A few thoughts on the return of Chris Huhne – and a few of the people I’ve met who’d love to be welcomed into genteel society as warmly as Chris, but never will be:
The appearance of Chris Huhne’s weekly column is now a serious irritation. He is a crook, a liar and a cheat. His greatest talent is blaming others for all of that. I thought him surplus to most requirements, if I thought about him at all.
But suddenly, here he is every week – back in and cosy with the political and media classes, and rubbing everyone else’s nose in his fast-turnaround rehabilitation. I’ve tried to ignore it, but at the same time can’t stand it. I first assumed that his column was a one-off pressed ham to us all. Now, it seems that the Guardian means to go on with it.
Every week for three weeks, Huhne has been back. He’s been back again today – looking as smug as he is shameless, and sitting before us as evidence (like we needed more) that the political class believes there is one set of rules for us and one set of rules for the self-appointed elite. And that it’s fine to flaunt that, etc.
This disparity is winding me up, I have to say. It’s everywhere and it is vile. It is beneath everyone, except the people who are pushing it. It’s a poison that taints us all. But ho hum and on it goes. If you’re without money, or connections, you’re benefit scrounging scum. If you’re Chris Huhne, you’re Our Guy. If you’re on a benefit and earn a few extra bob on the side as a cleaner to make ends meet (as people I’ve interviewed have), the director of public prosecutions will say that you should be locked up for ten years. If, on the other hand, you’re the CE of a profit-making company who can’t handle the thought of paying tax, PwC will relieve your pain by telling you to pretend that you’re domiciled elsewhere (see Panorama for more on this and/or the latest edition of Private Eye). And if you’re Chris Huhne, you can skulk out of prison and present yourself as an inspiration to anyone from the monied classes who has fallen (spectacularly) from grace, but was born and raised to expect to rejoin the fold.
And if you’re not Chris Huhne, you can get stuffed. That’s the part that gets me.
Let me tell you a story about someone who is in this last category – someone who, like Chris Huhne, is hoping to put a difficult past behind him, but who, unlike Chris Huhne, must do so against the tide.
This person’s name is Darren. I first met Darren at a lunch centre in Stroud. The centre served free hot lunches to people who were struggling to make ends meet for a range of reasons – they were on JSA and had been sanctioned, or they were on JSA and had been sanctioned and were trying to pay off crisis loans and/or they were on JSA and had been sanctioned and were in their fifties and sixties and knew they were very unlikely to get jobs. The centre was heaving the day I went in: large groups of people (mostly middle-aged and older men) talking and sitting round rough tables on chairs of different heights. Money was a point of contention right away – money and a perception that I got breaks that others did not. “How much are you getting paid for this article?” one young man with angry eyes asked me as I joined a group of people talking round the back of the building. He was hostile about it and I was on the back foot. I was never asked questions like that much in the past, but I’m asked them more and more.
I think my accent (or lack of one) saves me a lot of the time these days. Once inside, I talked for hours with people. Some of the people there had long-term mental health conditions, some had drug and alcohol problems and some had been through crises (they’d lost jobs, a business, a marriage) from which they were trying to recover. Some were dealing with most of those things. Almost without exception, they had housing problems. They were in and out of street homelessness, supported living flats (where they were available), single rooms in houses of multiple occupation, or, in Darren’s case, a tent.
Darren was a long-term heroin addict. When I met him, though, he’d been clean for about four weeks. Those of us who live closely with addiction know that this was an achievement by anyone’s standards. Certainly, it was an achievement in comparison with Chris Huhne’s standards. In Darren’s case, the odds were stacked. He’d stopped using from time to time over the years, but always gone back to the local scene. This time, he’d decided to leave the scene behind. He said that he’d walked from Cheltenham to Stroud to get away from it. The people who were running the lunch centre – they were from the local Marah Trust – were particularly keen that I meet him and hear his story.
“I walked here about four months ago,” Darren said. “I walked about 17 miles and I slept in a bus stop, because of the rain.” He was thin, but clear-eyed and alert and he talked non-stop about his plans for the future, in the describing-one-upcoming-project-after-another way that people do when they think they might stay off. I don’t know if he’s managed to stay clean (I’ll call him soon to find out – I’ve been putting it off in case he hasn’t), but he was in that space where he could see it. He said that the people at the Marah Trust had given him a tent. He was living in that on reserve land somewhere.
He said there were two street drinkers camping near him, but that he didn’t mind them, because “you stay in numbers. You’re better in numbers. The tent’s dry, but the only problem is that when the rain comes down, it’s all mud. They won’t give us accommodation until we’ve been here for 12 months, because we’ve got no local connection (Darren said his girlfriend had once been in foster care in Stroud. They thought that might give them rights to housing, but said they’d found out that it didn’t). But after 12 months, we have.”
So. Connections. The connections you really want at this point are Chris Huhne’s connections. All Darren really had was a deteriorating State. “I’ve had my ESA suspended. I was using a care-of address, but they got me down at the social as actually living there. I’ve had no money for the last eight weeks.” That basically left him with his goal. “I’m getting on an emergency script next week. They’ve got me on these meetings – anger management and self- awareness. Then, I’m going to rehab. This time, I’m taking it.”
The tent Darren didn’t mind, although he wanted to move on from it. “I stink of fire all the time (and he did smell of smoke). I’m not usually like this. I’m only dirty, because I’m sleeping on the streets and because of the [cooking] fire. The police come and do a body count [every now and then] and as long as the fires are only under control, they’re not too bothered. I do need to get off the streets – that’s a priority really.”
He’s not a priority, though. He has no priority among people who count. By his own admission, this guy was no angel – but neither is Chris Huhne. That’s the point. I’ve spoken to so many people in the last few years who describe these sorts of situations – addiction, lives spent in and out of homelessness, some time in and out of prison and/or coming to police attention, time spent living in a tent. Addiction can be like that. It doesn’t make you better or worse than anyone else. At the very least, it makes you no better or worse than Chris Huhne. And certainly, you’re as entitled as Chris Huhne to find a way back. The problem with that notion is selling it in this era. We live in a world where Anyone Who Is On Benefits Is Bad. More than that – we live in a world where anyone on benefits who is perceived to be responsible for their situation can expect to be permanently condemned for it. People with drug and alcohol problems sit at the top of this list. All that government has in mind for them is a series of crowd-pleasing proposals to threaten their benefits. And while they’re waiting for it – a tent and a lot of uncertainty.
The moral of this story? – don’t ever get it wrong. Ever.
Unless you’re a well-appointed MP.