The Mrs Robinson affair

Does the fixation with Iris Robinson's psychiatric state reveal social prejudices?

It's the kind of story that the tabloids pray for. The affair between Iris Robinson, MP and wife of Peter Robinson (the Northern Ireland Assembly leader), and the then 19-year-old Kirk McCambley has a strong cast of characters: the dying butcher, his strapping son, the powerful statesman and his wayward wife, all brought to their knees. Is it the drama and pathos of a Greek tragedy, or more Jackie Collins?

The temptation to stereotype is almost irresistible. Yet in doing so, society has exposed as much of its own prejudices as the private lives of the protagonists.

So what makes this "scandal" quite so scandalous? Is it the affair or the age difference?

The parallels between the seductive Anne Bancoft's filmic Mrs Robinson and her real-life counterpart are too obvious to avoid. Both are attractive, successful married women in their fifities embarking on illicit affairs with young men.

Yet while Bancroft's glamorous femme fatale character stalked the dreams of a generation of pubescent boys, Iris is all too painfully, embarrassingly, real. She is presented not as a glamorous adulterer, but as an unfaithful wife. Out of control, even deranged, she is in need of urgent psychiatric treatment, and certainly too ill to appear in public or talk to the press. We have had to latch on to her psychological condition in order to stay the shock, and this informs and conditions our understanding of her behaviour.

In a statement to the Today programme, a spokesperson for Peter Robinson announced that his wife was "receiving acute psychiatric treatment from the Belfast Health Trust", and that "the information was being made public following speculation about her health and whereabouts".

I do not doubt that Mrs Robinson has genuinely suffered from depression. What is striking is the centrality of her psychological state to the story. Galen, a prominent physician from the 2nd century, wrote that hysteria was a disease caused by sexual deprivation in particularly passionate women. This "illness" was given particular credence by the Victorians. Two hundred years later, are we subconsciously accusing Mrs Robinson of having the "wandering womb"?

Ugly as it is to admit, had the roles been reversed and a man of equivalent standing been caught playing away with a teenage nymphet, the affair would have been met quite differently. I don't doubt that there would be widespread moral disdain, but there would also be kudos. From Ronnie Wood to Tiger Woods, you do not have to look far for examples.

In this case, Mr Robinson has not emerged unscathed. He too is subject to trial by vox populi. Commenting on Radio 4, Robinson's predecessor, Lord Trimble, pronounced that the First Minister "would be gone in days because he has lost his authority". Faint shades of the Shakespearean cuckold, of the logic that a man who cannot control his household surely cannot be trusted to lead?

So who is the victim? The 19-year-old boy (now 21)? I think not. The cuckolded husband? Perhaps. As for Iris Robinson herself, it is difficult to sympathise with a woman who proudly states that homosexuality is worse than child abuse.

No. Sadly, in this instance, the victim may well be the fragile devolution that Northern Ireland has fought so hard to build.

 

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.