"But how can you live and have no story to tell?" Fyodor Dostoevsky
It started as a ripple; a ripple that began in Hollywood. In October the US media reported that dozens of women alleged film producer Harvey Weinstein had committed indecent assaults, sexual harassment and rape. Then more ladies came forward. The ripple was gaining momentum, and becoming a wave.
Weinstein fought to fend off the allegations. He was soon in deep water, then drowning. With 80 accusers, active police investigations, Weinstein can’t tread water for much longer. The wave swept on. It flipped Kevin Spacey, Dustin Hoffman, Ben Affleck and others, as it gathered speed.
Then it crossed the Atlantic, crashing with tidal force on the shores of Parliament. Female staffers, clerical staff and journalists came forward with allegations against male MPs. Then 36 Tories are identified in a leaked spreadsheet that exposes a range of behaviours. Some of it innocuous, some of it awful. It’s apparent the Tories had this information for some time, perhaps years, and have sat on it. More on that later.
Not to be outdone, the Labour Party veteran MP Kelvin Hopkins was accused of sexual harassment by a young party worker. The victim claims to have told Jeremy Corbyn’s office over a year ago. Nothing happened. One lady reported her MP abuser four times before her claims got the attention deserved.
And what has been the response. A veteran Conservative MP has warned that the Westminster sexual harassment scandal is turning into a “witch hunt”.
Sir Roger Gale said it was difficult to refute claims about alleged incidents that happened years ago. The MP for North Thanet urged people “not to rush to judgement”. Meanwhile, his colleagues are working on a defence for one accused. His victim probably mistook the touch of the tablecloth for his alleged fumbling with her leg.
With attitudes like that, how can you expect victims to come forward to reveal the truth? Let's not forget MPs have used the media to attack their accusers.
Micheal Fallon was forced to resign as Minister for Defence in part due to an allegation of lewd conduct towards a fellow female Conservative MP. Fallon sought to justify his action by saying what was acceptable 15 years ago is not acceptable now. Really! Was it acceptable 15 years ago to grope ladies? Does Fallon believe that was the case? If so, we have a broader problem than imagined
The intriguing aspect of these revelations is the leaked spreadsheet. This documents talks about ‘wandering hands’, ‘can’t be trusted with young staff’ and ‘ don’t be alone with him in a taxi.’ The fact that the Whips documented these allegations, kept them on file and yet didn’t appear to address the issue is disturbing. It’s now sure the information was being used to blackmail those MPs who didn’t tow the party line. A leaked indiscretion is a potent threat.
In the process, the Whips traded the safety and vulnerability of women for short-term political gain. That leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It also speaks to the rotten core of British politics. In short, sexual misconduct was exploited to achieve a result with no consideration for the victim.
The few brave ladies that did come forward faced expulsion, as powerful party machines turned against them. A Labour Party activist alleges she was told to shut up after an MP raped her. When she sought help, a party official cautioned her that talking out would damage her career.
As the wave rips through Parliament, exposing sexual threats and a culture of intimidation, the parties are scrambling to contain the situation. It’s revealing that only female spokeswomen appeared on the Sunday political shows. From what they said, it suggests the cover-up continues. Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, sought to deflect criticism assuming it goes on in other professions. As if that’s an excuse.
Labour’s spokeswomen, shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry was on the ropes. She flatly refused to answer questions, didn’t want to accuse anyone nor reveal too much about her sentiments. Sky interviewer Neil Patterson did a sterling job exposing Thornberry’s slyness. She threatened to walk out of the interview if the questioning continued. Her sisters struggling to get justice must be shocked as such a mealy-mouthed performance. And this from the party that delights in trumpeting its equality agenda.
Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, is faced with pressure to explain why he put Kelvin Hopkins in his shadow cabinet last year after a young party activist had formally expressed concerns about his behaviour. Hopkins remains suspended from Labour pending an investigation into claims he sent suggestive texts to a young lady.
Labour’s response is to set up an internal enquiry staffed by people appointed by the national executive. In other words, an inside job with no independent oversight nor credibility. So much for Corbyn’s integrity. He’s proving himself just another Westminster player.
‘Warped and degrading culture’ is Corbyn’s words in response. He promoted a known sex pest to his cabinet, and he stands by that decision. His moral authority has evaporated.
Teresa May is no better. A new Conservative code of conduct sort to divert attention by making it appear she’s doing something. The code states that inquiries should be conducted by a panel of three or more people, at least one of whom should be independent of the Conservatives. That’s slightly better than Labour’s closed shop approach.
Meanwhile, Damien Green, Teresa May’s righthand man, is also in the spotlight. He stands accused of having pornography on his computer. Police allegedly found this in 2008 during an investigation into leaks. Green denies the allegation. Now he’s subject to scrutiny by the Cabinet Office.
None of it goes far enough. For too long Parliament has operated behind closed doors as a boy’s club. It’s processes, traditions and very culture exude the worst of public school mentality. As the expenses scandal revealed, MPs see themselves above the law. Had similar conduct arisen in the commercial world, heads would roll, careers would end. In Parliament it’s different. You step down from this or that committee, utter a few words, and then expect to move on.
Hopefully, this time, the wave is cleansing the filth that operates at the highest levels of the Britain’s government. The Jimmy Savile saga, the paedophile's rings (Cecil Smith amongst them) and now these matters, illustrate how power gets used for deeply corrupt ends.
The wave has breached the dam of silence that surrounds Parliament. Teresa May, as usual, these days, is fighting a rear-guard action. She called for action scrambling to stay ahead as the wave engulfed her party. But questions remain about the culture that pervades the crumbling mock-Gothic Palace of Westminster.
With secrets as the currency of Westminster trading, the whole atmosphere is toxic. Then you mix in massive egos, and men operating by standards akin to Henry VIII court. You have a recipe for disaster. It’s surprising it’s taken this long for the truth to emerge. This story is just beginning.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.