The Chris Rennard affair: the limits of a legal system

Just when I thought things might be looking up a little for the Lib Dems, the Chris Rennard affair comes back with a vengeance. While my own views on the affair will become clear, I want to use this post to reflect on wider issues.

Lord Rennard (as he now is) was the party’s chief executive, and the ruthless leader of a number of highly successful by-election campaigns. The peak of his influence was under the leadership of Charles Kennedy and the 2005 General Election campaign. This was the party’s most successful campaign, marked by a manifesto that I personally thought was a disgrace: an unprincipled list of policies designed to appeal to floating voters. Still, successful politics requires ruthless campaigning, and we can’t wish away the dark arts.

However, it emerged recently that his conduct towards some of the party’s female candidates was open to question. Legally proved facts are in short supply here, but a number of complaints from highly credible sources emerged to the public glare a year ago. A police investigation resulted. That’s the first problem. Nothing that I had heard about the accusations suggested that it amounted to criminal behaviour. It was inappropriate by the party’s liberal values, but lots of different sorts of behaviour meet that description without being criminal. But as soon as, inevitably, the police found nothing they could proceed on, his defenders came forward to suggest that he was completely exonerated.

This, of course, is one of the oldest tricks in the dodgy operator’s handbook. How often do you hear of somebody claiming that they are “innocent of any wrongdoing”. Scratch the surface and “wrongdoing” turns out to mean “criminal behaviour  proved beyond a reasonable doubt”. There is, of course, plenty of doing of wrong that falls short of this. Ethics and the criminal code are different things, and lack of evidence is not proof that something did not happen. This is a real problem. Society sends out confusing signal to its citizens. I remember hearing on the radio of how school children in tough neighbourhoods get confusing messages. At school they are told that it is wrong to lie, that they should tell the truth for the greater good of all. But as soon as they get into trouble with the police, their legal adviser encourages them to lie like mad, or at the very least not cooperate. We do not honour people who take legal risks in the cause of truth; we just think that they are badly advised and a bit stupid.

Coming back to the Rennard affair, if we push past the deliberate obfuscation between criminal behaviour and inappropriate conduct, we are still in deep water. The party’s own adjudicator recommended that Lord Rennard apologise. This he has refused to do, citing “legal reasons”, though he has offered an expression of regret. The legal advice he seems to be getting is that any form of apology increases the risk of a civil case against him. I’m not sure just how true this really is, but it highlights a second problem for society: the excessive caution of legal advice. Ask a lawyer for advice as to how to behave and they will always err on the side of caution – advise you on what to do to minimise the risks of legal action against you. This is their job, after all. So they always advise against admitting any kind of guilt or apologising. This is corrosive to workings of a civilised society. That sort of advice is made to be disregarded at will.

A further defence (Lord Rennard has a lot of friends and defenders) is that he can’t apologise because he doesn’t know what he is supposed to apologise for. This is because the party’s report into the affair is confidential, and he hasn’t seen it in full. But it emerges that he has read the witness statements, which should be enough. So far as I am aware he was not instructed into exactly what his apology would say. You would think that a politician would be able to construct something that did not admit liability. This might well be regarded as inadequate by his accusers, but many are just looking for a face-saving way out. That usually means coming up with a formula that pleases nobody.

There is a more interesting and ethical argument that can be deployed to defend Lord Rennard. It is that you should not say things you do not mean, and that he genuinely does not feel that his behaviour warrants it. But given the liberal values he espouses, and the regret he has already expressed, surely there is sufficient ambiguity in his feelings to overcome such an objection? Of course, if he really can’t understand how his conduct was inappropriate then there is a bigger problem. Though, as ever, it is hard to know the extent that he is disputing the facts or the morality of his conduct. Our adversarial legal approach, where winning or losing matters more than the underlying logic of how you get to the result, does not help us get clarity on this.

There is another question posed by this affair, however, that does not reflect on Lord Rennard, but on his accusers. Why are they making such a fuss, and why now, so long after the events occurred? As I wrote when the affair originally broke, to a media frenzy, it is easy to detect some political ulterior motives. More deeply, is this part of a “victim culture”, where people are encouraged to blame their troubles on others, rather than trying to take control of their own fate? Some female critics of Lord Rennard’s accusers (I will not call them his defenders) seem to think so. Victim culture sells newspapers and does seem to be quite prominent – but it isn’t good for mental health, however justified it might look. This is a difficult issue though. It is not a good idea to ignore unacceptable behaviour. The more responsible journalists (like Radio 4’s Martha Kearney) have used to affair to discuss the whole issue of acceptable conduct at work – and that is surely a good thing.

We should not confuse right and wrong with the judicial process, and legal advice can cross the boundary into the unethical, and we should disregard it when it does. Slightly ambiguous apologies are one of the essential lubricants of social conduct. We should not ignore issues of wrongdoing, but we should know when to let go. This affair has gone on for too long; the longer it continues the worse it reflects on the main protagonists.