Chris Huhne: Moral standards in public life
The fact that Huhne rightly is now the target of mass derision sends a superb market message to everyone else in public life: Don’t break the law, and if you do, don’t lie about it
One of the things a new British Ambassador does when arriving at post is to lead a personal spot-check of the Embassy account. Embassies get money from London to cover the costs of what embassies do: pay local staff and rents, keep their vehicles going, reimburse travel costs and so on. Every penny has to be accounted for.
In 2003 I duly carried out this check at the embassy in Warsaw. Imagine my surprise when I found exotic anomalies. For example, the long-standing procedures for checking payments for the embassy’s significant stock of medicines were all being carefully followed. However, the paper procedures meant little without an arrangement for periodically checking the inventory of drugs against what was actually coming in and going out.
My intrusive ambassadorial spot-check came as an unpleasant but not unhealthy surprise to the system. Loopholes were closed or tightened up. I felt comfortable signing off the account every month for the next four years thereafter. I had done what I sensibly could do at my level to keep a close eye on what was happening with the comparatively small pot of public money under my direct control.
Warsaw was at least more or less normal. When I had arrived as Ambassador in Bosnia in 1996, not long after the war ended, the embassy's finances were in a state of radical improvisation. Everything ran on cash Deutschmarks. The embassy had no safe, yet fat bundles of Deutschmarks were being spent every week to drive forward British-funded aid projects.
Weary project consultants would appear at the embassy, grab another fat wad of money then drive back out into Bosnia's shattered towns and villages to try to get water and electricity supplies going.
One day my junior embassy colleague and I sat there well past midnight trying to balance the monthly account. We had to count over DM 70,000 by hand(!) as we had no machine to quickly flip through the notes. In the end we ended up with the account adrift by an elusive DM 70 or so.
The next day I sent a telegram to London saying that in the Sarajevo embassy’s chaotic conditions I could not certify that the account was in "good order". We soon got a new safe and a banknote counter machine. I subsequently discovered that my very frankness had led some people in London to think about calling in the police to see what we were up to.
In short, after nearly 30 years in the British public service I say with complete and unqualified sincerity that I did everything reasonably possible (and sometimes far more than that) to make sure that taxpayers' money under my control was being spent properly and honestly.
This is partly because I am a dull, honest person by nature. More importantly, the FCO itself has a strong internal culture pushing hard in that direction. Out there in the diplomatic salt mines we all knew that if we were found abusing public funds or playing fast and loose with the rules, no-one back in London would defend us.
On hearing about an FCO financial scandal MPs would leap to their feet and denounce Foreign Office malfeasance. The usual newspapers would rail against pampered diplomats and cucumber sandwiches.
What then to make of the astounding fall from grace of Chris Huhne? Someone close to the top of UK and European politics, who got caught in a banal lie, then strove for years to cover up what really happened, wasting police/court time and lots of public money in the process.
Over on Twitter, debate has been raging on how far it is appropriate for people to gloat at his downfall. The Bible is cited:
John 8.7: "So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her."
The sense of that famous verse is to invite people to reflect on their own misdeeds before leaping piously to condemn others. Fair enough.
But this needs to be set against the demands of justice. And against the fact that now and again it is worth remembering and praising those people throughout our public life who without fail do behave honourably and correctly, for years on end.
MPs perch themselves right at the very top of the public policy chain. They pass laws and set the rules, proudly calling to account those anywhere in the system who abuse them. Plus they enjoy a plumply-funded parliamentary club with cheap bars and affable, subsidised restaurants. Among MPs and well beyond Westminster Chris Huhne himself was a powerful force, using all his influence to bear down on us with vainglorious ‘climate change’ policies.
In these circumstances, those of us who have spent decades living scrupulously by the rules and working late into the night to account for every penny find ourselves more than comfortable in exulting at Huhne’s self-inflicted disaster. He lied and lied in our faces, the people paying his salary.
The very fact that Huhne rightly is now the target of mass derision sends a superb market message to everyone else in public life: Don’t break the law, and if you do, don’t then lie about it.
Charles Crawford is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, he is now a private consultant and writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter: @charlescrawford
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