IT IS surely unarguable that the outcome of the 1997 election was profoundly affected by the orchestrated allegations of ‘sleaze’ against Conservative MPs. By far the most heavily publicised such case concerned allegations against Neil Hamilton, MP for Tatton, Cheshire.
It should go without saying that it is imperative that any such allegations were based on irrefutable evidence. For most people, who have neither the time nor inclination to take in the ins and outs of such a matter, the ‘verdict’ of 3 July 1997 by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards on the Hamilton case was conclusive. There was, to use the words of Sir Gordon Downey, ‘compelling evidence’ against Hamilton.
But for one man and one book, that would probably have been that. The man is Jonathan Hunt and the book is Trial by Conspiracy. It is a devastating criticism of the roles of Mohammed Fayed and The Guardian newspaper, in destroying Hamilton’s career and influencing the 1997 general election. Justice all too often hangs by a thread. Whether this thread snaps or spins into a hawser depends on whether enough people value justice, decency and fair play, which the British people purport to hold so dear.
It is the duty of the constituents of Martin Bell, the new MP for Tatton, to conform whether their massive acceptance of allegations against their former member, Neil Hamilton, were or were not justified. It is the duty of Hamilton’s former colleagues in government and his fellow MPs, of whatever party, to satisfy themselves that Downey’s ‘compelling evidence’, and the method by which his verdict was reached, were in fact sustainable.
The discharging of this duty has only been made practicable by the self-sacrificial work of the journalist Jonathan Hunt. One gets the impression that he is, or was, a mildly left-leaning man. He certainly displayed an astounding instinct for investigation and a profound belief in the necessity to support truth and justice, whatever the odds. This reviewer would unhesitatingly say that his book has a resonance Emile Zola’s J’Accuse, which espoused the case of the falsely accused French officer Dreyfus (1859-1935). Dreyfus was transported to Devil’s Island after being falsely accused of delivering defence secrets to the Germans. Because of the vigour of the anti-Semites (Dreyfus was Jewish) and militarists throughout France, it took 13 years to establish his innocence. Zola escaped to England.
If the Guardian and Fayed will be branded as conspiring to pervert the course of justice, and how long it will take, will depend on the Law Lords’ support or rejection of the latter on 6/7 October . If they turn down Mr Fayed, the case is due to start on 15 November. The legal costs involved in taking on any man with a bottomless purse are dauntingly enormous. It would be the ultimate irony if a case which so influenced our democracy were to collapse before Hamilton’s fighting fund was exhausted - as is intended - before Mr Fayed is called to the witness stand.
(Norris McWhirter, together with Lord Harris of High Cross, founded Neil Hamilton’s legal fighting fund.)