Well how much is porn on the Internet, Jacqui?

Everyone is a bit puzzled as to why former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith chose to tell us about her ignorance of the porn industry. One would have thought that she would try and avoid headlines which included her name and the word “porn”, given that her disgrace was based in part on the fact that she claimed her husband’s X-rated videos on expenses.

Most of the comment, in fact, has been about the photograph with which the Times illustrated its article, showing Smith in a rather louche leather coat standing in a Soho Street, like a Madame on her way to inspect a new batch of recruits for her brothel. What caught my eye was the headline in the iPad version of the article. Where the print version was headed “I never knew the Internet was so full of porn, admits Jacqui Smith” the iPad version read “I never realised how much porn was on the Internet, admits Jacqui Smith”. The ambiguity in this subtly different version brings with it a clear reminder of that previous occasion when the cost of porn escaped her notice. Was the sub-editor having a laugh at her expense, I wonder.

Jacqui Smith in Soho

For myself, I do not particularly blame Smith for not noticing that entry on her domestic Internet bill. She was a busy woman and, as with Baroness Scotland’s unfortunate oversight in respect of her illegal immigrant cleaner, it is something easily done. They share a collective responsibility in that they were members of a government which was particularly unforgiving of our daily oversights, burdening businesses and individuals with a mass of petty compliance obligations and hordes of petty little runts-in-office to catch us out and punish us. Indeed, one of the best results of the Parliamentary expenses scandal in which Smith was the star turn has been that MPs now know what it feels like to be caught out for every trivial infringement of the rules.

Jacqui Smith spoof blue plaqueIn any event, Smith’s claim for the videos (and her petty claim for an 88 pence bath plug) were dwarfed by her £116,000 claim for second home expenses when she in fact had only one home. She was, of course, entitled to second home expenses as a provincial MP, but instead stayed with her sister in London and described her only home as her second home for the purposes of expenses claims. It may well be true, as she claims, that she disclosed the position fully to the pen-pushers responsible for approving expenses. It is also correct to say that that Parliament was a stew of corruption – Tony Blair may have set the tone with his interesting assertion that anything is right if you think it so, but MPs of all parties had their snouts in the trough, despite clear rules linking expenses to the better performance of Parliamentary duties.

That argument does not run in any other area of life, however. Burglars don’t claim justification because all their neighbours burgle as well, and you will not get off a speeding fine because everyone else was driving too fast. However undeservedly, Smith held one of the great offices of state, and one expects more of the Home Secretary than of some nobody on the back benches.

The fact is that Smith should never have been promoted in the first place. There was a rumour that Gordon Brown was actually seeking to appoint a secretary for his office at home and thought that Jacqui Smith was one of the applicants; she misunderstood the question “would you be my home secretary?” and Brown was too embarrassed to retract the offer when he realised what he had done. That is probably not what happened, but the appointment was undoubtedly a mistake nevertheless.

Smith’s unforgivable defect as Home Secretary was to ignore civil liberties when confronting terrorism. No one doubts the importance of the war against terror, but a solution which tramples on ancient liberties is a solution which is worse than the problem. She made us all feel that we were the enemy, and empowered junior policeman, minor officials and even runty little creatures in local councils to trample on our rights. That was unforgivable and has not been forgiven.

Smith has not helped herself since her disgrace. Her resignation speech was perfunctory and self-exculpatory and, again like Baroness Scotland, she managed to convey that complying with the rules is something for the little people. It did not help either that she claimed that she was picked on over her expenses because she was a woman – everyone went for her, she said, because “I should have been at home looking after my husband and children”. That answer just betrays women – her expenses were picked on because she held high office.

There was a nice coda to the story following Smith’s ejection from her seat at the general election. The position of vice chairman of the BBC Trust fell vacant, and Jacqui Smith was rumoured to have applied for the job. The BBC Trust has had its own problems over expenses claims, and was unlikely to see Smith as part of the solution. If we wanted evidence that the woman has no judgment, an application which bracketed her name in the headlines with the word “trust” gives it.

The BBC has, in fact, played a (probably unconscious) role in reminding us of Jacqui Smith’s past. I am not amongst those who think that Smith should have been charged for her own activities (her claims may have been wrong, but they were not fraudulent since she declared them), but two of her former colleagues have gone to prison for expenses fraud. By strange coincidence, Jacqui Smith appeared on Question Time on the very days that the cell doors clanged behind the fraudsters. If her appearances on Question Time were aimed at her rehabilitation, then fate (or a cruel joke on the part the BBC’s panel selectors) achieved the opposite.

Time has a curious way of rehabilitating old politicians – even Harold Wilson is thought of fondly, and the swivel-eyed Tony Benn has become a national treasure. That will happen to Tony Blair, despite Iraq and despite the corrosive effect of his deliberate dishonesty on politics. Gordon Brown and Ed Balls will buck that trend, I think – their bullying style and personal unpleasantness will always be uppermost when their names come up. It would be a pity, in a way, if Jacqui Smith is remembered only for her expenses claims. She was a useless Home Secretary and a dangerous one; her successors need her picture on their desks to remind them of what happens to ministers who tamper with our liberties. Instead, if she is remembered at all, it will be for porrn and bath-plugs.

The blue plaque and caption came from The Week of 17 October 2009

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About Chris Dale

I have been an English solicitor since 1980. I run the e-Disclosure Information Project which collects and comments on information about electronic disclosure / eDiscovery and related subjects in the UK, the US, AsiaPac and elsewhere
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