Entry from November 5, 2010

This morning I could scarcely believe what I was reading when I saw the story in the Daily Telegraph of London.

Former immigration minister Phil Woolas lost his seat as an MP today after an election court ruled that he knowingly made false statements about an opponent in May’s general election. The Labour MP could be barred from the Commons for three years, with the election contest for his Oldham East and Saddleworth seat set to be re-run. . . “The court has decided that an election should be overturned and an MP should lose his seat and be incapable of being elected to the House of Commons for three years because statements which attacked a candidate”s ‘political conduct’ were also attacks on his ‘honour’ and ‘purity’.”

Whaa?! Have I fallen asleep and woken up in a parallel universe where the words “honour” and “purity” still have some connection to politics? And not only some connection, but the essential one, the one without which they are just words. That is the connection to dishonor and impurity that alone can make them meaningful. For although it was Mr Woolas’s Liberal Democrat opponent, Elwyn Watkins (who lost to Mr Woolas by only 103 votes) whose honor was said to have been impugned, the judges’ finding, in vindicating Mr Watkins’s honor, inevitably besmirched Mr Woolas’s. And rightly so.

But the casualness with which the story was reported suggests that the British media have not yet quite woken up to the seriousness of the fact that, for the first time in 99 years (so the Telegraph reports) a politician has been officially punished for lying about an opponent. The implications for the many, both in politics and the media, whose careers are built on such lies are huge. Most political lies, it’s true, are likely to fly under any conceivable legal radar, but if even one is caught and exposed and the liar made to pay a price for it, then for the first time in living memory a vital and sorely-missed rhetorical discipline in politics becomes a possibility. We may say in theory that it is still dishonorable to lie about a political opponent, but for so long as the lie has no consequences and carries no dishonor for the liar, then it’s really not. Here, out of the blue, someone has been willing to create consequences; someone has committed the essential honorable act and so made honor possible again.

In a separate report, the Telegraph gave details of the judges’ decision:

Mr Justice Teare said: “In an election address entitled The Examiner, the respondent (Mr Woolas) made a statement of fact, the meaning of which was that the petitioner attempted to woo, that is to seek, the electoral support of Muslims who advocated violence, in particular violence to the respondent. “In a further election address entitled Labour Rose, he made a statement of fact the meaning of which was that the petitioner had refused to condemn extremists who advocated violence against the respondent. We have concluded that both of these statements, although made in the context of an election and said to arise from a political position adopted by the petitioner, were in relation to the petitioner”s personal character or conduct. In our judgment to say that a person has sought the electoral support of persons who advocate extreme violence, in particular to his personal opponent, clearly attacks his personal character or conduct. It suggests that he is willing to condone threats of violence in pursuit of personal advantage. Having considered the evidence which was adduced in court we are sure that these statements were untrue. We are also sure that the respondent had no reasonable grounds for believing them to be true and did not believe them to be true. We also found that (in) an earlier election address the respondent had made a statement in fact, namely, that the petitioner had reneged on his promise to live in the constituency. This too, although made in the context of an election and said to arise from a statement made by the petitioner as a candidate in that election, was in relation to his personal character or conduct. It suggests that he is untrustworthy. The statement was false and the respondent had no reasonable ground for believing it to be true and did not believe it to be true. It follows in our judgment that the respondent is guilty of an illegal practice, contrary to section 136 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 with regard to those statements.”

Of course Mr Woolas is appealing the judgment, and the Speaker of the House of Commons will have to decide whether a by-election should be called and the penalty of a three-year ban from taking a seat in the house imposed on Mr Woolas immediately or to wait for further legal proceedings. But the victory for honor and the resulting hope that it may once again be a part of politics still stands, for now. At least in Britain.

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