11 October 2018
A moment to hold the nose.
By John Watson
To North London liberals, American politics are really very simple. It is the Democrats who represent what we in Britain would regard as centre ground – universal healthcare, more tolerant immigration policies, restrictions on fire arms, etc. Clearly they are the good chaps. When you bear in mind that their erstwhile leader was a Harvard academic and made speeches in the style of Cicero, they become something else, “good and clever” I suppose you might say – rather like people living in Hampstead, or Highgate.
The symmetry of politics demands that the virtues of the Democrats are matched by the vices of the Republicans, so when we listened to the controversy regarding the endorsement of new Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, we knew where we stood. The mere fact that he was backed by President Trump was sufficient to condemn him in the eyes of all right-thinking people. Let him in there (as they have) and a Republican Court will become yet another nail in the coffin of those prosecco-swilling New York idealists who we all admire and love. What a tragedy for the human race!
Well, that may be right, but to be honest I don’t quite know. The Americans are not like us and our way of doing things may not suit them, a point they made rather vigorously back in 1775. I don’t know enough about Brett Kavanaugh to know whether he will make a good or a bad judge. Nor indeed do I know whether the personal allegations made against him are true or false. One thing I do know, however, is that if they are true, it all happened a very long time ago and that makes you wonder how relevant they are to his appointment now. In fact, the question is more general than that. To what extent is it right to hold allegations of youthful misdeeds against people who apply for public office or indeed for any other sort of job?
Let’s get one thing straight. This is not about condoning bad behaviour among the young, or to suggest that thuggishness or crimes become more acceptable because they are perpetrated by silly drunk young men, or silly drunk young women for that matter. Breaking the law is still breaking the law and youth, silliness and drunkenness are not defences. It is of course right that those passing sentence look at the cause of the crime realistically and take into account, if it be so, that there is unlikely to be any repetition but so, of course, they should do in all cases.
No, the question is whether, if some crime or piece of misbehaviour was not originally exposed or prosecuted, it is right to bring it up later – when the perpetrator is standing for public office for example. The answer to that depends upon why things have emerged at such a late stage.
One possibility is that allegations only emerge when victims think that they will be believed. Sometimes their initial thought is that the complaints would not be taken seriously and it is only when they find that other people have the same complaints that that changes. We have seen examples of that in the entertainment industry and, as a reason for making allegations many years late, it is quite understandable. Of course you would wait until you thought you would be treated as credible. Only a fool would do otherwise.
There might be other reasons for deferring allegations too. Maybe there are people you did not want to damage; or maybe some greater interest impelled silence. There are many possibilities here, and they must be judged according to the facts, but there is another reason for late allegations which is very unpleasant indeed.
Suppose an incident occurs, perhaps an assault, sexual or not, or perhaps some fraud or other betrayal, and at the time the victim decides not to make an issue of it. Possibily that is because it is not in their interest to do so, but often it’s because people are generous and good-natured and will let injuries go by out of a general spirit of tolerance. We all need to be grateful that most people are like that.
Then supposing there comes a moment when the memory of that injury can be used to damage the perpetrator. Is it right to use it at that stage? Well, let’s look at the motives. One is revenge, maybe understandable but not really the human race at its best. The other possibility is worse, to use that incident like a blackmailer to obtain a collateral advantage. If that advantages was monetary, English law would regard such behaviour as a criminal offence. It is hard to see how the moral position is different where that advantage is, say, political.
I have no knowledge at all whether there was any basis to the allegations against the Judge or why it was that those making allegations decided to make them at this stage. It is easy enough, however, to guess the motives of those in the Democrat party who decided to exploit the position in what was clearly a carefully orchestrated campaign. Frankly, they leave a bitter taste in the mouth.
I would like to be able to say that one cannot imagine a British political party mounting a similar campaign, but that wouldn’t be true. Remember Mr Cameron and the allegations about the pig’s head at the Bullingdon club? Untrue, no doubt, but graphically exploited by his enemies at the time. Fortunately the British public, having enjoyed the articles and, no doubt, enjoyed exercising their imaginations over a pint or two, dismissed the whole thing good-naturedly with a shrug of their collective shoulders. Good for them.
So will the US public take a similar approach? Will the allegations undermine Republican support in the midterm elections or will the public be repelled by the nature of the political manoeuvre? Again, I don’t know Americans well enough to say, but they spend much more time in church than we do, members of a faith based on the forgiveness of sins and moving on. Perhaps that will influence their thinking.