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Laurie Penny on the sex lives of powerful men

Our fascination with scandal and sleaze hides the seriousness of corruption and the ordinariness of infidelity, rape and abuse.

The virility of power is no longer in question. In the past month, the papers have been sodden with the sordid sex lives of wealthy, influential men. The former governor of California has been exposed as an adulterer. The former head of the IMF is awaiting trial, charged with the attempted rape of a Manhattan maid.

In Britain, in the superinjunction scandal, a top banker, a leading journalist, footballers and unnamed others have been accused of abusing laws designed to protect the innocent to cover up their extramarital affairs. It is almost a century since women in Europe and the US started to become major players in the world of business and politics but you wouldn't know it to look at the headlines.

In the past few weeks, women have featured almost nowhere in the political press except in the roles of wronged wife or brave victim. There is an ocean of difference between consensual infidelity and sexual assault. Men who cheat are a different species of scumbag from men who rape. Yet that difference has been elided by the schoolyard stereotype that violence, exploitation and lies are an inevitable part of the power rut of modern politics.

Squelchy details

This is not an innocent age. Western society has grown past the scandals of John Profumo, Bill Clinton and Silvio Berlusconi and we can no longer pretend to be shocked by the idea of philandering politicians.

Yet it is hard to decide who is most debased by this pageant of shame: is it the men in question; the press, whose obsession with sex has pushed a great deal of real news off the front pages; or the rest of us, for letting ourselves get sidetracked? People are outraged that public figures have appropriated British laws to hide their own misdemeanours, but our fascination with sleaze distracts us from the importance of this abuse of power.

The hypocrisy of this media circus is that it obscures both the seriousness of political corruption and the everyday nature of sexual infidelity, rape and abuse, none of which is the preserve of the rich and famous. The notion that wealth and status are special predictors of infidelity ignores the evidence that 45 per cent of wives and 60 per cent of husbands engage in extramarital sex at some point in their lives.

“Lawmaker infidelity", as one US news site termed the Arnold Schwarzenegger case, is no different from any other infidelity when it comes down to the squelchy details, though one might possibly anticipate a smarter hotel.

Many feminists have attempted to psychoanalyse the male abuse of women's trust as a disease of power. The cover of a recent issue of Time magazine demands to know why "powerful men act like pigs". This is the wrong question to ask, because it assumes that other men do not and does a disservice to the thousands of women who are raped every day by taxi drivers, office workers, family members and friends. Five per cent of women, according to the campaign group Rape Crisis, will experience rape in their lifetime. Some of their attackers may well be cartoon villains but most of them will not.

It is worth comparing the public condemnation of the disgraced former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, whose guilt is tacitly assumed by many, to the case of WikiLeaks's editor-in-chief, Julian Assange, who faces similar accusations in Sweden. Assange has been pre-emptively exonerated of any wrongdoing by the global left on the grounds that, as an outlaw pioneer of free speech, he cannot also be an abuser of women.

Strauss-Kahn, on the other hand, is a powerful player in a financial system whose exploitative practices are accepted. Sexual exploitation and political potency are assumed to be part of the same sweaty package. Both Assange and Strauss-Kahn deny the allegations against them.

There is a complicity to all this - the press loves to watch important men with their flies undone and gossip about how big and hard and naughty they are. Naughty they may be, but the potency of the individuals concerned is very much up for debate.

Ordinary idiots

The problem is not that we are getting screwed, but that we are getting screwed with blood­less inefficiency. The alleged philanderer Fred Goodwin's stewardship of the Royal Bank of Scotland was a misfire. During his time as chief executive, the bank nearly collapsed in a financial crisis that cost us billions. While Schwarzenegger was "Governator", the state of California plunged into an employment crisis; Strauss-Kahn, meanwhile, presided over the imposition of punishing austerity programmes in Greece, Ireland and Portugal, which have failed to rescue the eurozone.

We like to see this type of politician as dynamic, dangerous and in control. In reality, they embody a species of disaster capitalism that is paranoid and exploitative. The men in charge of banks and governments are ordinary idiots with ordinary fallibilities. They manipulate their playboy image to shore up their political power, sometimes with the support of their wives. During her husband's election campaign, Anne Sinclair was asked if she was bothered by Strauss-Kahn's sexual reputation. "I'm actually rather proud of it," she replied. "It's important for a politician to seduce."

Like Sinclair, many of us long for a politics of exciting mutual seduction. Instead, we find ourselves cruelly and ineptly shafted by plutocrats who abuse their privilege to cover their tracks. Jokes about the Chancellor, George Osborne, rogering the British economy and requesting a superinjunction are all very well, but if we want to live in a world where women are respected and workers are protected, it is not enough to point and laugh when power has its trousers down.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 30 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Hands up who knows how to fix our schools

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution