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David Laws and the word ‘secret’

May 31, 2010

David Laws speaking at Lib Dem Spring conference, Liverpool 2008, originally uploaded by Liberal Democrats. This picture is used according to the terms detailed in the Creative Commons License.

The discussion about the resignation of David Laws featured in the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 this morning,seems to be maintaining my new-found interest in politics.

This might be in part to do with the gay angle.

What David Laws will no doubt look back on as a life-transforming moment (we all remember where we were when we finally ‘came out’ David – the only difference is you’ve got video evidence of your particular ‘difficult conversation’), those of us everyman types who still find the rhetoric of politics a bit of a turn-off find this particular hook vital in maintaining interest.

How else are we to connect with aloof politicians unless we get a window on their day-to-day life?

But was talk of Laws’ relationship with James Lundie a fire stoked up by the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury to draw attention away from his ‘fiddling’ of expenses or a painful reminder of how some gay men find it so difficult to come out they’d prefer to keep their sexuality a secret?

Like Matthew Parris in The Times over the weekend, Iain Dale could also (quite rightly) be found in the empathy corner on Radio 4’s Today programme discussion.

Compared to celebrities asking the media to respect their privacy ‘at this difficult time’ Laws’ language in his resignation letter to Prime Minister David Cameron was markedly different.

The word ‘secret’ crops up a few times. This is not Laws explaining him wanting to maintain privacy. It’s him referring to his desire to keep things secret since 2001. Secrecy demands a whole lot more energy to maintain compared to privacy.

And whilst there might be absolutely understandable explanations as to how secrecy became the best option, there are two problems with the word ‘secrecy’.

The first is that it is the direct opposite of the kind positive message we might hope a public figure would present nowadays. The message presented by blogger Iain Dale is clear: Laws didn’t want his family knowing about his sexuality. That a man in his position would have become accustomed to managing his personal life in such away is saddening.

It reminds us as a society that we should strive to reduce the number of people who find themselves feeling the same way in whatever walk of life, whether they figure in public life or not.That’s not effected by legislation. It’s by education. And it’s achieved on a grass roots level, the success of which is quite possibly immeasurable.

Secondly, is the way in which – forgive the pun – ‘transparency’ and ‘secrecy’ are not easy bedfellows.

OK, so to critique a government minister’s performance during his short tenure by somehow transposing the management of his personal life on to his professional one might at first seem harsh and unforgiving.

However, if trust is to blossom then the transparency which underpins it needs to be solid.

That transparency needs to be devoid of any suggestion of superficiality. True transparency fuels integrity. Laws’ not revealing his sexuality and his relationship with James Lundie doesn’t mean that he wasn’t telling the truth. It’s just that the desire to keep something ‘secret’ is in direct conflict with the multi-faceted view we have on public individuals.

If ‘new politics’ is necessarily based on transparency, use of the word ‘secrecy’ jars. We might want to avoid thinking in terms of ‘secrecy’ in the future.Or if we can’t, then for god’s sake don’t anyone use it as a defence because it will only bite someone else on the arse in the future.

Of course, that’s all very opinionated. All very judgmental, in fact. Typical blogger. Never shy in wagging a finger if there’s one to be wagged.

And yet, it’s also based on personal experience.

My coming out wasn’t affected in quite the streamline and totally open way I perhaps had hoped it might be. The account of how me and my partner met was presented to immediate friends in a slightly reworked way.

Why? To reveal the absolute truth of how we met would have raised considerably more questions than at that moment in time I felt comfortable answering. It didn’t feel like lying, but the energy required in maintaining the same explanation of events was exhausting and fundamentally pointless I realised soon after I’d told a handful of people.

But at that moment in time, the idea of coming out was the most difficult idea to grasp in the world. I couldn’t imagine myself actually saying the words. So the story of how we met (itself not really that spectacular – we just met up for a drink not at a party as I had previously reported to friends) was corrected in future weeks as I realised I needn’t feel quite so uncomfortable. Recalling that even now makes me feel sick at having even contemplated the first ‘history’ was appropriate to disseminate. God only knows how Laws feels now.

Because that’s the key to this. If Laws had been keeping this a secret, then he’s not only put his career on hold (and if Kelvin MacKenzie is right) quite possibly brought it to an end but he’s also grappling with a shock to his system.

Last week David Laws was just an exhausted looking bloke standing alongside George Osborne – the new economy boys. I didn’t even know his name.

Now, I know him as a gay man in his mid-40s who apparently has an impressively flat stomach.

He too made an error of judgement, thinking secrecy was the right route to take just as I thought rewriting history was the best of managing the inevitable questions surrounding my ‘coming out’.

And Laws is having to deal with that now. And he needn’t.

We should all strive to lessen the number of people who feel that in the future too.

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