David Laws’ resignation after just seventeen days in government raises a number of questions around the role of the press, politicians’ expenses and – as unpacked here – cultural expectations around the privacy (or secrecy) of our relationships.
Laws has paid a heavy price for the apparently small mistake of omitting to mention that he was in a relationship with his landlord, Mr James Lundie. Unlike the politicians exposed by the Telegraph last year, the £40,000 he claimed over the course of eight years did not benefit him financially – as has repeatedly been pointed out, he would have had to have rented a room from someone, and might even have been financially better off in a civil partnership. The money did not go on a mortgage for a second home, later to be sold at a profit, nor was it spent on frivolous items such as duck houses.
Since 2006, parliamentary rules have prevented MPs from renting accommodation from a partner. ‘Partner’, in this instance, is defined as ‘one of a couple... who, although not married to each-other or civil partners, are living together and treat each other as spouses.’ Laws argued that he and his partner did not meet this definition, since they otherwise kept almost entirely separate lives – though this adherence to the letter of the law is hardly in keeping with its spirit.
Whilst this defence may hinge on a technicality, it is clear that the chief reason David Laws kept the relationship secret was not financial gain but to protect his privacy and keep his sexuality from friends, family and the public. ‘When I grew up, being gay was not accepted by most people, including many of my friends… So I have kept this secret from everyone I know for every day of my life. That has not been easy, and in some ways it is a relief not to have to go on misleading those close to me about who I am.’ Not a single person other than Mr Lundie knew of his sexuality.
Some critics claim that he wilfully misled the public, lying when he claimed that he was single in a recent interview before the news broke. While his resignation on the grounds of lack of integrity can therefore be seen as fair, the route to that lie was by no means as clear, premeditated or simplistic as his detractors make out. As the openly gay columnist Matthew Parris wrote in the Times, ‘You start by declaring nothing – and friends and family assume there’s nothing to declare. You find yourself, by your silence, playing along with a lie you never meant to tell.’
Laws’ resignation resulted primarily not from a desire to deceive for gain, but from fear of being outed – a fear he has lived with for thirty years. If that was the root cause, then the symptom of his choice – if indeed he even understood it as a choice – was a lack of clarity in his relationship, resulting from the secrecy that surrounded it. Clarity not just for him and his partner, but for the wider public and the government, including the parliamentary expenses body. The relationship lacked definition, its secrecy bringing with it an uncertainty and fuzziness of boundaries.
In Just Sex?, we argue that such clarity is a major benefit of marriage. This option obviously wasn’t open to Laws, and although a civil partnership would have provided the same public recognition and some opportunity for support, he was understandably unwilling to go down this route. The point is not that he failed to make such a clear public declaration of commitment, but that he made no declaration at all. Laws felt stuck between a rock and a hard place, and as a result he decided that his only option was to keep his relationship totally secret. Had his relationship – wherever it lay on the spectrum of casual to serious – been known to those responsible for parliamentary oversight, decisions about expenses could have been made based on all the relevant information. Just Sex? makes the case that sexual relationship always has consequences beyond the couple involved, and that relational order – a key component of which is clarity – has intrinsic benefits. For whatever reason, and regardless of his sexuality, the lack of clarity has had serious implications here.
The consequences for David Laws have already been severe. He has suffered stress and depression and has left the job he loved. For the country, the implications are less certain but possibly also serious. Suffice to say that he was widely accepted as the most capable pair of hands to guide the coalition through the spending cuts that need to be taken to rescue the economy. Questions have already been raised about the experience of his successor, Danny Alexander, and the effects this could have on international confidence in the public finances.
This raises questions about the way Christians engage with both the principle and reality of civil partnerships in the context of a culture that does not share our faith. Aside from providing basic protections, rights and benefits to same sex couples, there is this additional public and private benefit of clarity. Laws’ actions were calculated to avoid clarity, because in his case, clarity was something to be feared (and Christians bear their fair share of the blame for his assumption of persecution, of one sort or another). This is something we have to bear in mind when articulating a holistic, coherent vision of sexual ethics for a plural society.