What can you say when all sides call upon principles which are unprincipled and decry dishonesty dishonestly? It looks terrible. Something is, certainly.
Fiat justicia ruat caelum said Jacob Rees-Mogg with approval, but knowing as he did so the injustice hidden behind the phrase. He spoke as if telling the Commons “I come to bury Owen Paterson not to praise him”
“………… The noble Commissioner
Hath told you Owen was corrupted:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Owen answer’d it”
Like Antony at Caesar’s funeral, we know what he meant, and Jacob Rees-Mogg does not disappoint.
Classicists may know the story which gave us the phrase Fiat justicia ruat caelum (‘Let justice be done though the heavens fall’). Lord Denning adopted the motto Fiat Justicia when he was granted a coat of arms, but wrote later that he would not have had he know the story. Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso sentenced a man to death for murder, but before the sentence was carried out the alleged victim turned up alive and well. The executioner brought the ‘victim’ to show the judge all was resolved. Piso however would not have it: the condemned man was still to be executed because he had been sentenced; the executioner was to be executed for failing to do his duty, and even the alleged victim was to be beheaded, for causing the death of two innocent men. ‘Let justice be done though the heavens fall’ – this sort of idiot legalism, the essence of how the Middle Ages worked, still has a purchase on administrators. It saves applying actual thought.
There is now a vast rumpus over the Owen Paterson case, but all are aware that if the Commissioner’s recommendation had been that Paterson be suspended for five working days, or nine, he would have grumbled over the injustice but taken it. Just ten working days is the trigger for expelling a member from the House and ending forever his political career, so because the Commissioner said 30 days, rebellion broke out and Commissioner’s very position is in peril. All this she could have avoided.
This blog carried an article last week about the iniquities of the Recall procedure being triggered in this way – quite coincidentally, by the way; it was written before the Owen Paterson affair became known. It is now very relevant.
I cannot say whether Owen Paterson has done anything wrong. In the eyes of the public and his constituents he is condemned as corrupt and will be unable to stand again for election. His career is over.
If it is a matter of enforcing blind principles, then it would be irrelevant whether Owen Paterson has actually done anything wrong, and irrelevant whether, as he claims, the Commissioner refused to listen to his evidence. Just the same way, one may say that principle demanded that the executioner carry our Piso’s order in spite of its being a nonsense. The principle is there for a purpose and if procedures have erred then principle should demand a pause.
The conclusions reached by the Committee are extraordinary, in that they condemn Mr Paterson even though they find Mr Paterson and the companies employing him had no financial benefit from his actions, that his actions were good and valuable to the public, and that his breach of the rules can only be interpreted by a fine legal reading of the texts of a poorly written standard. They are free to condemn him in those circumstances for a breach; however recommending what is effectively an expulsion from the House and the end of his career, with the label of ‘corruption’ hanging over him, is ludicrous, disgraceful.
There is a very dark side too, of which all involved were very well aware. Mrs Paterson got caught up in this investigation, and saw the bile building higher and higher on the web, which she looked at secretly in dread. Mrs Paterson was frantic with worry, with guilt over what she felt she had caused, though she need not have been, and she took her own life. Grievously hath Owen answer’d it.
Let us take another look at the procedures. There are three levels intended to be a protection:
- first the Commissioner investigates the matter;
- then the Committee on Standards reads her work to check she has not exceeded what is proper, or misunderstood things;
- then it goes to the House of Commons to move a decision on the latter’s recommendations.
Each of these is safety net. If it comes to be understood that each stage must simply rubber-stamp the recommendation of the previous layer, then the procedures are dead: they just hand all power to the Commissioner alone. The protest in the Commons after yesterday’s vote has claimed that principle demands that Paterson be punished as the Commissioner recommended without variation: that is not principle though – it defies principle.
I would hope that all the circumstances can be brought into the light, and Mr Paterson’s actions be considered for the reality not the rhetoric. The mothers of babies of Ulster whose lives were saved by his diligence for which he has been condemned may have something to say.
In the meantime there is talk of a reverse-ferret on this, that the adjourned disciplinary action will now proceed – and if the motion this time is for a three-month suspension and a reprimand, all well and good. Let us then, when the heat is off, hear more about the actual events.
Parliament can also repeal the deadly paragraph of the Recall of MPs Act, and leave that sanction only for those condemned by a court of law with evidence and a jury.
Well that was quick: within an hour of the above being posted, Owen Paterson announced that he will take the Chiltern Hundreds. That is yet another by-election to come then.
He was left with little choice. He has an opportunity perhaps to put the record straight, though the news cycle will have moved on and no one will be listening until he publishes his memoirs. An investigation into what happened, and what is right and wrong to be done in the circumstances he faced, but do not expect it to be anything exciting.
There is charity work too, for the foundation he created in memory of his late wife, and the best redemption may be in this and in any future public service he can provide, and in the smiling faces of the babies whose lives his condemned intervention saved.