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Artillery Row

What happened to shame?

Our politicians could do with feeling worse about themselves

On 29 October 1939 Anthony Muirhead, the MP for Wells, shot himself. With any suicide the reasons are often complex, but it is believed his overwhelming motive was shame — shame that his injuries from the First World War (where he won an MC and Bar) would prevent him from fighting in the Second. 

Within a few months of Muirhead’s death, a young man named John Profumo was elected to the Commons. His career was distinguished, rising over twenty years from a young and impressive backbencher to being Secretary of State for War. It fell apart quite suddenly, when Profumo was exposed for not only sharing a mistress with a Russian diplomat but lying to the House about it. 

There will be no humility in Hancock’s nightly humiliation

His name became a by-word for scandal. His actions helped defeat the Conservative government at the subsequent election and arguably hastened the decline of the age of deference and the slide into the liberalism of the swinging sixties. Profumo himself largely withdrew from public life. He never spoke publicly on the incident and left politics immediately. Supported by his inherited wealth, he instead dedicated his time to charity, spending decades as a volunteer in East London’s Toynbee Hall. His connections helped them raise millions, but it was the legend of him scrubbing the toilets which endured. 

Profumo was so consumed by shame for what he did that he felt the need for a lifetime of humility and atonement. He shunned publicity, although his receipt of a CBE in 1975 gave him a glimmer of renewed respectability. He never tried to mount a comeback or seek acclaim, but rather busied himself in trying to improve the lot of his fellow man. From the moment of his resignation, a man who could have spent his life as a celebrity or powerbroker instead chose a life of private penance.

His reaction to disgrace was not as extreme as Muirhead’s but it seems to arise from the same place — a deep, horrifying embarrassment that he had failed. It is the reaction of the ashamed, of the personal pain of not only embarrassing yourself, but hurting those around you, and breaking the expectations of your society. At its worst, shame can be misplaced and destructive, but it is also a useful tool for policing our own standards and for paying penance when those are broken. It is for the sins that would never merit criminal charges, but do require some disincentive and ignominy.

Shame is an emotion now strikingly absent from our parliamentarians. This week it was announced that Matt Hancock, the former Health Secretary would be joining the ranks of ITV’s I’m a Celebrity…, seemingly trying to ameliorate his political downfall by securing the public’s affection through ingesting marsupial appendages. Rather than private penitence, it is an empty ritual which implies self-flagellation but in fact means self-aggrandisement. There will be no humility in this nightly humiliation. 

One can dispute Hancock’s political record. He deserves some credit for his performance as Health Secretary during the pandemic, even if his persona was always slightly weird. Yet the nature of his downfall should elicit some shame. He was caught, during the time of strict covid rules which effectively prohibited sexual relations for single people, carrying on an affair with a colleague. It was an act of brazen hypocrisy. Equally, it was damaging to his then-wife and children, betraying their vows and their trust. Due to the nature of his exposure, he only told them in the early hours of the morning, aware the tabloids were about to scoop him. These were the actions of a weak and selfish man, a man who ought to feel shame. 

In Westminster, moral opprobrium is something for the little people

Hancock’s misdeeds were no worse than Profumo half a century ago. Both deceived their families and embarrassed their governments. Both were liars. Both will likely be remembered far more for their disgrace than the good they did in their careers. Only one, however, seemed chastened by it. 

Now almost all of Westminster seems absent of shame. Personal and political failings are considered only for their impact on the opinion polls. Disgraces are expected to blow over after some time out of the spotlight. In the Westminster village moral opprobrium is something for the little people, a backwards, provincial middle-class thing that is simply to be weathered. 

The political spectrum is littered with those who have shown almost no contrition or redemption for their manifest sins. Alastair Campbell, for example, holds himself out as the darling of centrism despite the lies that took us into the Iraq War. The list of independents in parliament is a rogues gallery of those kicked out of their party for indiscretions and crimes both alleged and proven — yet who steadfastly refuse to give up their position in public life. 

This shamelessness is perhaps even a boon now to those who pursue public life. Both Donald Trump and Boris Johnson reached the pinnacle despite multiple scandals that would drag down many. Their tactic was simply to barrel through all the scorn as if it were someone else’s problem. They left in their wake abandoned ex-wives, formerly loyal colleagues and a host of other allegations and accusations, knowing that eventually their critics would look like mad harridans for trying to enforce norms against them. 

These were extreme examples, but this imperviousness has become routine. Whether it is the consequences of political decisions or personal failings, the scandal has become something to “deal with”. It is rarely accompanied by the introspection or internalisation that one’s own standards have been breached. There is hardly ever the self-imposed repentance that marked out Muirhead and Profumo. 

The pay and acclaim of reality TV (even if, as is likely, he is the one the audience love to hate) are not the hairshirt of someone who thinks they need redemption. They are the trappings of the arrogance of someone who is only sorry to have been caught. He’d be far better following the arc of Brooks Newmark, whose entrapment in a sexting scandal led to him leaving the Commons. Newmark has spent most of the last year quietly arranging convoys of support to Ukrainian refugees. 

It would go some way to restoring faith in our politicians if they took responsibility for their shortcomings. The absence of shame among elites makes it seem that they care little about the consequences of what they do, that it is all just a game. It makes light of the burden they ought to carry and the responsibilities they bear. Matt Hancock need not shoot himself, but he could at least abandon the boundless self-promotion and reflect on what he has done.

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