Rod Liddle and friends, a word in your ear about harassment

There's a difference between flirting over the photocopier and being a groper. So even if you think you're Don Draper, you might be Uncle Monty.

Gentlemen, a word in your ear please. As you all know, some of the chaps have been getting into a bit of bother of late, with all sorts of unfortunate allegations, sordid photos and lurid headlines on the front pages. Well, let me offer a bit of advice.

We all know what the newspapers are like. There we are, doing our jobs, working hard from morning till lunchtime running the country and protecting the mortal souls of the nation, and in they saunter, joking about their column inches and hinting that if we play our cards right, they could give our careers just the boost we need. Don’t fall for it. They’re not really interested in our talent, potential or future career, forgive my frankness but, they’re really just hoping for a chance to screw us. One minute you’ll be at a daily photo-call, cool and professional, the next moment you’ll be getting chased up the stairs by a paparazzo with a fully extended telephoto lens.  If you’re going into politics, it’s a very tough world, and if you want to survive the attentions of the press, you might find you need to toughen up a bit, play the game, if you get my meaning. Relax, try to enjoy it, it happens to everyone.

Steady on, I hear you say, perhaps these chaps have done nothing to invite the hot, heavy breath of a tabloid hack on their necks? What if their behaviour was entirely innocent? Won’t this type of unwelcome and unfair harassment put talented men off the notion of public service, to everyone’s detriment? Maybe advising people to toughen up isn’t quite enough, so let’s consider an alternative approach. 

Take a look at your employment contracts, chaps. You see that passage in the ‘benefits’ section, just between the pension plan and the holiday allowance? The bit saying you are entitled to squeeze every potential opportunity and sexual thrill out of any passing young colleague who takes your fancy? No? Perhaps that might be because it is not bloody there.

It’s all very well for the likes of Rod Liddle to declare breezily that all this is no big deal, that the work place has now become the venue within which we meet our sexual mates, because he sits on a moral high ground to which the rest of us can only aspire. It’s not as if he famously left his wife and two children for a 22-year-old receptionist from work or anything, is it? Is it? Oh.    

Rod Liddle.

Yes, people often form relationships through work, but there’s a big difference between inviting someone out for a meal or succumbing to some mutual flirting across the photocopier, and exploiting your power and position in such a way that the target of your attention feels degraded, intimidated and unsafe. Just for a moment, stop imagining yourself as Don Draper in Mad Men, all suave, sexy allure, wearing your dominant position like an aphrodisiac cologne. 

Chances are you’re not Don Draper, you’re Uncle Monty. Remember that scene in Withnail and I when Paul McGann’s character is being chased around an isolated cottage by a randy old goat, bursting with sweaty, menacing, terrifying lust and refusing to take no for an answer? That is much closer to the reality of sexual harassment for most of those who experience it. Now imagine being told that you might have to expect this to happen any day in the office, throughout your career, and that you should toughen up and get used to it. It is more easily said than done.

Finally chaps, since it is just us here together, one final chat about tactics. You know how we’ve been spinning the line about how men can’t help ourselves? That when the blood rushes to our loins it drains from our brains, rendering us incapable of behaving in a vaguely grown-up way? I know, I know, it is hilarious that we managed to pull that one off for so many centuries, but the bad news is I think they’re on to us. Seems women have noticed that there are lots of men, indeed a large majority, who are quite capable of going through life without sexually assaulting and sexually harassing their colleagues, who can treat women generally as equal human beings, which has rather blown the lid on the racket for the rest of us.

So, chaps, if we can’t just toughen up and ignore this, if we can’t dismiss it as trivial or excuse it as inevitable, what is there left to do? Perhaps there is only one way to stop such unpleasant media attention in the future. Those few of us who behave like the feral tom cats who got at the Viagra might just have to start acting like decent, self-aware human beings instead. The rest of us could stop excusing them, indulging them and covering for them. In one sense, those who say sexual harassment is no big deal have a point. It is not necessary, it is not inevitable, it is not the glue which holds the universe together, we could stop it in a second if we decided, collectively, to do so. Perhaps that time has finally come. 

Not Rod Liddle.
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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle