home again, when I received a call from Chris Rennard asking if I could be available and that there was a “problem” with Mark Oaten.

Rumours had been flying round Westminster for some days that – following his abortive leadership campaign – Mark might join the Tories. I’d never granted much credibility to these whispers, but it was the first thing that came to mind when I took Chris’s call. When I was told exactly what had happened, it took me a good few minutes to come to terms with the fact that this wasn’t some sort of elaborate Jeremy Beadle-style wind-up.

But looking back on those early days of 2006, when our media profile was enormously high and almost entirely negative, I have reached the conclusion that Mark’s reckless behaviour would not have been punished so harshly in a truly liberal society.

The main charges against Mark Oaten are poor judgment and hypocrisy about his personal life. The latter of these accusations hinges on him having invited the TV cameras into his house at the launch of his leadership bid to capture images of familial bliss around the kitchen table. This, some argue, generates a dishonest image of a man who had hired the services of a male prostitute on a number of occasions. But the fact that the Oaten marriage has survived is good evidence of a robust, committed relationship – or was his implicit claim (by allowing the BBC to film him eating breakfast with Belinda and their two daughters) that his family life was perfect?

The “poor judgment” charge is harder to refute and Mark Oaten himself would plead guilty to that one. But it’s poor judgment within the confines of the absurd Westminster game. MPs know that they risk career termination if they engage in “sleazy” or ” immoral” behaviour.  Our politicians are expected to act like saints. The telling of an inappropriate joke can be enough to reverse the rise of an MP heading up the career ladder. Going out with a weather girl or a popstar – and talking about it in glossy magazines – has been a key factor  in sidelining Lembit Opik.

I don’t want a return to the era of deference. MPs are our servants. We are entitled to subject them to scrutiny. We need to hold them to account.

But we can’t have it both ways. If we want to stop the ghastly production line of tedious, loyalist, speak-your-pager automatons that litter the green benches (particularly on the Labour side), we need to be more forgiving of politicians that behave outside society’s statistical  norms.

Mark Oaten acted like an idiot. But the punishment he has suffered is totally disproportionate to the “crime”.

9 Responses to “In a truly liberal society, Mark Oaten’s career would not be over”

  1. Laurence Boyce Says:

    Mark, you are talking complete nonsense – a rare enough occurrence that I feel inclined to let you off. In a liberal society, nobody would care very much what anyone does in private. But please let’s not imagine that this could apply equally well to public figures. As if what Bill Clinton did to Monica Lewinsky with that cigar is ever going to arouse not the slightest curiosity among the general public.

    Mark Oaten was given a position of immense privilege and influence from where he managed only to betray everyone who elected him. He ought to have stood down immediately, instead he has retreated into a tedious pattern of introspection. His attendance record in the House is a lamentable 32% and now we know why. He’s been too busy writing self-indulgent books at our expense.

    I couldn’t possibly wish for a worse MP. Somebody who thinks that it’s all about him.

  2. Frank H Little Says:

    So it’s all right as an MP to be a hypocrite and lack judgment so long as you’re not boring? I would take the opposite line; Mark O deserves a long stretch in the cold, but so do many on the opposite benches (and in the Other Place) who have got away with it because their party is in power.

  3. Richard Says:

    “But we can’t have it both ways. If we want to stop the ghastly production line of tedious, loyalist, speak-your-pager automatons that litter the green benches (particularly on the Labour side), we need to be more forgiving of politicians that behave outside society’ statistical norms.”

    Alternatively, why can we not have independent minded politicians who don’t act like tossers?

  4. SMF Says:

    Should all politicians committing adultery be expelled from politics?

    Bill Clinton
    John Major
    John Kennedy
    Bobby Kennedy
    John Edwards
    David Lange
    Franklin Roosevelt
    Edward Kennedy (at least the others didn’t kill their lovers)
    Mark Sanford
    Rudy Giuliani
    Robert Kennedy

    Oaten’s resignation is a result of homophobia in a “liberal” party.

  5. Mark Littlewood Says:

    Some interesting comments. I don’t think that MPs should be encouraged to lead reckless, colourful lives.

    But @Richard, I do wonder whether there might be a correlation between independent mindedness and acting in such a fashion. That said, a lot of automaton politicians seem more than capable of acting like tossers too.

  6. Oranjepan Says:

    The immediate reason for Oaten’s decision to resign was certainly the embarrassment caused by his dishonest behaviour, but while it is perfectly acceptable to say this embarassment was not an acceptable reason for him to do so the underlying reason that he was caught being dishonest is more than valid.

    We shouldn’t get on our own high horses about the ’embarrassing’ publicity he has caused. On the contrary, I think we should actually give the man some credit for doing the honorable thing after the event – how many times can people who’ve built their career on deceit and deception (eg Mandelson & Co) take exposure as a only temporary set-back without actually changing their behaviour? Such figures, we shouldn’t forget, are in real positions of power and have made decisions of life and death for thousands if not millions of real people based on their pure lies.

    Oaten’s story is a morality tale for our times and can hold his head up by becoming an example for what this represents. Now if he can put his experience in perspective by using it as a way to measure others in the public eye (such as the aforesaid Mandelson & co) then he will have done a far greater service than he would otherwise.

    Maybe you good people at Liberal Vision would care to offer Oaten a spot as contributor to give him a platform to use his considerable voice to do just that… truth-tellers need all the allies we can find.

  7. Ziggy Encaoua Says:

    For once I agree with Mark

    I remember at the time I said publically I didn’t care what sexual practices political figures get up to so long as all involve consent & nobody gets harmed.

    I guess folk know that Martin Luther King shall we say played the field but why should that matter he inspired millions to something better & that is what matters.

  8. Ziggy Encaoua Says:

    However I will say in the case of Oaten that fbreakfast with the family was a bit of a mistake being as I’d imagine the News Of The World had been sitting on the story for a while.

    I do believe that if a public figure is preaching family values then gets caught with their pants down then it should be open season but only because they’re being two faced.

    But always be aware of the family values types as more often then not they’re the most repressed & kinky.

  9. Ziggy Encaoua Says:

    Look up Ted Haggard that’s the funniest of all the family values types who got caught out