Magazine | April 22, 2013, Issue

Passion’s Fetters

How Chris Huhne doomed himself

Oh! what a tangled web we weave

When first we practice to deceive!

  — Sir Walter Scott, Marmion

If proof were needed that high intelligence is no certain protection against self-destructive foolishness, the case of Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce would supply it.

Huhne had a brilliant academic, journalistic, business, and political career, becoming a minister in the British cabinet. Vicky Pryce, his wife of 26 years and mother of his three children, was a prominent economist, the author of a recently published book, Greekonomics. Of Greek origin, she learned English as a fourth language; but she nevertheless became chief economist to British banks and then a very high-ranking civil servant. Few couples are more successful, at least in the eyes of the world; but both Huhne and Pryce have just been sent to prison.

It will surprise no one to learn that passion was at the root of this wealthy and accomplished couple’s downfall, though the precise nature of the passion involved is not absolutely clear. The trouble began when Huhne abruptly announced that he was leaving his wife for his press adviser. Pryce had long known that they spent much time together, but because the press adviser had entered a civil union with another woman she assumed that her husband was safe from her wiles. (Here I must just interpose a statement of patriotic pride: British scandals are still better and more titillating than the rest of the world’s put together.)

What by all accounts caused the deeply humiliated Pryce to seek revenge on her husband at any cost was the fact that he took his new lover rather than her to a state banquet at Windsor Castle. In days gone by, of course, this would not have been allowed: The hypocritical appearances would have been preserved. A man could keep a veritable harem, but still he had to appear in public with his wife. Alas for Pryce, for whom an invitation to a state banquet was what one might call the Apotheosis of Arrival, we now live in liberal times when a man can take whomever he chooses to meet the Queen, and so the Apotheosis was not to occur, not for Pryce at any rate.

However, she had what she thought was the perfect instrument of vengeance to hand, one that she thought would infallibly destroy his career. (Personally, I suspect that he is indestructible, and will come out of prison with a new career. That is what happens to such types these days.)

In 2003, when Huhne was trying for the first time to enter Parliament, he was caught speeding by radar, not for the first time. In fact, if convicted he would have lost his license, which, for whatever reason, he supposed would have damaged his political chances severely; and so he persuaded his wife, Pryce, illegally to take the rap for him. (In the event, this was quite pointless: He was disqualified from driving a few weeks later in any case, when caught using his hand-held phone while driving. And this, no doubt, gives us some insight into an aspect of his character.)

If Pryce could let it be publicly known, when he was a cabinet minister and after he had deserted her, that he had avoided his penalty by illegally allowing someone else to take the blame, without also letting it be known that the someone else was she, her revenge would be perfect. Pryce therefore went to a newspaper, alleging that Huhne had shifted the blame to a political assistant in his parliamentary constituency. The newspaper discovered, however, that the political assistant whom she named did not have a driver’s license, and the newspaper, concluding that Pryce was unreliable, dropped the matter.

Pryce, however, did not drop the matter. It is possible that she was now being advised by her friend and next-door neighbour Constance Briscoe, a prominent lawyer and one of Britain’s first black recorders, or part-time judges. Pryce might have pondered the choice of her adviser, for Briscoe had achieved the unusual feat of being sued by her own mother for libel as a result of a memoir she had published claiming that her mother had abused her severely as a child. Briscoe won the suit although her siblings testified against her; but Briscoe, aged 55, is clearly unusual, for when her 76-year-old consort, a very prominent criminal attorney, suddenly left her for a 25-year-old aspiring barrister, she seemed to maximize the publicity surrounding his departure. Now she has herself been arrested and faces trial for having lied to the police about Pryce’s case; and the libel case may be reexamined.

In her desperate search for vengeance, Pryce went to another newspaper and spilled the beans about Huhne, this time admitting that it was she who had taken the rap. She was apparently under the impression that only Huhne would be subsequently prosecuted for perverting the course of justice, not she; or that if she were charged, she would be able to mount the defense of marital coercion.

#page#Huhne was arrested, but so was she. Huhne at first denied everything with such determination and so convincingly that his subsequent admission that it was true all along would make any sensible person mistrust whatever he said for the rest of his life. In the event Pryce did mount the defense of marital coercion, claiming among other things that her husband had “forced” her to have an abortion, and that he had wanted her to abort their youngest son, Peter.

This latter claim, that he had wanted her to abort Peter, undermined her case rather badly; for the fact is that Peter was not aborted, which suggests an ability on her part to resist her husband’s “coercion.” In fact, the defense produced generally unfavorable comment and even some hilarity: Her appearance and manner were certainly not that of a woman easily cowed, and her career suggested otherwise too.

Peter, of course, was left in an emotional bind of almost Antigonean proportions. If his mother was to be believed, his father had wanted him never to exist; if his mother was not telling the truth, she was using him merely as an instrument in her struggle to wreak vengeance on his father. In the event, he believed his mother, and the distressing text messages that he sent his father, in the vilest of abusive language, formed part of the evidence in the trial. Huhne, to his credit, did not reply in kind, to either son or mother.

Pryce, who sought only to destroy her husband (now ex-husband), had to face two trials because the first trial collapsed when the jury could not reach a verdict. In calling for a retrial, the judge said that the jury was the worst he had ever encountered in 30 years; it had failed completely to understand its role and duty. He said this because the jury had sent him ten written questions that, he said, showed startling incomprehension.

It was worse than that: They showed that at least one member of the jury, probably dominant by virtue of his or her education, was determined to subvert the whole trial process. Here are two of the questions they asked the judge, who had given the clearest of instructions regarding the law:

Can a juror come to a verdict based on a reason that was not presented in court and has no facts or evidence to support it, either from the prosecution or defence?

Would religious conviction be a good enough reason for a wife feeling that she had no choice ie she promised to obey her husband in her wedding vows and he had ordered her to do something and she felt she had to obey?

These questions are at once so stupid and so well phrased that they cannot be explained by a lack either of education or of understanding. They are therefore (in my hypothesis) malicious, designed for whatever reason to undermine the entire process. The jury was composed mainly of people not born in England; whether the dominant and malicious framer of the questions was trying to make a point about immigrants, or whether he or she was politically motivated by some other cause, will never be known.

The second jury convicted Pryce, and now the search is on for the moral of the story, if there is one. It is probable, in fact, that an entire textbook of moral philosophy could be written on the case. At the very least we see that Walter Scott’s lines became a cliché precisely because they are so very true. We see that intelligence and accomplishment are not at all the same thing as wisdom. We see that hubris is followed by nemesis. We see how difficult it is to disentangle human motives, which are not only often mixed but changeable. We see that the law is a very dangerous instrument of vengeance to those who use it as such.

Above all, we see the dangers of passion, whether it be that of disappointed love, thwarted worldly ambition, or lust for revenge. It has become fashionable in neurobiological circles to claim that emotion and cognition cannot be distinguished for, as Hume said on purely philosophical grounds, reason is the slave of the passions. But even if there are no ends that can be desired or chosen solely by means of reason, there are reasonable means of reaching desired or chosen ends. And no one supposes that Huhne and Pryce desired or chose prison as their end. As Edmund Burke would have put it, people of intemperate minds (such as theirs) could not be free. Their passion forged their fetters.

– Mr. Dalrymple is a contributing editor of City Journal and the author, most recently, of The Pleasure of Thinking. He directs interested readers to his blog at The Salisbury Review (www.salisburyreview.com) for a further reflection on the case of Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce.

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