Mark Oaten on the scandal that ended his political career

Today’s Independent carries an extensive excerpt from Lib Dem MP Mark Oaten’s soon-to-be-published autobiographical book, Screwing Up, published next week – you can order it from Amazon using this link (and earn the party some commission). Here’s the book blurb:

Mark Oaten is a politician of nearly 13 years standing, having famously won the seat of Winchester in 1997 with a majority of only two, though a by-election later returned him with a majority of 20,000. More famously, he hit the headlines in January 2006 when, shortly after announcing his withdrawal from the race to succeed Charles Kennedy as leader of the Lib Dems, Oaten was caught up in the biggest political scandal of the year as the News of the World published the story of his relations with a rent boy. His world collapsed. This is the story of a man obsessed by retaining his youth, fearful of turning 40 and feeling a complete failure. It s the story of coping with media scandal, and of how he and his wife Belinda managed to save their marriage, as well as his own recent decision to leave politics for the unknown. Whilst offering a fascinating insight into the working life of a constituency MP, Screwing Up is not a political memoir but the deeply touching and human story of a man at his wits end, trying to cope with the onset of middle age.

And here’s an excerpt from the excerpt:

… the real question about all of this is not what I did but why. I wish there was a simple answer. My sexuality had never been something I ever had reason to question. As a teenager I was as keen as all my mates to get a girlfriend and quickly had a string of relationships. By the time I married Belinda in 1992 I had fallen head over heels in love with her and our relationship was wonderful.

So how did the need to experiment with my sexuality start? In months of counselling after the affair became public I spent hours going through the reasons. I think there are a number of complex factors at work. Seeing this 23-year-old man was obviously an enormous personal risk. I used my own phone to call him and made no attempt to hide the number. I turned up in my work clothes, on one occasion direct from a television studio.

Yet I had no real concept of the risk I was taking. I didn’t think for a moment that he would have a clue who I was. I just assumed that he was unlikely to watch Newsnight and that I wasn’t a well-known public figure. (If I’d been thinking rationally I would have realised that by 2004 my face was in the national news most weeks.) …

I don’t think that many people can be 100 per cent gay or 100 per cent heterosexual. I am certainly not, and at times in their lives some people experiment along the spectrum. … Does that mean I am gay? No, but I completely at ease with those that are. … There is something interesting about the world they live in: it feels very free, without responsibility. Perhaps above all – and here lies a big clue in my case – there is a youthfulness about it. It is in total contrast to the life of the fortysomething Hampshire dad, married with two children, who is getting fat and losing his looks. I think I am driven by an attempt to escape middle age and recapture my youth.

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30 Comments

  • Oh God, does he really have to remind us of this? Still, at least he left out the “messy” details.

  • Tony Greaves 15th Sep '09 - 8:32pm

    Why the hell doesn’t Oaten just shut up and keep quiet.

    Tony Greaves

  • Gay Lib Dem 15th Sep '09 - 8:50pm

    Next time I see Mark Oaten remind me to smack him in the face. Being gay, I will be ‘free of responsibility’ for my actions.

  • Liberal Neil 15th Sep '09 - 9:01pm

    I don’t think Tony was objecting to Mark’s sexuality but to his insistence on stringing out his story apparently regardless of the damage it will do to the rest of us in the party and the Lib Dems in Winchester in particular.

  • ‘Oh God, does he really have to remind us of this?’

    Yes,I can still remember the TV pictures during the leadership camapign of him playing happy familes around the kitchen table.

    I guess he’s just trying to make a fast buck before he joins the dole queue,his taste in extreme sports somehat limits his career opportunities.

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Sep '09 - 12:01pm

    I suspect there is something in the idea that “gay” and “straight” are social constructs, if the position is pushed that a person is either one or the other, the result will be they suppress any feelings one way in order to make themselves exclusively the other. These things are difficult to talk about, because questioning the social construct “gay” can be used to push conservative attitudes to sexuality. It would be interesting if Oaten had something serious to say on this, but I doubt it. Somehow what he’s saying all seems very formulaic, maybe the “months of counselling” is a clue – it seems to me to be a whole lot of counsellors clichés.

    Oaten has always come across as an incredibly narcissistic person, saying whatever he thinks would make him look good or what is expected rather than what he really feels. Actually, he gives the impression that what he really feels is whatever makes him look good or is expected, there isn’t anything else underneath. There are too many such people in politics, I have complained many times about the whole system by which people are promoted and selected as MPs in our party being flawed because it tends to push forward that type. Oaten really has to serve as a warning to beware of them, and to spot the clues when they are before us in selections and the like.

    But I guess the guy has to make a living, his story is interesting enough to make a few sales, and pushing the book right now will be the best way for him to make sure people hear about it. So, like Tony I wish he’d shut up, but I can understand why he won’t.

  • You would think that, if he cares about his successor, his constituents and his party, he’d shut up about this at least until the election. But there’s probably an element of pressure from his publisher to get the book out when it can make headlines, so I can understand why he’s doing it now – I just wish he wouldn’t.

  • David Allen 16th Sep '09 - 1:36pm

    If it had been a female prostitute, it wouldn’t have caused anything like the same degree of scandal, would it?

    Who says we moderns have now got over all those old-fashioned hang-ups about gays and straights?

  • Totally agree with David Allen. As a gay man, I think there is still a huge amount of hidden homophobia in the way that gay men in politics are criticised and hounded for matters that would have been let drop for straight politicians. Just as I feel there is still a lot of thinly-masked misogyny towards female politicians. How much have we really moved on in these past few years? However, that is not to deny Oaten comes across as a self-obsessed opportunist….

  • I disagree – it wasn’t the gender but rather some of the practices (that can be “performed” by either gender) that caused “raised eyebrows”

  • Anyone who has had an ounce of experience of the publishing industry would realise that Oaten would have been largely powerless to the exact timing of the publication of his memoirs. It would have been a case of publishing them now or not at all.

    I think that Oaten has suffered enough. Yes he screwed up, not only for his party but more importantly to his family. One with a rational mind would find it hard to justify what he did but we are all entitled to acts of irrationality within reason and it is really of no business for us to try to understand the reasons why. It seems unfair to continue to vilify him and we should instead let him get on with the rest of his life and hope that he enjoys it.

  • “Anyone who has had an ounce of experience of the publishing industry would realise that Oaten would have been largely powerless to the exact timing of the publication of his memoirs.”

    That’s pretty much c**p. If he NOW has no control it’s because he agreed that publication would be at a time decided by the publishers (probably as you say common practice but not something he has to agree to).

    If they weren’t written then publishing them would be damn near impossible.

  • As I said, it is a case of having them published now or not at all. The man is entitled to write his side of the story and if it by putting it into the public domain helps him feel better about his experience and eases the pain of his ordeal then it would be churlish to resent the man for wanting to do that. Considering that the majority of party, presumably out of embarasment rather than bigotry, were quick to condemn Oaten and believe Max Clifford style innuendo at the time of the scandal, it is hardly surprising that the fortunes of the party he is leaving behind are not foremost amongst his priorities at this present time.

    It is no business for us to try to understand the reasons why he did what he did and by publishing his memoirs does not change that. I don’t think understanding is what Oaten is seeking, just the opportunity to put his side of the story across amongst the web of vitriol and hate that has been considered the truth up until now.

  • ‘I don’t think understanding is what Oaten is seeking, just the opportunity to put his side of the story across amongst the web of vitriol and hate that has been considered the truth up until now’

    So nothing to do with filling his pockets?

  • The man writes books on the episode, he goes on TV to discuss it – so what, it is still none of our business to understand why he did it no matter how much he shoves it in our faces. It is “understanding” what I am refering to and a lot of peoples problems with this episode come from the fact that the feel they have to try to understand why he stood for high office whilst having such a huge clunking skeleton in his cupboard. All I am saying is that we have no right to have to try to understand why he did what he did, and even less of a right to criticise whatever justification he does give. What he did is a fact and if he feels that he can cope better and try to settle the score by broacasting it to the nation in whatever medium he chooses then so be it and let him get on with it – we are supposed to be a liberal party afterall!!!

  • Oaten’s book is self-indulgent, self-serving, self-aggrandising drivel. Is there nothing to which this tiresome man won’t stoop to get his fix of public attention? Oaten is disgusting for three reasons: (1) he pushed his children in front of the cameras to advance his political career, (2) he has exhibited an enthusiastic willingness to talk about his private life in public, and (3) he has put his own pocket and ego fixation above the interests of his party (without which no-one would ever have heard of him in the first place). Mrs Oaten is little better, I’m sorry to say, and I think the two of them deserve each other. What comes next? “Mark Oaten – the Opera”? Oh, come on, he’s just got to set his life to music! Or what about the “Mark Oaten Theme Park”? First turning after Alton. Just the place to take the kids on a rainy Sunday. The man’s talent for making an ass of himself in public and in so doing damaging the party is unsurpassed. Truly unsurpassed.

    I really am sorry for Martin Tod and his team who have worked so hard to rebuild the fortunes of the Winchester local party. How must they feel to see their efforts undermined by this self-centred, narcissistic freakshow of a man?

    As for the media “therapist”, Mr Philip Hodson, I remember him on the box many years ago talking about couples living together (in the days when cohabitation outside marriage was quite rare). I cannot recall what he said to camera, but what I do recollect is Hodson and his ladyfriend cuddling naked in front of millions of viewers. The guy is a pseud of the highest order. Just like Oaten.

  • A “little bit strange”, Irfan? If I remember correctly, research suggests that there are at least as many bisexual people as gays or lesbians – we’re just less likely to be “out” due to pressures from both the gay and straight communities.

    I think that those attacking Mark Oaten need to make sure that they’re doing so for the right reasons – the betrayal of trust to his wife (assuming there was one), the damage of the publishing date to the party, and so on. If we’re going to have a go at him over his sexuality, or over what consenting adults get up to in private, then we don’t deserve to be called liberals.

    As an executive member of DELGA and supporter of CAAN, I’m interested in what we can learn from Mark’s case about compassion, tolerance and liberty.

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