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21 June 2016

The culture that enabled Clement Freud’s abuse is not yet defeated

As a young Liberal activist, I learned that consent meant little to many powerful men. We are improving, but there is still far to go.   

By jane Fae

No one in the Liberal Party had the slightest idea, until allegations became public last week, that Clement Freud might have “used [his] status, celebrity and power, to abuse and to rape”.

The party was “never aware of what happened”. Because of course, the Liberal Democrats are an entirely different party from the Liberals. On 3 March 1988, the Lib Dems sprang into being, and every single member instantly forgot everything that went before.

Oh, please! This is not only ridiculous, but deeply insulting to those coming forward with allegations about Freud now.

I was a party activist in the 1980s: a Young Liberal, agent, and parliamentary candidate. I cut my journalistic teeth as a reporter on Liberal News, and was an occasional gopher for the party higher-ups. Including Clement Freud.

I wasn’t the most connected nor the most informed, but I – even I – knew he was dodgy. Party gossip was one clue. Important people got talked about: we knew that David Steel was a hard and effective political operator, no matter how Spitting Image portrayed him. We knew that another well-respected parliamentarian had alcohol issues.

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And Freud: well, wherever two or more activists were gathered together, talk shifted inevitably to tales of his sexual misbehaviour. Back then, of course, it was framed in the nudge-nudge wink-wink jokey style which said, “we may not entirely approve, but it’s all good fun and consensual, so no harm done”.

Had he really almost missed a vote because he was in his Commons office engaged in hanky-panky with an air hostess? Who knew? But it was believable of Freud, in a way it was not of his contemporaries.

But there was more, not all quite so public, rather less music hall. On one occasion I was co-opted into helping Freud keep a rendez-vous with a woman – not his wife – away from media and party activists. Consensual. But shitty.

There were the stories I had first hand from women in his office, of goatish groping. Of how he would “try it on”, as reflex.

One told me of the time he invited her away to a country house party – only for her to arrive and find the house deserted. She locked herself in her room, left the next morning. Once again, “no harm done”, but clearly the line between consent and abuse was eroding. Or as we learn now, had probably eroded long before.

Still we hear the refrain: “things were different then”. “We should not condemn Freud for being a man of his time.” But that misses the point entirely.

Times were indeed different: yet not quite in the way today’s apologists ask us to endorse. It was as wrong then for a grown man to rape a teenager or abuse a ten-year-old as it is now. What was different – we were all children of the fucking for freedom 60s – was the extent to which “free love”, for which read unbounded sexuality, dominated popular culture.

Especially within the Liberal Party, which had always been easier with sexual diversity than the stuffier Conservatives or more strait-laced Labour Party. That is a difficult sentence for me to write, because I am broadly in favour of sexual diversity: I celebrate the fact that the Liberals endorsed gay rights long before other mainstream parties.

On the other hand, looking back now, I am all too aware that rights and freedoms were the rage, but discussion of power and consent was mostly absent.

That takes me back again to personal experience: the culture of denial, of tacit encouragement that allowed the likes of Freud to flourish.

Not that long ago, I was on the receiving end of sexual harassment. I reported the incident to the police – and was quietly amused at the way one local hate crime officer took me aside and “learned me”. I knew what had happened was wrong. But I middle-aged, sophisticated I – still lacked the skills, the techniques, the basic confidence to stop the harassment in its tracks.

I will deal with harassment, in future, in a way that I never did before.

But then?

At 20, I was shy, gawky, polite. Pretty, too, though I did not know it: mostly grateful to anyone who would tolerate spending time with me. Serial monogamy was punctuated with long periods of celibacy: not an issue, but that underlines how naïve I was when I first tangled with the Liberal Party.

Easy prey. I was targeted, more than once, by older, experienced women, who deemed it appropriate to come back to my room at party conference and refuse to leave.

How could I possibly object? I should have been flattered: excited, even: because who in their right mind would turn down free sex?

I was a target, too, in those pre-transition days, for older men: the council candidate who invited me to stay over – then got into bed with me after lights out. The academic who cornered me in a club, started to undo my shirt, laughed at my no.

In the end I survived the most dangerous situations by the simple expedient of folding my arms, curling in on myself and refusing to engage. Looking back now I see what I did not see then. Denial culture was part of it. The humour, the jokiness, the insistence that it was “just good fun”: that was enabling abusers.

Meanwhile, the touching, the groping was wrong, embarrassing, upsetting – and yet, I lacked the tools to deal with it.

The constant narrative came through: you can always say no. Except I had to keep saying no, over and over: and somewhere deeply engraved, I knew that “making a fuss” was itself the ultimate wrong.

Which brings me full circle to today and my helpful hate crime officer. It is ludicrous that I could reach middle age before anyone took me aside and gave me the most basic of lessons in negotiating consent. But back then, we didn’t teach such things.

Even today, with sex education optional for schools, and topics such as consent and negotiation only imperfectly taught, we are failing. It is just we are not failing quite so badly as we did back then, and so we judge that we are doing better.

Perhaps we are. But we have to do better still.