Are men too fragile for politics? As powerful chauvinists everywhere reverse out of public life to spend more time helping the police with their enquiries, we are being asked to remember that men are fundamentally weak, slaves to their baser impulses. If that’s so, why are they running the country? How else are we to interpret the frantic glossolalia of excuses garbling out of Westminster?
Former defence secretary Michael Fallon, who resigned after it was finally made clear to him that front-line politics is not a free pass to fondle any passing female journalist, claims that he is a victim of changing moral standards, that what was OK ten or 15 years ago is not all right today. No. It wasn’t OK 15 years ago. It has never been OK. The difference is that now there are consequences, and this is an important point. If your definition of what is morally acceptable begins and ends at what is likely to get you fired or thrown in jail, you have no business being intimate with another human being, let alone being a minister.
What should we call this tidal wave of “revelations” about what, it turns out, almost everyone already knew was going on, in Hollywood, in Westminster, in the White House, in the media – and almost nobody had the guts to challenge? It’s too big, too messy to be any sort of “gate” that can be shut against the stampede of women determined no longer to be silent. It’s not a scandal, because a scandal implies individual indiscretion, and this is about structural violence.
Some people are still calling it the “Harvey Weinstein thing”. This is worrying. I’ve heard that if you say “Harvey Weinstein” three times into a mirror, Harvey Weinstein himself jumps out in a bathrobe and says you’ll never work in this town again unless you watch him masturbate into a plant pot.
Others have gone for the “men will be men” argument, claiming that men cannot be expected to take responsibility for themselves, especially after a couple of tax-free brandies in the lobby bar. No. I’m sorry. Until such time as science identifies the gene for “total inability to take responsibility for one’s actions” and locates it on the Y chromosome, I am not going to accept that there is anything in the nature of men that obliges them to confuse sex and aggression. If there is, well, maybe we shouldn’t be electing them to high office.
This is not, in case I have to make it clear, just a Tory problem. Bloodless opportunists on every side of the ideological spectrum have attempted to use the snowballing sexual harassment allegations to play party politics, but it turns out that misogynist entitlement is a bipartisan pastime.
On the right and on the left, women who speak out about violence they have experienced are accused of letting the side down and giving the opposition ammunition, when it is rapists and sexual predators who have done that. It’s the abusers who have let their side down, let their ideals down and let themselves down.
The airwaves are whining with apologists claiming that rage-crazed harridans are trying to ban flirting, as if the difference between sex and sexual violence were not abundantly clear to anyone on the receiving end. The excuses continue: it’s just a little thing, something everyone does, like forgetting to floss, or stashing several million in an offshore bank account. It’s not technically against the law, so we’d be grateful if these witches would stop hunting us and let us get back to ruining the country.
Holding abusers to account is in no way a distraction from the democratic crisis. Crucially, the way that powerful men treat women around them is a strong predictor of the way they’ll behave towards the citizens whose interests they are supposed to represent.
Institutions close ranks to protect their most influential members from the consequences of sexual aggression just as they orchestrate a culture of impunity from exploitation at the corporate and judicial level. Look at how Appleby, one of the legal firms at the centre of the Paradise Papers scandal, justifies its clients’ greed. It claims allegations of wrongdoing and tax avoidance are “unfounded and based on a lack of understanding of the legitimate and lawful structures used in the offshore sector”.
The fact the offshore sector is operating legally, however, is entirely the problem. Appleby is paid handsomely to make sure its clients stash their billions just about within the boundaries of international law but that does not end the conversation, just as a lifetime of lunging at female colleagues is not an acceptable use of power whether or not it costs you your freedom.
Here’s the point. The way a great many political operatives have treated women is very much akin to how they treat the citizens whose interests they are meant to represent. It’s not about giving the people what they want, or even what they need. It’s about what they can get away with. It’s about bullying, cheating and exploiting any loophole they can find until they get what they want.
The common thread here is entitlement: powerful men who believe they are entitled to grab whatever they want, whether it’s cash, power or the conjugal attentions of the person sitting next to them, and to use as much force as they like as long as they don’t get caught. That does not meet the dictionary definition of democracy or, come to think of it, of human decency.
Yes, it is fair that powerful chauvinists everywhere are finally being held to account for treating women like garbage, but when it comes to lawmakers and activists, it is about more than fairness. If we cannot trust politicians to respect the consent of their colleagues, how on earth are we meant to trust them to respect the consent of the governed?
This article appears in the 08 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory sinking ship