Once upon a time there was a political party that had tried hard, too hard perhaps, to make the public like it. Just as it looked like the party was heading for disaster, a stranger came riding into town who looked like he could save the day because he was the first politician ever to be born without a trace of ambition.
Until recently, until last Friday to be precise, a significant number of members of the Labour Party used to tell themselves a version of the fairytale written above with Home Secretary Alan Johnson cast as the hero. Surely a man so nice he behaved like he really didn’t want to be Home Secretary let alone PM would make an ideal leader, no more spin, no more expenses scandals; with Captain Alan at the wheel everything would work out fine.
Anyone with a passing interest in the subject will know, of course, that in politics everything very seldom works out fine, in fact the moment when things look like they’re going well is usually when they start to go wrong.
Things went wrong for the nice Mr Johnson because, ironically in a year when politicians have been regularly tarred and feathered for the things they’ve done, usually on expenses, of something he didn’t do. What he didn’t do was stand up to America over the extradition of Gary McKinnon.
He, you will recall because his case has been taken up by several newspapers, proof positive that sometimes even cynics can be on the side of the angels, is the computer hacker who embarrassed the land of the free by breaking into its supposedly impregnable computer system in search of information about UFO’s. Yes it was wrong for him to have done so, but the fact that he has Asperger’s Syndrome and so has only a sketchy understanding of the link between actions and consequences means his case should be judged in a way that takes his mental health into consideration.
That isn’t something that is likely to happen amidst the bear pit of the US prison system, which is why his family have lodged a last ditch appeal for him to serve any sentence he is given in a British prison, an opportunity that has been denied him by the Home Office.
A little earlier I said that Gary McKinnon has only a sketchy understanding of the link between actions and consequences, it seems the people advising our affable Home Secretary have the same problem. Nothing else could be to blame for their being deaf to his mother’s statement that her son had been living in a ‘heightened state of terror’ for eight years at the thought of being thrown into prison on the other side of the world.
Mr Johnson, however, was not obliged to take the faulty advice offered by his civil servants; he could have said that compassion carries more weight than the wounded ego of a superpower or the finer points of the law. He could have done, but he didn’t, he turned down the appeal on the grounds of having ‘sought and received assurances’ from the US authorities that Gary Mc Kinnon’s ‘needs will be met.’ As displays of cynical hand washing go that has a place alongside the best work of Pontius Pilate.
It seems we were all wrong about Alan Johnson, the media who have given him an easy ride, the party members who thought he was ‘one of us’, all of us; we were all taken in. He is an example of everything that is wrong with politics in this country, a timid unimaginative bureaucrat.
Politicians, whatever their party have one duty that overrides all others, particularly if they manage to attain high office, and that is to protect the vulnerable, there are few people more vulnerable than Gary Mc Kinnon and in failing to prevent his extradition to the US Alan Johnson has dodged that duty and in doing so shamed his party and his country; he should not expect to be forgiven by either.