Fallen from grace

ONE minute they appear to be the masters of the universe, the next they are cast into the shadows and spurned by their erstwhile friends.

From Deacon Brodie, the 18th-century anti-crime crusader who broke into Edinburgh houses in his spare time, to Henry McLeish, the Scots are past masters of the spectacular fall from grace.

If the true measure of a tragic hero is that he is the architect of his own downfall, then we, as a nation, are master builders. From politicians to athletes via the priesthood there has been a constantr stream of high prrofile Scots seemingly hell-nbent on ensuring their own destruction even as they tried to further their ambitions, satisfy their lust or cover up their inadequacies.

And those who offend our social mores must suffer the punishment, usually a roasting in the tabloid newspapers, the 21st century equivalent of a spell in the stocks, only less forgiving.

The culture of political resignations may have all but vanished, with few ministers now standing down because of sexual transgressions. However, our appetite for public humiliation remains undiminished. But what happens to the glittering icons once they have lost their sheen?

The most robust are able to ride the storm and, after a brief period in the wilderness, return, albeit suitably chastened, as key players in Scottish life.

Professor Ross Harper, whose motto is "the blow that doesn’t break you makes you", flourished despite being falsely accused of spanking a prostitute with a pair of slippers.

He was forced to resign as president of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Association, but he retained his position as senior partner in law firm Ross Harper & Murphy until his retirement last year, and continued as chairman of Mining Scotland.

Having won a libel case against the Sun, he went on to become president of the International Bar Association, and it was not long before he was welcomed back into the Conservative fold.

Harper retains a wry sense of humour about the whole affair that has helped him keep his equilibrium.

He is fond of regaling dinner parties with the story of how he was using his umbrella to hide from photographers, when he suddenly realised it had the name of his law firm, Ross Harper & Murphy, emblazoned across the front of it.

Ian Oliver, the former Chief Constable of Grampian Police, who resigned his post after it emerged he had been indulging in romantic trysts with the wife of a north-east businessman, went on to become a consultant to the United Nations Drugs Control Programme and to write a column for the Press and Journal. Defiant, even after an independent inquiry found his force had made monumental errors while investigating the murder of schoolboy Scott Simpson, Oliver only agreed to go after the then Scottish Secretary Donald Dewar took the unprecedented step of telling him to "pack his bags".

Others, however, sink without trace, unable to overcome the personal weaknesses that caused their downfall or to cope with their public shaming.

Where is Allan Stewart, Tory MP for Eastwood, who resigned his safe seat on the eve of the 1997 general election after wielding a pick axe handle at protesters demonstrating against the extension of the M77, and after having a relationship with married mother-of-four Catherine ‘Bunny’ Knight whom he met at a drying-out clinic?

He resurfaced a year ago, opposing the suggestion that Glasgow’s wealthy suburbs should be swallowed up by the city for council tax purposes, but his political career has long since been dead in the water and he now lives quietly with Ms Knight.

Or Willie Johnston, whose disgrace was horribly symptomatic of Scotland’s disastrous 1978 World Cup campaign, when he was sent home from Argentina after failing a drugs test? If a player from any country was going to fail a drugs test at that tournament then, by the way the Gods were chuckling at us already, it was bound to be a Scotsman.

Banned from playing for Scotland for life, Johnston now runs a pub in Fife.

Some people who overstep the mark do so through ambition: Writer James McKay, who won the Saltire Award for a biography of Robert Burns, for example, was accused of plagiarism as the pressure to churn out book after book took its toll; and Donald Dewar’s former chief of staff John Rafferty was sacked after some over-enthusisatic spinning on supposed anti-abortion death threats to Susan Deacon.

Others such as former First Minister Henry McLeish, to a certain extent, lose their reputations through their own sheer incompetence.

Dr Jim Baxter, a lecturer in psychology at Strathclyde University, argues that the archetypal fall from grace is that of the high-flier who knowingly jeopardises his achievements by engaging in risky behaviour. People such as Philip Chalmers, the special adviser to Donald Dewar caught over the drink-drive limit in a car with a prostitute, or Marti Pellow, who became addicted to heroin while at the height of his fame.

Baxter puts this kind of behaviour down to childhood pressures. "President Richard Nixon is the classic example of someone who suffers from an internal saboteur," he explains.

"This is something that comes about when the parents’ expectations and the child’s personality have been at odds.

"If the child is anxious and withdrawn but the parents are high achievers who cannot attune to his emotional needs then there will be problems. The child will not reject the parents because that is too dangerous, so he will reject himself and suffer low self-esteem.

"In later life, he will be highly driven, but at the same time will consider himself unworthy. So even as he is attaining goals, he will be sabotaging his own endeavours."

Psychology alone, however, cannot explain, why some people are destroyed by one minor misdemeanour, while others appear to be Teflon-coated.

It is clear that the way people react in the early stages of a breaking scandal will often mean the difference between saving face and losing all credibility.

Bishop Roddy Wright maintained the sympathy of many of his Argyll and the Isles flock when it first emerged he had fled the diocese with a divorcee. It was only the discovery, days after the initial story broke, that he had effectively washed his hands of an illegitimate 15-year-old son by another woman long before he became a Bishop, and that the Church had connived in keeping the child’s existence a secret, that put him beyond the pale.

Consider too the respective fates of Scotland’s two First Ministers: Henry McLeish and Jack McConnell, both of whom have faced uncomfortable scrutiny over incidents in their past.

McLeish’s political career went into freefall when it was revealed he had received thousands of pounds from renting out part of his constituency office in Glenrothes, Fife. It was money he was not entitled to, but he did not benefit personally since it was spent on office expenses. The whole affair was, he insisted, a "muddle rather than a fiddle". Yet seven months later, he was forced to resign.

In the intervening period, the First Minister had spurned a host of opportunities to set the record straight. Instead, he fudged every question and behaved in a less than transparent manner.

The crisis came to head during his cringeworthy performance on Question Time, when, twitching in the face of intense scrutiny, he claimed he did not know exactly how much money was involved.

McLeish’s refusal to confront the problem rather than the problem itself was what robbed him of his credibility and his position.

According to friends, he is now resolutely upbeat about the affair, believing his punishment far outweighed his crime. "Either he is a very shallow person or he has buried his self-loathing very deep," says one acquaintance. "It is only when it comes to his wife, Julie [a senior social work official with Fife Council], and how the whole thing has affected her, that he becomes upset and you can detect a sense of guilt."

In stark contrast, when Jack McConnell decided to stand as McLeish’s successor, he immediately called a press conference so he could publicly confess to an extra-marital affair seven years previously.

His wife Bridget at his side, he admitted he had let everyone down by his actions.

The effect of his mea culpa was to clear the air of innuendo and leave him free to take on the reins of power unencumbered by the prospect of this skeleton falling out of his closet.

Tackling scandal head-on, however, is not always the answer, as Cardinal Winning’s press secretary Fr Noel Barry found out to his cost.

He won substantial libel damages from the Sun after it implied he was having an affair with schoolteacher Annie Clinton. But, the original claims faded into insignificance when former nun Caroline Brown told the Court of Session Barry had taken her virginity in a Crest Hotel in Preston.

When a limerick allegedly penned by the parish priest was read out to all and sundry, his humiliation was complete.

At first Barry returned to his Milngavie parish, but soon the embarrassment proved too much of a burden. Suffering from "exhaustion", he moved to Ireland for two and a half years, returning to a new parish in nearby Lambhill in February.

When it comes to getting the public back on side after a serious faux pas, it is wise to appear suitably chastened.

Married Sir Michael Hirst was forced to quit as chairman of the Scottish Conservatives as a result of a past indiscretion (a homosexual dalliance), although he was as much the victim of political back-stabbing as of his own peccadillo.

Sir Michael’s letter of resignation, which read: "I very deeply regret these circumstances which have caused great distress to my family and which may, I fear, cause embarrassment to the Party in the current climate..." left the impression of an honourable man more sinned against than sinning.

But even apologies can be overdone. Few people can have indulged in such conspicuous hand-wringing as Donald Findlay, the mutton-chopped, bombastic QC and fervent Rangers fan.

The infamous video of the side-burned ‘blue nose’, his tie askew, slurring out ‘The Sash’ at a post-match celebration provoked uproarious laughter in households up and down the country.

But to Findlay, who was forced to resign as Rangers’ vice-chairman and then suffered further indignity when he became the first rector at St Andrews to be denied an honorary degree from the university, there was nothing even remotely funny about his predicament.

Instead of accepting his public flogging and moving on, Findlay drifted into despair. For months, you could hardly open a newspaper without reading how he was driven to the edge of suicide by the response to his sectarian singsong.

"The great love of my life was Rangers Football Club, and I had tainted that," he said. "The great achievement of my life was the six years I spent as rector of St Andrews. That meant so much. The office of queen’s counsel is something I have treasured. All were tainted by what I had done. That I found hard to bear. It was what I had done to the things I loved, not what was happening to me, which hurt. I felt I had betrayed the most important things in my life."

It was heart-rending stuff, although public sympathy was tempered slightly by the QC’s continuing success in the court room and the memory of how effectively the top QC can manipulate a jury in favour of those he is representing.

But whether they choose to brazen it out or humbly confess, sue for libel or live like a recluse, there is little the disgraced can do to stop the frisson of pleasure we feel at their discomfort.

After all, there’s nothing more satisfying to the Scottish psyche than the degradation of the great and the good, particularly when their rise has been accompanied by a large dose of pomposity.

Revelling in the bad behaviour of others makes us feel better about ourselves. So let’s charge our glasses once and for all to the parcel of rogues in our nation. The Germans might have the word for it - schadenfreude - but the Scots mastered this particular game long ago.