Browned off

by Stephen Tall on May 2, 2007

To sympathise, or not, with Lord Browne, until yesterday Chairman of BP – a real liberal dilemma.

That anyone should be forced to relinquish a job they love, directly or indirectly, as a result of their private life is a personal tragedy. This is a principle which applies equally to the highest-paid company boss, and to their lowest-paid employee.

I have to say I’m rather disturbed by the comments of Lib Dem MP Adrian Sanders in his blog posting, BP – Browne’s Probity. He writes:

It shouldn’t be necessary in this day and age for Gays to pretend to be something they are not. Newspapers are perfectly justified in these modern day circumstances to expose such deceit. … unless gay men and women themselves come out and celebrate their sexuality this discrimination and ignorance will continue unchallenged and deceit will remain the default position for people who cannot change the way they are. And that’s the real problem for Lord Bowne and other gay men and women in public life whose positions demand total probity.

This seems to me to miss the mark by a long, long way.

First, because (as far as I know from my reading of the case) Lord Browne did not deny he was gay. He has landed himself in hot water by perjuring himself about how he came to meet his former partner, Jeff Chevalier – it was not, as he claimed, while jogging, but via a website. This was, clearly, a stupid lie to tell, especially under oath. But I think anyone with an ounce of empathy can understand the embarrassment under which it was extracted.

Secondly, and far more importantly, because Adrian appears not to understand the liberal rationale for legislation against discrimination which he has voted through. It is not to impose obligations on gay people to parade their private lives against their will; it is to allow them to be free to lead their lives in the way they wish. Some will wish to celebrate their sexuality. Many will prefer to remind Adrian that there is a reason it’s called a private life. And that maintaining some discretion does not in any way call into question their probity – and to suggest otherwise is deeply offensive.

The real liberal dilemma concerns Lord Browne’s use of the courts to protect his privacy. It’s worth bearing in mind the comments of the high court judge who heard Lord Browne’s case, as reported in The Guardian:

Mr Justice Eady said: “I am not prepared to make allowances for a ‘white lie’ told to the court in circumstances such as these – especially by a man who prays in aid of his reputation and distinction, and refers to the various honours he has received under the present government, when asking the court to prefer his account of what took place.”

The judge added that Lord Browne told this lie at a time when he was also making a “wholesale attack” on Mr Chevalier’s reliability, showing a “willingness casually to ‘trash’ the reputation” of his former partner.

Lord Browne’s behaviour seems eerily reminiscent of another powerful man whose private life became public property, Bill Clinton.

Many liberals expressed sympathy with Mr Clinton when his affair with Monica Lewinsky was exposed, and then used by his Republican political opponents for disreputable ends. What many liberals preferred to ignore was that Mr Clinton was quite prepared to pull every official lever he could to have Ms Lewinsky publicly condemned as a man-eating fantasist, instead of – closer to the truth – a naïve intern out of her depth.

The point of liberalism is to ensure a level playing field, to enable the poor and weak to live their lives to the full on the same terms as the rich and powerful. If Lord Browne did indeed use his wealth unfairly to denigrate his former partner in secret legal proceedings, then I have no sympathy about the £15.5m his decision has just cost him.