Why do Brits snigger—and Americans shiver—at sex scandals?

The British scene.
May 23 2006 1:49 PM

Sniggers, Shrugs, and Outrage

What a country's response to its sex scandals reveals about the national character.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. Click image to expand.
Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott

Never mind statecraft and high art, the differences between nations are best revealed in the trivia of everyday life, like drinks—compare a pint of bitter with a bottle of burgundy or a six-pack of Bud—or sports: FA Cup Final, Tour de France, or World Series. But an even more illuminating comparison might be the political sex scandal as each country plays it, from British snigger to Gallic cynicism to American outrage.

For the past few weeks, England has been prostrate with sniggering. Mark Oaten is a leading Liberal Democrat—the party that is certainly more liberal than democratic in private: One leader, Paddy Ashdown, survived an illicit affair (his squeeze was a grandmother, which may have helped with the older female vote), but another, Charles Kennedy, had to resign because of his drinking habits. Oaten almost ended his career as well as his marriage when it transpired that he had been soliciting "rent boys" (hustlers) on the Internet. We British managed, just about, to cope with that, but not with Oaten's belated explanation that he had hired these lads because he was worried about going bald. Puh-lease.

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Last Wednesday, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott fielded questions in the House of Commons for the first time since the news broke about his affair with his secretary. One Tory MP sent his colleagues into frenzies of mirth by asking Prescott, "What steps will you be taking to ensure that staff working under you are not subject to sexual harassment?" Then the Welsh Labor MP Dari Taylor apparently tried to help Prescott, with disastrous effect, by praising his work: "Is he still going to have a hands-on in these areas?" she asked, at which the House collapsed.

It would take a long essay to deconstruct the Prescott business, and to explain why we guffawed at headlines about "Two Shags" and "Lardy and the Tramp." But only one footnote is needed—the grossly unprepossessing and notoriously irascible Prescott threw his fist at a heckler during the 2001 general-election campaign—to explain the best cartoon, in which one woman says to another: "On balance I think I'd rather be punched by John Prescott."

All this belongs to a long tradition. There was "no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality," said Lord Macaulay in 1830, but he might rather have said "fits of indecent merriment." In the late 19th century, one divorce suit ended the career of Sir Charles Dilke, who was tapped as a future prime minister, and another the career of Charles Stewart Parnell, leader of the Home Rule party, thereby changing the course of Irish as well as British history. But there was sniggering even then, in Dilke's case over lurid accusations of three-in-a-bed and "Hunnish practices" (whatever they were), and over Parnell shimmying out a back window to avoid his inamorata's husband.

In recent years, there was a funny side to many of the sex scandals that embarrassed the Tories, notably the downfall of David Mellor, an insignificant pol remembered only for his practice—according to his ex-mistress—of wearing a Chelsea soccer shirt in bed. Alas it was no sniggering matter when Stephen Milligan, a young Tory MP, was found dead, although even that episode had its ludicrous as well as melancholy aspect, since he was wearing women's underclothes, had a tangerine in his mouth, and seems to have inadvertently asphyxiated himself while engaged in some form of private gratification. Before then, the Tory party had been keen enough on diversions that might have been reprehensible but were at least comprehensible; it now contained addicts of sexual vices no one had ever heard of.

Whenever a British Cabinet minister was sacked for sleeping with a woman not his wife, there was a regular routine: A Frenchman, usually the London correspondent of one of the Paris papers, would come on television to say 'ow backward zee English are—why, in France we don't zink twice about such zings. Then someone would quote Francois Mitterrand saying that if the same rules applied in France as in England, "I would have a Cabinet entirely of homosexuals."

And when it came to liaisons dangereuses, Mitterrand knew what he was talking about. When he died, the world learned what until then only a small circle had known: that for decades, including his 14 years as president of the French republic, he had lived a double life. Anne Pingeot was less mistress than alternative wife with whom he had a daughter, an arrangement that would have startled Jack Kennedy or Bill Clinton. Was it better or worse that he should have done this and been untroubled by an inquisitive media?

In fact, France does have a history of sex scandals. Apart from the death of President Félix Faure in 1899, reputedly while his mistress Marguerite Steinheil was administering Lewinskian favors, one played an indirect but very important part in European history.

In early 1914, the radical finance minister Joseph Caillaux was brutally lambasted by Figaro, whose editor, Gaston Calmette, had acquired intimate and compromising letters from Caillaux, much to the annoyance of the minister's wife. On March 16—without even approaching the public editor or press complaints commission!—Henriette Caillaux stormed into Calmette's office, asked for the letters, and, when he didn't hand them over, drew out a pistol and plugged him dead. The government fell, Mme. Caillaux was subsequently tried and acquitted—it was a crime passionel,the court decided—but the truly historic effect of the case was that the government in Berlin, seeing all of France transfixed and distracted by l'affaire Caillaux-Calmette, advanced the timetable for war that summer.

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