AT THE the turn of the last decade, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg was the coming man – German Defence minister, Focus magazine’s ‘Man of the Year’ for 2010 and Angela Merkel’s heir apparent.
But Karl-Theodor had a dirty secret. He had not, as usually happens with his British equivalents, been playing hide the bratwurst with the wrong person. No, he had plagiarised part of his doctoral thesis, an offence just as bad in Germany’s credential-obsessed society. He was forced to resign as a minister and MP, had his doctorate revoked and avoided prosecution only by giving €20,000 to a charity. All for borrowing passages throughout his thesis without citation and attempting to conceal their origin.
Karl-Theodor was not alone. In the following decade, seven German politicians lost their doctorates for plagiarism and it became the single leading cause of resignation from Frau Merkel’s cabinets. It is something Germany takes very seriously.
Far be it from me to suggest that we become more German (my interactions with that state lead me to the suspicion that Teutonic efficiency is deployed only in promoting the myth of Teutonic efficiency), but it marks an interesting contrast with Blighty.
For, as you have no doubt seen, Rachel Reeves, the shadow Chancellor, has been caught ‘doing a Guttenberg’. The Financial Times spotted more than 20 examples of apparent plagiarism in her new book, The Women Who Made Modern Economics (which sounds like the ideal Christmas gift for someone you really don’t like).
In contrast to her German counterparts, Ms Reeves remains in office. ‘I should have done better,’ she told the BBC. ‘I take responsibility for everything that is in that book.’ Unfortunately, she prefaced that comment with ‘obviously, I had research assistants on the book’, suggesting that while she might accept responsibility, she is happy to shift blame. Still, at least she was contrite.
Or was she? ‘If I’m guilty of copying and pasting some facts about some amazing women [remember, she doesn’t think she is, she’s already blamed her assistants for that, she just didn’t supervise them properly] and turning it into a book that gets read, then I’m really proud of that‘. Which sounds rather like ‘the ends justify the means’.
Ms Reeves appears to have discovered the first known instance of Schrodinger’s Plagiarism: simultaneously she ‘should have done better’ and is ‘really proud of that’.
It is hard to imagine Ms Reeves taking the same approach if the author of the offending work was surnamed ‘Johnson’. She would doubtless see any episodes of plagiarism as evidence of a deep malformation of character which rendered the perpetrator unfit for office. Nor is it easy to imagine Sir Keir Starmer staying silent if his former opponent had been caught making ‘inadvertent mistakes’. After all, which of us thinks that attention to detail is an important characteristic in a potential Chancellor?
It rather appears that the severity of the crime depends on the individual who has committed it. Nor is it the first time Ms Reeves has taken this approach. She supported Tom Watson’s ennoblement on the grounds that she has ‘a lot of time for him’ and he made ‘contributions’ to Parliament. Yes, he was wrong on the Carl Beech case, but that didn’t matter because of his ‘contributions’ (not that she cared to say what they were). Not everyone agreed. Lord Lamont thought the appointment of a man who promoted false allegations of paedophilia a ‘stain’ and ‘an absolute disgrace’, no matter his ‘contributions’. The former Tory Chancellor, however, could be ignored: ‘I’m not going to take any lessons now from Lord Lamont – the man who previously crashed our economy.’ Non Sequiturs Hall of Fame, meet your newest member.
Adjusting one’s position on the morality of an action depending on the actor does not, of course, make one a moral person. It makes one a partisan. ‘It’s all right when we do it’ is not an ethical principle, it is a tribal slogan. Those who behave in that way, and hold themselves out as figures of outstanding rectitude, are either deceiving themselves or trying to deceive others.
That Ms Reeves is embarrassed is understandable. No one likes to be caught out. And, at one level, the circumstances behind the production of a book which will, in all likelihood, be cluttering the charity shops by Christmas are of little import. But at another level, it is informative. As Muhammad Ali said, if someone isn’t nice to a waiter, they won’t be nice to you if they see you as being of that level.
C S Lewis preferred the rule of ‘robber barons’ to that of ‘omnipotent moral busybodies’ because the latter will ‘torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience’. As we have seen, Ms Reeves finds it easy to justify her poor behaviour as she sees it in the service of a higher, nobler aim. Not regretting her actions, but revelling in them. She appears to apply different standards depending on her view of an individual’s political leanings. Nor does she appear to understand that people may reasonably disagree with her, preferring to write off the arguer than deal with the argument. Is that the sort of person we want as Chancellor?
By their deeds shall ye know them.
This article appeared in Country Squire Magazine on October 30, 2023, and is republished by kind permission.