Inside Story

From cascade to citadel

How the post-Weinstein furore shook British politics

David Hayes 6 December 2017 2676 words

Right place, right time? British prime minister Theresa May. Andy Rain/EPA

Since the New York Times reported allegations of sexual assault against the film mogul Harvey Weinstein, women everywhere — initially in the cultural industries and media, then in education and politics — have been emboldened to recount their own exposure to predatory behaviour from power-holding men.

In this new catharsis over power and sex there was an echo of the Julia Gillard misogyny speech that raced around the world. Once more the engine is a tech-facilitated viral cascade, and the fuel is women’s agency. The Financial Times’s Gillian Tett adds Trump to its triggers and hints that business might be the next bastion. The Weinstein revelations evidently unlocked some blend of fury, memory, solidarity and responsibility in many women. Past and present were coming together to make a claim on the future. Could this moment become a watershed?

In Britain, as elsewhere, film insiders’ testimony opened a gap for others to leap through. Some spoke anonymously or referred to incidents years before. But the outpouring of voices bypassed domestic politics. Early efforts to join the uproar, such as a demand to revoke Weinstein’s CBE, an official honour, looked trivial against the raw daily reports of abuse and humiliation emerging from other sectors of society. There seemed a risk that Britain’s governing class might escape the ignominy of some VIPs in cinema and theatre.

There was a certain logic in the fears. So much was already not happening: a Brexit morass, a clogged parliament, inert opinion polls. The party conferences had just climaxed in Theresa May’s farcical speech to the Conservative faithful, whose highlights were a rasping cough, a wobbly stage set and a stuntman’s delivery of a P45 (job-leaving notice). It gave credence to a view formed by her disastrous election campaign: that the prime minister had lost authority, and was now — a famous remark about a Tory predecessor — “in office, but not in power.”

This febrile stasis was also producing more outrage — British politics’ daily currency — than could reasonably be consumed. Perhaps it would shelter the elect from the tumult outside the gates? In the event, no. Although it took more than three weeks to breach them, the delayed impact was no less of a hurricane. Over a few frenetic days, parties were shamed, parliament embroiled, the defence minister felled. And the latest file marked urgent was tossed into Theresa May’s inbox.

On this matter close to her heart, May was uncommonly decisive. She also benefited from a broad political consensus. All parties represented in parliament convened in Downing Street on 6 November and agreed to establish an independent grievance and adjudication system. A month later, there is a glimmer of serious procedural reform at Westminster. So maladroit for so long, May might this time prove to have been the right prime minister at the right time.

For their part, Conservative and Labour central offices were accused of neglect and failures of care. The parties’ federative nature operated as both constraint on power and pretext for inaction. Each promised to examine newly opened cases and tighten existing policy on members’ conduct. At an emergency meeting of the party’s executive on 31 October, Labour appointed a “specialist panel to review complaints.” Four days later, after input from legal and HR experts, the Tories announced a mandatory new code of conduct for all their elected officials.

Authorities in both chambers of parliament began with strong statements of principle and followed up with blander endorsement of the outline scheme. The House of Commons Commission acknowledged “the various overlapping policies and practices dealing with harassment and bullying as it affects the House service” and agreed to “streamline” these, while a House of Lords Commission meeting on 6 November discussed and “took note” of the process under way.

The first political impact of the post-Weinstein ferment came as a direct hit on the Palace of Westminster. It had dug from the dross of the age: years-old sexist and racist messages sent in 2002–04 by Jared O’Mara, a Labour MP elected in June. So far, so familiar: relentless hate-filled cyber-attacks on female MPs and journalists had been a live issue since 2015, producing a flurry of reports but little by way of restraining action. O’Mara resigned his membership of the House of Commons women and equalities committee on the same day, 23 October, before news of recent comments led to his suspension from the party.

Then a spreadsheet containing “sex pest” hearsay on thirty-six colleagues (“handsy in taxis” and the like) was leaked from a WhatsApp group of Tory whips. Some stood up. Mark Garnier, a trade minister, admitted to telling his assistant Caroline Edmondson to buy two vibrators while he waited outside a Soho sex shop. Stephen Crabb, a former minister, confessed to sexting a job interviewee, a nineteen-year-old woman. Charlie Elphicke, an MP, was suspended and referred to the police over “serious allegations.” Damian Green, the PM’s deputy and confidante, was accused by a journalist, Kate Maltby, of sexual advances, and reminded of a dormant claim of having pornography on his Commons computer, allegedly found in 2008 during a controversial raid by police investigating an unrelated leak.

On 28 October, Theresa May asked the Commons speaker, John Bercow, to initiate a binding code of conduct for MPs. Women in politics at other levels — councillors, constituency workers, members and activists — seized the opportunity to speak out about their mistreatment. Many recollections, often reported only locally, were of groping, squeezing, insinuating remarks, and explicit images or requests, resulting in distress and humiliation. Power was a pervasive factor. Lacking it and being abused by it was bad enough. But frequently there was the sense too of facing it once more when reporting a violation, and of having nowhere to turn.

Bex Bailey’s is the gravest experience. A nineteen-year-old Labour organiser in 2011 who was raped by a party functionary, she was fobbed off when reporting the attack internally two years later. The party has now appointed Karon Monaghan, a senior lawyer and employment specialist, to investigate and recommend improved procedures for dealing with complaints.

Early November brought a surge. A male Tory whip, Christopher Pincher, resigned after complaints of sexual advances by two younger men, party activist Alex Story and former Labour MP Tom Blenkinsop. Elsewhere the common factor tended to be a senior male and younger, professionally less secure female. Kelvin Hopkins, a Labour MP in his mid-seventies, was suspended on 3 November after revelations of lewd text messages sent in 2015 to Ava Etemadzadeh, a twenty-three-year-old activist, and of unwanted amorous notes over twenty years to fellow Labour MP Kerry McCarthy. Another Labour MP already under investigation, Ivan Lewis, was suspended on 23 November after being reported for touching the leg of a nineteen-year-old woman, and inviting her to his house, at a Labour event.

The defence secretary Michael Fallon’s exit on 1 November began with a more-in-amusement-than-anger recollection by radio host Julia Hartley-Brewer. He had placed a hand on her knee at a dinner in 2002. He resigned after hearing that another incident from the same period was about to be revealed. Jane Merrick, in 2003 a twenty-nine-year-old reporter with the Daily Mail, outed Fallon as the MP who had lunged at and kissed her on the mouth while they returned from lunch to the House of Commons. “I am taking back control,” said Merrick, in the pithiest utterance so far.

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, speaking at a prearranged London event hours after Fallon went, captured the mood of these intense days. “The way in which [the scandal] has manifested itself is with sexual impropriety, misconduct and in some cases assault. But it isn’t actually about sex. It’s about power. It’s always about power. We, as elected representatives, have to hold ourselves to a higher standard.”

Edinburgh and Cardiff were also embroiled in the “sexual harassment scandal,” the tag eventually arrived at. Scotland’s childcare minister, Mark McDonald, a Scottish National Party MP, left office on 4 November under the shadow of allegedly inappropriate behaviour towards female colleagues. Eleven days later, Scottish Labour’s interim and deputy leader Alex Rowley resigned both posts, having been accused by his former partner of sending abusive messages over three years. The Labour communities and children minister in Wales, Carl Sergeant, had been sacked on 3 November after alleged incidents with women. Sergeant committed suicide days later, sparking ire at Wales’s first minister, Carwyn Jones, over the curt dismissal and reputed cabinet bullying. Three official inquiries are now under way.

A fresh week began with Theresa May’s meeting with other party and parliamentary leaders. The new process they agreed will cover all staff at Westminster, in principle giving MPs and non-MPs equal status in respect of everyday conduct. This would be a real departure. Kathryn Hudson, commissioner of parliamentary standards, was previously stymied by MPs in her effort to make them more accountable for alleged harassment, reports the Telegraph’s political correspondent, Laura Hughes. A cross-party working group is charged with implementation, and now taking advice from specialists, including the academics Sarah Childs and Helen Mott, before finalising the details in December.

There has been substantial reform in parliament since 2009–10, when a huge row over expenses brought enduring disrepute and ridicule. Commons committees have been strengthened, and Bercow has led a behind-the-scenes opening to the public. Women have gained more access to and visibility in the Commons, including as advisers and journalists. There are now 208 women MPs out of 650, an increase from 125 in 2010 and the highest ever. But the latest change, if in line with these trends, is different in character. Its outside-in impulse and inclusive logic might be an unsettling test for that nebulous but real thing, an institution’s cast of mind.

Even as Westminster discussed new rules, the first real signs of a rebalancing arrived. Carl Sergeant’s suicide was when everyone paused for breath. The moment had been presaged by the usual “moral panic” columns from faux-contrarian male bores, but also insightful ones from freethinkers, prominently women. Among many examples, Anne Perkins gave a wise history lesson, Lara Prendergast sensed a new sexual reformation, and Melissa Kite overturned the restaurant tables.

A distinct concern was of puritan overreach. The Times’s Janice Turner, in a column published on 4 November, supports a new code for all parties and says “the dinosaurs must evolve or die,” but insists that situations are often nuanced, complicated, grey. “I both applaud the young women who are kicking down the citadels and feel concern that, in the present climate, hitherto unblemished careers will end over a text or a knee. I am both delighted that women have seized the moral power and anxious that they use it responsibly and humanely. (I fear suicides.)”

A related worry was that media frenzy and punitive overreach might stymie natural justice. The police’s evidence-light investigations of senior politicians and army personnel — or, in the case of Edward Heath, a deceased ex–prime minister — over alleged sexual abuse is just one baleful precedent. Shocking too, because false charges, expensive pursuits and incessant media glare left real crimes untouched and drew resources from atrocious sexual predators living in plain sight, such as the BBC presenter Jimmy Savile.

Justice in its application is always particular. Under scrutiny are deeply private, sometimes contested episodes, difficult and painful for victims to disclose or talk about, where material evidence is often scarce. Understanding and assessing requires emotional intelligence as well as professional skill. Moreover, almost every allegation is muddied, especially on social media, by an admix of malicious politicised gossip and cynical false trails. These have to be navigated where they cannot be ignored.

All this can be said of any place where abuse occurs or is alleged. The incidents reported show how widely these places vary. Many occur far from the London parliament. But it’s appropriate that the Palace of Westminster is the political and symbolic centre of the rumpus. With its rookery of passages and cubicles, its dungeon of wires and cables, it is a gothic peril: crumbling, it is a fire hazard in dire need of structural restoration and renewal. Several proposals, with varying schedule and cost implications, are in vogue or in limbo. Most fundamental of all, the monarchical idea of absolute sovereignty runs deep in its fabric and its psychology — and radiates out to the wider political culture.

Laura Hughes describes the Commons membership as “650 small businesses, none with an HR department.” It is a honeycomb of ardent, stressed young aides and older members, person and politico alike, as well as researchers and other staff. The adrenaline of power and the fear of banishment live side by side. This hothouse workplace is also awash with alcohol, having ten bars where its denizens are free to meet and mingle. “Perfect conditions for a sex scandal,” writes Olivia Utley, a former parliamentary researcher.

Clear rules on acceptable behaviour, inclusive and transparent, without discrimination as to status, would be a step in the right direction for everyone. They might even catch on elsewhere. “What matters as much as changes in Westminster,” concludes Janice Turner, “are women, newly emboldened, knocking on HR department doors across the land” in “a recalibration of power between men and women in the workplace.”

That would encompass other levels of governance such as local councils. Women’s accounts of harassment there struggle to be heard amid the national din. They reinforce the case for mandatory, high-standard and thorough training programs, with a strong legal and educational component, as a matter of course in most institutions and sectors.

Longer-term social as well as political shifts in Britain may still favour that outcome. The slow lessening of large gender imbalances in public life is one. More immediately, political and media contingencies will shape what happens next in Britain over sexual bullying. The scarcest resource in both areas now is attention, focused and distributed alike. Notable here is the story’s veering between extremes: not only had coverage ebbed by mid November as other topics came to seize the agenda, but deluge quickly became near drought.

In politics, Brexit is unrelenting, its latest cliffhanger date a European Union summit on 14–15 December, following a break-not-make one on 4 December, also in Brussels. A debt-laden economy is flatlining, with the chancellor Philip Hammond’s budget on 22 November promising no early lift. Budgets are squeezed as demands mount over health, housing, education, social care and security. The messy cabinet departure of trade minister Priti Patel, and a row over chief whip Gavin Williamson’s replacement of Fallon gave the PM another pummel.

May is sustained mainly by Tory fears of the party’s implosion if she goes — and of a Jeremy Corbyn–led Labour taking Britain sharply leftwards. Governance in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is variously lacking, the latter now also Brexit’s cynosure. There is an everyday, energy-devouring swamp of culture wars. And now a royal wedding, with a culture skirmish all of its own.

In media, the dynamics that unleashed the post-Weinstein torrent continue to drive the global merry-go-round. The connective, even emancipatory potential of a “digital information cascade” is shown by the scandal’s percussive effects in the United States. But political–media velocity, with its thrusting force and proclivity to discard, is now also an estranging, despotic and absurd droit du seigneur. Walter Gate, scandals correspondent of Private Eye, skewers this last aspect in the satirical fortnightly’s 14 November edition: “Reports say a scandal that rocked the nation, laying bare the rotten core of the British establishment and which was splashed all over the newspapers has now been superseded three minutes later by (contd p 94).”

Gillian Tett is surely correct: “[Nobody] is going to put this genie back into the bottle any time soon; or stem the rightful anger of so many young women (and young men) who have wearily, silently suffered for years… Executives be warned: cascades have power.” Weinstein to Westminster may yet be a blockbuster with an upbeat ending. Before the music stops and the lights fade, there will be a lot of work to do. ●