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Tuesday, March 12, 2013 

Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?

Is it possible to not really know where to settle on the sentences handed down to Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce? As others have said, it would ordinarily be absurd to send two first time offenders to prison for a crime in which no one else was harmed, nothing was stolen and where the only real victims have been the perpetrators themselves, who might not have lost everything but most certainly have done substantial if not fatal damage to their careers. It's also the case that giving high profile figures "deterrent" sentences isn't just manifestly unfair, it doesn't achieve its aim. If anything, the coverage of the case is likely to increase the numbers aware of how to swap driving penalty points and make the practice even more widespread.

This said, there's always something eminently distasteful about the way politicians and public figures tend to regard the offences their own commit, and the way they respond to crime committed by everyone else. There have been plenty of tributes to the pair, especially to Huhne, most ignoring that he kept up a lie for 10 years, only admitting guilt after his attempts to get the case against him thrown out had failed.  Perverting the course of justice is an extremely serious offence, regardless of the circumstances, or as Simon Jenkins claims, how the entire judicial system is built around lying. While the likes of the Mail have delighted in Huhne's downfall, it's been nothing compared to the way plenty responded to the bringing low of Jonathan Aitken or Jeffrey Archer. That politicians on the whole remain wedded to the idea that prison works all but demands that their misdemeanours should be treated just as harshly as those committed by those at the bottom of society.

You don't though have to feel any sympathy for Huhne or Pryce whatsoever to regard the entire case as a circus.  Justice Sweeney, as the Heresiarch argues, seemed to swallow the media narrative wholesale and did his very best to add to it. His judgement on Pryce was extraordinarily harsh, who while devious and complicit in the offence has been comprehensively screwed over by all those she thought she could trust, first Huhne, and then the Sunday Times and their remarkable disregard for her as a source.  However much we might recoil from the phone calls she made to Huhne in an attempt to get him to admit to forcing her to take the penalty points, it's worth recalling how Huhne told her their marriage was over: during a World Cup game, with his parting remark being that Pryce shouldn't talk to the newspapers. And with that, he went off to the gym.

One contrast to draw is the settlement reached today between George Monbiot and Lord McAlpine, where he has pledged to perform three years of charitable work rather than pay damages. Quite apart from how I fail to see how either Monbiot or Sally Bercow libelled McAlpine with their tweets, it seems a remarkably more productive if over the top way to pay penance.  The most obvious example of a politician attempting to make up for their failings is John Profumo (again, whether he had much to make up for at all is dubious), who spent 40 years doing various good works in the East End after his resignation as an MP.  On these terms, a lengthy period of community work would normally have been a perfectly fitting sentence rather than a prison term.

I say normally as this isn't a normal case, however much it ought to be.  The normal punishment for the offence of swapping penalty points does seem to be a short prison term, whether it seems the right one or not.  In line with this, it would have been perverse for Huhne and Pryce not to go to prison.  All the same, it just doesn't seem right, and to go against Simon Jenkins again, I don't think there has been any great public glee at their downfall.  Rather, it's been the media that's revelled in it, as though they're either making up for something, or preparing for what might be coming to some of their own shortly.

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