Media misinterpretation of Alison Thewliss on tickling shows how good intentions can go wrong
SNP MP Alison Thewliss is hardly a politician you could accuse of hyperbole. She has most notably exposed the cruelty behind the Tories so-called rape clause, campaigned on breastfeeding and pushed the whole debate around the inhumanity of period poverty to the fore.
And she has done so calmly and deftly, without resorting to hysteria and with the best interests of women and children at its heart.
Thewliss is a mum-of-two and understands implicitly the difficulties of juggling her priorities as a politician with her responsibilities as a mother. The needs of her children are paramount so when the red-tops splashed with headlines saying the Glasgow MP wanted to ban tickling, you would have been right to have your suspicious aroused.
What in fact Thewliss had raised during an important parliamentary debate in Westminster on sexual harassment and bullying in schools was a practical and matter-of-fact way of introducing young children to the idea of consent.
Learning through play is an easy lesson to absorb so if a child asks you to stop tickling them, then stop. Simples.
There’s nothing sinister or salacious in that. But what Thewliss had not bargained for was the onslaught of criticism from parents who don’t want politicians intruding on their personal lives and who take very real exception to being told how to raise their kids.
My dad loved to tickle us when we were little and we loved it too. But it was a fine line. He was a lovely rumbustious dad that couldn’t quite see that laughter could quickly turn to tears. My dad loved us unreservedly and the idea he could have harmed us in any way would be a complete anathema but I still remember that growing feeling of utter helplessness that could so easily taint the absolute joy of a game of rough and tumble.
Thewliss was right to make the point that it is sometimes parents that need to learn about boundaries and not just the child.
But good political intentions can often be corrupted by unintended consequences and Thewliss had unwittingly walked into the growing perception that the SNP is becoming too controlling over people’s personal lives.
This year has been designated the Year of Young People by the Scottish Government and it would be hard to argue that the SNP has not raised the profile of children for the good, but it has also blindly followed some well-meaning, sometimes contradictory and occasionally dangerously ill-thought out approaches.
The Named Person policy should never have been allowed to develop into the mess it has become. Who could argue against protecting children at all costs? But even the name was wrong, the legalities did not stand up to scrutiny and more damagingly, it helped sow a seed that this was a meddling government.
And so now; on a ban on smacking, on reducing the age around gender identification and on the ongoing Named Person furore, the Scottish Government is going to have to fight to pass policies that in any modern, caring world, should be a given.
If 2017 was the year that exposed the relentless harassment and abuse that women endure just going about their daily lives, then 2018 was to be the year that things began to change.
And right on cue; in her New Year’s Day speech, Theresa May made a timely pledge to use the centenary of women getting the vote as a chance to “eliminate all prejudice and discrimination”.
At last, it felt like women’s concerns were being taken seriously. And with a woman at the helm, how could efforts fail?
But then news began to break that May’s government had appointed Toby Young to the board of its new university regulator, the Office for Students.
His appointment predictably sparked controversy with questions about his suitability ranging from his lack of experience in higher education, to his offensive comments about working class students and his apparent ridiculing of efforts to make schools more inclusive by installing wheelchair ramps.
Academics who had applied for positions on the new board posted their CVs on social media. Young, meanwhile, spent the day deleting over 50,000 of his own suspect tweets.
Is it right that a man that has written overtly sexist remarks on Twitter including comments about an underage girl’s breasts, should sit on a student body?
This is not an argument about whether Toby Young would bring an intellect or a “caustic wit”, as Boris Johnson described it, to the boardroom – I’m sure he would – it is about how we approach the future. And he and his comments are of another era.
This article was first published in the Sunday Post on 7th January 2018