Driven by data; ridden with liberty.
When Ms Joan L B Edwards, a 90 year old former midwife, passed away, her unusual bequest became a political furore. The Electoral Commission published the latest political donors, with Ms Edwards being the second largest donor after the trade union Unite. Ms Edwards’ Last Will and Testament stated:
I bequeath all my estate both real and personal…for whichever Government is in office at the date of my death for the Government in their absolute discretion to use as they may think fit.
The Daily Mail sneered that “grasping politicians pocket spinster’s £500,000 legacy”, with the article making numerous insinuations:
Somewhere along the line, somebody decided what she meant by this was for her hard-earned cash to fund the Conservatives’ and the Lib Dems’ campaigns to win the next election.
It is asserted, but flatly denied, that Ms Edwards’ solicitors contacted the Office of the Attorney General, currently held by Conservative MP Dominic Grieve, who ruled that it was a ‘party political donation’.
The dynamo of sanctimony roared into life, with John Lister of NHS pressure group Health Emergency asking: “How far different is what they’ve done to stealing off an old lady?” Alex Andreou at the New Statesmen accused the government of “sleaze”. Polly Toynbee, El santurrón uno at The Guardian, attacked the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats for “filching” Ms Edwards’ estate.
Even at this stage, prior to the media statement from Ms Edwards’ solicitors Davis Wood, the main story rests uneasily. The estate’s distribution, including examination of the will’s intentions where ambiguity lies, is wholly the responsibility of the executors of the will. Potential beneficiaries are not involved. The Electoral Commission only requires political parties to check the donation’s eligibility; in this case, whether Ms Edwards was a British citizen.
Blaming the bequest’s recipients demonstrates a simple ignorance of how the execution of a will works. We haven’t yet succumbed to a legal system where a will’s beneficiaries are decided by a text vote on Sky News. Despite grimaced and gritted praise for the Daily Mail, a basic act of journalism would have been to ask the solicitors what the will’s intentions were. Whilst the will’s wording should have been made unambiguous, solicitors usually keep notes of conversations with their clients.
Finally, a statement from Davis Wood diffused the story and its main accusation:
At the time of the instructions received from the late Miss Edwards, the solicitors specifically checked with Miss Edwards about the unusual nature of her proposed bequest and it was confirmed by Miss Edwards at the time of her instructions that her estate was to be left to whichever political party formed the Government at the date of her death.
The Daily Mail continuing to ask “How many wills have political parties raided?” shows the primacy of perception over reality in politics. Despite the absence of evidence the political parties were involved in “stealing” or “grabbing” or “filching” Ms Edwards’ estate, the accusation haunted them, and they had to respond to that perception.