What’s happening in our nation’s parliament? If you ask some commentators, there’s a sexual harassment ‘scandal’ going. For others there’s a ‘witch-hunt’ against politicians. Neither is true. What is happening is women, some of whom have suffered some of the most horrific violations imaginable, are coming forward and talking about men’s behaviour in the corridors of power.
Scandals come and go. An affair here, a dodgy flat purchased there – scandals are moments in time. But what is happening is about much more than just isolated events. What is coming to light is a culture that allows abuse and protects abusers at the highest levels of power in this country and has done for decades. That’s not a scandal, it’s a call to arms.
Men who previously used their power over their subordinates to abuse and harass, who were protected by the weight of institutional authority and their informal networks now find themselves exposed. The people they have taken advantage of are speaking out. The rottenness of a system is being exposed.
There are those who, with a deaf ear to history, use the term witch-hunt to describe the bringing of these powerful men to account for their behaviour. They say that times have changed, sexual morality has moved on and it’s not fair to hold people to account for what at the time was considered acceptable behaviour.
That society was more willing to turn a blind eye in the past does not mean that what happened then is right. Using your power or authority to coerce someone into sexual acts has never been right. The distance of time does not make it so. The ridiculousness of the argument is made all the clearer when you think about the timescales involved. The Defence Secretary Michael Fallon resigned on Wednesday following widespread coverage of an incident with journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer in 2002. 2002 saw the launch of the Vauxhall Vectra and Radio 6 music, Girls Aloud were in the charts – it was not ancient Rome or Tudor Britain.
Fallon’s letter of resignation itself is an example of the blindness to the problem at the highest level. In it he attempts to undermine the severity of what is unfolding at Westminster by saying he has merely “fallen below the high standards that we require of the armed forces”. He does not apologise for anything or to anyone.
There are two problems with this.
First, this reference to the standards of the armed forces. It will elicit groans from anyone already sick of the ‘as a father/brother…” trope. Bringing up these outside factors when men ‘do the right thing’, whether it’s a family relationship or the conduct standards of our armed forces suggests without them the individual concerned would not have known better. It suggests the default male state is that of harasser, groper or worse, only be being a dad or a soldier can you know better. This not true and insulting to men.
Second, Fallon is resigning while refusing to acknowledge any specific incident he has been involved in never mind apologise to any potential victim. Aside from his vague statement about standards we do not know what he is resigning for. As Julia Hartley-Brewer herself said, she would be very surprised if it was about his hand on her knee. We are left to wonder what skeletons are in his closet while he is free to withdraw from the scrutiny of public life. The old way of simply falling on your sword and getting away with it is one of the factors that has allowed abuse to become part of the culture in Westminster. One does not throw one’s ministerial career away for nothing, we need an independent investigation into what has been going on.
Fallon was the first person to step down and today Kelvin Hopkins lost the Labour whip. There will likely to be more, but we must not get wrapped up in the individual cases. We must be aware that it would suit some in Westminster if this was just a scandal, just a moment in time, or a few bad apples. They are hoping that, as has happened before, this story will eventually go away. What we have to do is keep speaking out, not let them get away with it and keep pushing this to the top of the agenda. What’s happening in parliament might just be change.