Issue 176: 2018 11 01: The Green Knight?

01 November 2018

The Green Knight?

Hain loses the plot.

By John Watson

Oh dear, what a prize ass Lord Hain has made of himself with his statement about Philip Green.  It is a pity really, as he has had quite a distinguished career, both as an MP and as a minister, and came across as one of the more sensible members of the Commons before his elevation to the Lords.  Still, he has made a mess of it now by deliberately using parliamentary privilege to name Sir Philip in breach of a gagging order imposed by the Court of Appeal which prohibited the disclosure of Green’s name in relation to various allegations of bullying, inappropriate sexual behaviour, etc.  Particularly painful to those who wish Hain well is his unfortunate comment to BBC Newsnight that “I considered it extremely seriously before I said it.”  Er, perhaps not as seriously as all that or he would have spotted that he was a consultant to the law firm which had represented The Telegraph against Green in opposing the very gagging order which he breached.  At the very least he should have declared an interest.  Still, even Homer would nod in the stuffy atmosphere of the Upper Chamber, so perhaps we should forgive him that.  A much worse mistake was to use Parliamentary privilege to deliberately flout the order at all.

To see why that was wrong you do not need to go into whether the law on which the Court of Appeal based its injunction is a wise law, or even whether the learned Lord Justices applied it correctly.  Perhaps there is a case for changing the rules: perhaps there is not; but whether they are changed or not we will always have a legal code governing when the press or the public can be gagged and the Courts will have to apply it.  What we cannot have is the position where, every time a gagging order is awarded, those who are disappointed (and there will always be some) traipse round the Houses of Parliament until they find someone who is sufficiently publicity hungry, gullible, stupid, senile or corrupt to make a statement using Parliamentary privilege to flout it.

No doubt Hain made his announcement from the best motives, but he has pointed up an avenue which the less scrupulous will follow.  Suppose, dear reader, that you had a disclosure you wished to make about a controversial public figure, but there was a gagging order in place.  How long would it take to find someone among his or her enemies in one of the Houses of Parliament who was prepared to spill the beans?  Two days?  Three, perhaps?

Well, the genie is out of the bottle now and we all know how it can be worked.  So what to do next?  Should we place a restriction on Parliamentary privilege, so that it only gives protection when the statement is made in the furtherance of Parliamentary proceedings?  That would bring us back to the purposes of privilege, of course, but would the MPs vote for it?  Of course not.  Will we see the “Hain gambit” become a standard way of getting round a gagging order?  I suppose we will.

For another particularly foolish remark we have to thank Frank Field MP, normally one of the shrewder Parliamentary performers.  Commenting on the possibility of Sir Philip’s knighthood being revoked, he came up with a corker:

“The charge sheet against the knighthood is growing.”

Sir Philip Green’s knighthood was conferred on him for services to the retail industry and I suppose that if those services turned out to be illusory there might be a case for revoking it on the basis that it was awarded under a misapprehension.  Indeed, some attempts were made to revoke it following the collapse of BHS.  What the knighthood was not conferred for, however, was for being an all-round good fellow, so if it should turn out that allegations of bullying and impropriety against Sir Philip indicate that in his personal behaviour he was not always a good fellow at all, the basis of the knighthood will not have been undermined.

It is at this stage that those who live in Hampstead and Highgate will begin to choke on their prosecco.  “Knighthoods should be for the nice guys”, they will argue, “the sort of people who don’t blot their copybook.  After all, it is an order of chivalry and chivalry involves humility, decency, courtesy to women, self-sacrifice, and all sorts of other fashionable virtues.  Surely Sir Gawain and the Green Knight tells us that.”  The trouble is that outside mediaeval fiction, people who never blot their copybooks do not exist at all.  We all do things which we are ashamed of and the people who contribute most have often made more mistakes than the others.  Exclude them and you will end up with a drippy but talentless set of knights, good for murmuring platitudes over the North London prosecco but of little other use.

If it is to mean anything at all, an honour should be a recognition of a contribution in a particular field and should not be revoked because the hero turns out to be flawed.  After all, we keep the benefit their talents have brought us.  We don’t destroy Eric Gill’s sculptures because his personal life was weird, probably criminally so.  We don’t burn Milton’s works because he oppressed his daughters.  If an engineer turns out to be a pervert you do not pull down the bridges which he has built.  If, then, the achievements remain so should the statues or honours which acknowledge them.

Whatever the truth which emerges from these allegations, they are no reason to revoke Sir Philip’s knighthood.


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