It's always interesting to meet people who in some way have a public life, or at least you have seen them on TV. I've been able to see and hear three such persons in the last three days.
The first was Lord David Owen, a founder member in 1981 of the Social Democratic Party, which split from the (then) leftward-lurching Labour Party. Subsequently the SDP merged in 1989 with the Liberal Party (hence their still-retained 'LibDem' name) but Lord Owen, who wanted to pursue more robust policies than the Liberals, did not participate. He left the House of Commons in 1992 and was then active in the House of Lords until earlier this year. He might be described as a potential Prime Minister whose moment never came. As it was, he specialised in foreign policy, and I always credited him with having a firm grasp on what was needed for effective international relations: a credible deterrent, and an energetic, skilful and outward-looking Foreign Office.
So I was very interested in hearing about his latest book, The Hidden Perspective, which describes the extremely discreet discussions that took place between the British and French military from 1906, conversations that created understandings and expectations which committed the British to aiding the French if the latter were attacked by Germany - all behind the back of the British Cabinet, and without a hint to the wider British public of what was being negotiated. Lord Owen explained how these conversations at the very least paved the way to the First World War. As I liked history, and wanted to understand how this war began, I bought the book. I now expect to read a sorry tale of things done and said, that convinced people of certain things, and how it all slid out of control.
Lord Owen himself was now in his later 70s, and though he looked nicely suntanned he was white-haired and had the slower step of a man who feels his age. The very picture of the dignified senior politician-turned-historian. His voice had power and he spoke as a man who knew his subject, in this case the preliminary and clandestine exchanges between old-school military men, and then, as the Arms Race developed, the subtle manoeuvring of foreign ministers, all to no avail. The questions he replied to from an absolutely packed audience were equally erudite. He gave measured answers that were proof to me that he'd done an awful lot of research for his new book. Once or twice he was lost for the mot juste, and this (I thought) betrayed a mind beginning to lose its sharp edge, but I still felt that if ever I found myself caught in conversation with him, he would completely overawe me intellectually.
Later that day, the jolly and ebullient Mark Horton addressed another packed audience. This is the archaeology professor long associated with BBC's Coast programme, now in its ninth or tenth series. He was exactly as you see him on TV - brimful of enthusiasm, very lively, voluble, never lost for words, good at explaining how, for instance, the problem of ascertaining precise longitude was tackled by star-observation and calculation as well as by building reliable chronometers. He gave his illustrations a West Country bias so far as possible, and ended with a recommendation to the local Torridge District Council to amalgamate with other councils in order to support a team big enough to make scientific decisions on coastal management. (This went down very well - clearly a top local issue) I felt that with Mark Horton, 'what you see is what you get' and he provided the perfect contrast to Lord Owen's discussion of big-gun diplomacy and Germany's growing war machine.
Then last night it was Vicky Pryce, who was my age but looked younger, a mother of five (though presumably all grown up), a top economist who had advised the government, and had been married to politician and Cabinet Minister Chris Huhne from 1984 to 2010. Her husband, caught speeding on camera, had got her to say that she had been the driver. She saved him from a blemished licence and a possible career setback. The concensus when I discussed this with two women in Appledore's Seagate Hotel afterwards was that they knew wives who had done the same thing for their husbands, and they would probably do the same themselves. It was seen as a thing that a loyal wife would do, if they loved their husband and his livelihood were at stake.
That said, this concerned a man in public office, and therefore someone who must seem to be totally honest. But husband and wife had not been honest about who had driven faster than the law allowed.
Seeing and hearing Vicky Pryce now, I thought her a woman of character, not someone likely to give in tamely to a husband's bullying. I think they willingly colluded. I like to think that there were strong elements of loyalty spurring that collusion. This might explain why Vicky Pryce was angry enough to shop her errant husband later on. Love betrayed. I couldn't decide whether she acted on impulse, heedless of consequences, or took a calculated gamble that he would be embarrassed (and belatedly prosecuted for speeding) but that she herself would escape any criticism. Greek passion versus the cool head of the economics expert. If she gambled, then it came unstuck. They were both tried for perverting the cause of justice, and received short prison sentences.
Vicky Pryce's attitude to what happened to her was highly interesting. I should explain that former BBC journalist Simon Hall introduced her to the (once again very packed) audience and thereafter it was a conversation between the two of them with the audience looking on. There was an unusually long time allowed at the end for audience questions, some twenty minutes I thought. (She was a controversial figure after all)
She made it sound as if she had seen that a prison sentence was inevitable and needed planning for, exactly as if she were going abroad for a few months. Inevitable because they were both connected with the government, and she thought they would be made examples of. Also, she thought (correctly) that she would be demonised in the media coverage. Indeed, I had been influenced by the negative reporting at the time. I was seeing her now at least partly because I wanted to glimpse the 'real' Vicky Pryce. Well, she tried to work out how long she would be in prison, and made all sorts of forward arrangements, including how to pay everyday household bills, even to the extent of taking over £1,000 in cash with her on sentencing day, in order to pay for unforeseen bills that might crop up while imprisoned. The prison officers at Holloway Prison had never seen anything like it. Generally they dealt with women still shocked and confused at having received a custodial sentence, women who had made no forward arrangements at all, women who merely left their children with friends and neighbours for the rest of the day, and certainly not women who had come equipped with money and books and the paraphernalia of a top-level economist. The other women prisoners were equally astonished, because she mixed with them from the start, wanted to hear their stories, and did not stay in her cell all the time.
Simon Hall was amazed that she had taken the fact of incarceration so calmly. Vicky Pryce was adamant that facing facts and planning to cope had allowed her to keep positive. She found the prison regime for women easier to live through, more humane, than she had thought it would be, but it was certainly not something she would recommend anyone try. The loss of personal freedom was potentially devastating. Her cell was OK for size and comfort, but cold. All the vices of prison life were in your face every day - the drugs, for instance. There were people you quickly learned to avoid. Educational opportunities were meagre or non-existent. On the other hand, some prisoners had told her that the only reason they were still alive was the care and sanctuary they got from prison life: their addiction or mental problems would have killed them outside.
Reoffending rates were staggeringly high. A spell in prison would practically guarantee that you ended up there again. It seemed to her a most inefficient way of dealing with crime. It was terribly expensive to maintain people in prisons - she quoted statistic after statistic to illustrate this. All in her book, of course. I thought she saw prison life and its consequences mostly in money terms. She also spoke about the disruption of families, but I got no sense that, as a scientist in economic theory, she really knew what it was to be a member of a crime-ridden underclass. That said, nor do I.
Although she came across as a highly practical and resilient woman, there was no frank confession that she had lied to the authorities and deceived the police over that speeding affair. At one point, about halfway through, a man in the audience interrupted with a question: where was her contrition? He explained that he had been a prison officer during the 1990s. He had hoped to hear her say she was sorry for concealing the fact that her former husband had driven dangerously fast and might have killed someone. She hadn't expressed any shame at all. And with that, he left. It was only a momentary check in the smooth flow. I was certain that other people had stood up at other talks, and that she had an answer ready, if they stayed and persisted. This man had got it off his chest and walked out. It was however a fair point. Did she really feel she had done a bad thing? All she said was that she had 'made a mistake' - which is not actually admitting to a crime. Methinks a little self-exoneration here! Nevertheless she had spent time in jail. And that was undoubtedly a genuine punishment, even if she had come out if it with material for a book, and a career still intact.
Would I ever lie to get someone else out of a fix? A person of hard-and-fast principles has a clear answer: no, whatever the circumstances. I am not a person of rigid principles. I think a more nuanced judgement is always needed. But I hate to lie, and I am wary of ignoring the law. Perhaps I should just be very thankful that I am not presently so close to anyone that such decisions have to be made.