Something interesting is happening in the world of Canadian politics. “Oh, when is that not the case?” I hear you reply.
Pay attention. This isn't some trivial story about social inclusion or urban regeneration. As Tony Benn always says, we want to talk about the personalities, not the policies (unless I have that the wrong way round). And few personalities are quite so colourful as that bursting to escape Rob Ford's not inconsiderable circumference.
Like most people outside Canada, I had not heard of Ford until earlier this week. The mayor of Toronto has had a colourful time of it in recent years. On St Patrick's Day, 2012, he ended up wandering around City Hall at 2am, swilling brandy and swearing at the staff. As long ago as 2006, he was ejected from a Toronto Maple Leafs hockey game in a festive condition.
But the revelation that emerged this week confirmed Ford as the party politician who really likes to party.
For some time, rumours had circulated that the mayor had been filmed smoking crack cocaine. An apparently sincere Ford – who may genuinely have forgotten the incident happened – bullishly demanded that this so-called video be put before the reasonable burghers of Toronto. More denials followed.
Then, earlier this week, he eventually decided to come clean. “Yes, I have smoked crack cocaine,” he said. What came next counts as one of the most brazen quasi-apologies in political history. After rejecting the notion he might be an addict, he continued: “Have I tried it? Um, probably in one of my drunken stupors.”
You have to hear the throwaway intonation to appreciate the nuances here. “Sure, I smoked crack,” he didn’t exactly say. “But I was drunk at the time. So that doesn’t really count. Right?”
There are several interesting subtexts to the story. Aside from anything else, it seems so puzzlingly unCanadian. Depressingly, it does not surprise us when one of our own politicians gropes a female colleague during a parliamentary sitting. We half-expect TDs to smoke smuggled fags and drink undiluted lighter fuel. But Canada has always done a fine job of flogging itself as a quiet paradise of order and civility. It's not as if Rob Ford were mayor of Brisbane. Right?
Approval rating unscathed
More intriguing still is the level of support that Ford continues to attract. Unsurprisingly, a majority of those polled felt the mayor should resign. But his approval rating remained completely unscathed. Is this evidence of political sophistication? Is it really possible, when assessing politicians, to erect a psychological firewall between personal immorality and public service?
The issue of hypocrisy al- ways comes into such conversations. If a tribune of the “war on drugs” is caught hopped up on goofballs then he or she should make for the door.
The UK Conservative Party got itself into an awful muddle in the mid-1990s when John Major announced an intention to get "back to basics". Major (who famously had an affair with colleague Edwina Currie) always argued that the media was wrong to see this as a push for Victorian values. But that implication was allowed to percolate and, when numerous Tories were caught with pants round ankles, the cry of "hypocrisy" seemed valid.
There is also a question of degree. If mere misbehaviour escalates into genuine wickedness (don’t ask me to draw the line), the public can reasonably argue that the perpetrator should not make decisions ab- out how the rest of us behave.
However many years a person might serve for an axe murder, he or she should not expect to step back into the cabinet upon release. You could – to pluck another entirely hypothetical example from the ether – argue that any party leader implicated in the assassination of an innocent mother is not fit to serve in a modern democracy. Such things happen.
Let us leave aside the unconnected allegations gathering around Ford – whose centre-right politics I do not share – and focus on his drink 'n' drugs hell. All kinds of great men have misbehaved. While in office, Winston Churchill drank himself insensible most evenings (and mornings, for that matter). John F Kennedy seems to have enjoyed the company of women who were not his wife. Bill Clinton certainly strayed from the hearth. And just look at what a good job Boris Yeltsin did while tanked up to the gills on white spirit.
Okay, maybe that’s not such a good example. Notwithstanding Churchill’s formidable excesses, it is probably best not to booze while administering a city or country. It is certainly a good idea not to break any of the territory’s more serious laws. But the balanced response to Ford’s meltdown does speak of maturity in the Canadian people. That is what we’ve come to expect of them.