Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Article excerpt

When Bill Clinton was threatened with impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky affair, I was keen that the Daily Telegraph, which I was editing at the time, should add fuel to the flames. A little earlier, I had edited the Sunday Telegraph and our Washington correspondent, Ambrose EvansPritchard, had done brilliant work -- better than anyone even in America itself -- in exposing the shadiness of Clinton's Arkansas connections. I thought (and I still think) that Clinton was a bad man. It seemed right that he should get his come-uppance. To my surprise, though, our then proprietor, Conrad Black, sounded a warning note. Would it really be a good thing for the presidency, he asked, if its occupant could easily be thrown out because of such allegations? Wouldn't the partisan temptations be just too great? How could an American president, who governs more by prestige than by untrammelled power, do his job if he can too readily be subject to judicial investigation? Now that Conrad himself faces charges, some might question his motives in taking the line he did, but I think he meant what he said, and that he was right. Although political leaders in democracies should not have immunity from prosecution, there should be a strong presumption against fighting what are really political power battles in the courts. Today there may be a momentary frisson of pleasure at the idea that Tony Blair could do time (see Peter Oborne's interesting investigation opposite) for selling honours, but it is very hard to imagine that such an issue could be fairly decided by judge and jury. (The Prime Minister is also being pursued, by the way, under the Race Relations Act because he may have exclaimed, 'F---ing Welsh' after their devolution referendum in 1997. ) In a free society, the best punishment for a politician is electoral defeat, not handcuffs.

Ihope I shall not be thought selfcontradictory, however, if I ask once again about the Blairs' multiple mortgages, amounting to nearly £4 million. As with donations to parties, loans do not have to be declared in the register of MPs' interests if they are arranged on normal commercial terms. But how could such a vast sum have been lent to the Blairs on such terms, with their combined income? I don't know, as the late Sir John Junor used slyly to say, but I think we should be told.

At the end of last week, 50 independent schools accepted a deal offered by the Office of Fair Trading. This should bring to an end a story which began when two sneaky, enterprising boys at Winchester hacked into a school computer and discovered that schools were exchanging information about next year's fees. The resulting OFT investigation found that such collusion had indeed taken place. The deal makes all the schools involved admit infringement (without having to admit that the collusion had any effect on fee levels) and, collectively, pay £3 million into a charitable trust to benefit pupils who were at the schools in the years concerned. Although I am a governor of an independent school, I do not share the prevailing view among these schools that the OFT should never have bothered with all of this. It is quite true that the 50 schools, themselves charitable institutions, were not trying to make profits:

every penny raised goes to the welfare of the school, not into the pockets of a business. …

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