One of my favourite moments in cinema comes early in Richard Curtis’s Four Weddings and a Funeral. The hearty bunch of ex-Oxbridge wedding guests are indulging in the usual reunion chat when one asks another, “Whatever happened to that awful old slapper you used to hang around with?”
The answer is inevitable: “I married her”.
I guess we’ve all experienced similar moments, even if we’ve not been quite that crass. Nonetheless, if the occasions on which we wish the ground would open up and swallow us are mercifully rare, we often enough feel “a right lemon”, as the saying is.
Poor old David Cameron was certainly lemon-like this week and last week he looked as if he’d swallowed a lemon, too. When the leak of those Panama tax-haven papers was published and went viral, seeing his late father’s firm among those listed he naturally leapt to the defence of the family reputation.
In one sense he could do little else: it was inevitable that the media would pounce on that name and make the most of it. But his reaction was clumsily handled.
First there was denial: next, partial revelation; finally, the cringe-making total disclosure of his own tax return (which by definition, as it happens, wouldn’t list any tax he had evaded in any case). The comical thing was that no suggestion (apart from innuendo) has actually been made that he or his father ever avoided paying tax.
What has been revealed is that he is a very wealthy man, coming from a rich family. I’m sure he doesn’t feel he needs any more of these “posh boy” jibes, but other views and reactions in the press suggest that the electorate still prefers someone who is posh but competent running the country than the bumbling leader of a chaotic party: Labour rallies behind its leader even less than the Tories do and is deeply split on so many issues. The moral: competence is always preferable to messiness.
For a PR man, Cameron got the public response extraordinarily wrong: though at least he has had the grace to admit it. Nonetheless, there was an apt cartoon in last week’s Sunday Times: a red-faced Cameron comments to an aide, “Two things in life are certain – death and embarrassment”.
Yes, he really is looking and feeling a lemon at present.
Still, in many ways there’s nothing like a bit of embarrassment to stop people behaving badly. We voters may end up insisting that all MPs disclose their financial affairs, and the sheer embarrassment caused by the publication of some tax returns or expenses claims (oh, no: the latter have already been disclosed) may well encourage public figures to behave better. What other than public embarrassment is the policy oft-adopted by government of naming and shaming bad performers in the public sector? Let alone those whose practices may not be illegal but which we the public don’t like? The technique works.
I guess the whole concept of whistle-blowing, even of leaking vast numbers of documents in order to uncover dodgy practices, is just a means of shining daylight onto issues or processes that some people would prefer to leave hidden: and thus, if they are indeed indulging in wrongdoing, embarrassing them.
Human beings have a natural sense of inhibition, we Brits surely more than most. One reason why people sometimes behave badly when they’ve drunk too much is that the drug suppresses their inhibitions. Otherwise they wouldn’t tear their clothes off or behave like idiots, even consider doing something unmentionable with a pig’s head (only at the posh universities, of course).
If we have nothing to hide, we shouldn’t complain about leaks. If MPs all published their tax returns they would bore us, the public, and even the media into submission. But they would be aware of the scope for serious public embarrassment if their wrongdoings were uncovered in that way.
It just might serve to keep more people on the straight and narrow. After all, we all hate to feel a lemon.