Questions over inappropriate sexual behaviour have now spread to the Scottish Parliament
In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations, the painful outpourings of women across the globe have exposed the catastrophic levels of everyday harassment and abuse inflicted by men who, puffed up by a misguided sense of their own power, see women as theirs for the taking.
And in any conversation about an abuse of power, the next natural step was for a light to be shone on where power ultimately sits. In politics. And from the recesses of Westminster, a dark stream of sleaze has oozed its way onto the front pages of newspapers and into our conversations.
The shocking exposés of women who claim they have been raped, assaulted, humiliated and abused by those we entrust with the running of our country, has been shocking. And worse, apparently routine.
If Weinstein can be credited with anything good, it is that in the telling of his horrific litany of alleged perversions, other women have been empowered to talk. The Weinstein story has sparked a surge in sisterly solidarity and, emboldened by their numbers, women have shared secrets never-before told, revealing the true horror and scale of what they face every day at the hands of men.
Why would politics be immune from that? It wouldn’t.
Politics is a seductive mix of power, tribalism and ambition, and when washed down with late nights, alcohol and relationships forged on a mutual passion, it can quickly spiral into something altogether more dangerous.
Politics is the art of persuasion and what can be put to good use on the doorstep can easily turn ugly. Some politicians will already have a self-inflated view of their own appeal – who wouldn’t when thousands of strangers have chosen you against a list of others? Vanity, narcissism, power, adoration and self-belief, all play a heady part in making the power dynamic in our political institutions all the more lop-sided.
Conversely, we expect more from our politicians. A higher standard. Parliaments should, rightly, be exemplars of good employment practice. Respectful behaviour. A prism through which to see how things should be done. Instead we now see a grotesque distortion.
And from the House of Commons came reports that female researchers and aides were using a WhatsApp group to share information about alleged sexual harassment and abuse at Westminster. The list of sexual misdemeanours was long and it was muddled – confusing consensual relations with those that are not – but the message about serious wrongdoing was candid and clear. Theresa May urged anyone with information to contact the authorities and Jeremy Corbyn said there was a “warped and degrading culture” thriving in Westminster and MPs must be held to account for their actions.
The ensuing revelations quickly claimed the scalp of one cabinet secretary and with the inevitable expectation that there is much, much more to come.
And so, inevitably, the light turned to the Scottish Parliament.
The serious claims that women at Holyrood had been subject to a catalogue of abuse including sexual assault hung on a series of allegations made by the lawyer, Aamer Anwar, to a Sunday newspaper. He says this was based on conversations over some years with a number of women. Facts are nigh impossible to ascertain, cases impossible to identify and complaints unable to be traced. Obviously, this can be the very nature of this game and I know, more than most given my years reporting on it, the hidden nature of the insidious practice of sexual abuse.
The parties reacted quickly saying there would be zero tolerance of harassment and we have now had the shock resignation from government of Mark McDonald, the children’s minister, for unspecified ‘inappropriate behaviour’. All of this inevitably leads to more questions than answers.
But this is my place of work and I am now left wondering about who, what, when. And in a place that I once felt safe, I now wonder.
Walking around the Scottish Parliament this last week has been a subdued affair. Invitations to meet for drinks in the bar have all but dried up and there’s a great big question mark hanging over the head of every man you meet.
It seems unlikely, to me, that the Scottish Parliament would be immune to behaviour that exists right across society and I recognise that it is unfair to claim that just because there is no hard evidence, the problem does not exist.
But Westminster is a funnel for old-school misogyny. I don’t believe that the Scottish Parliament is the same. And while it will not be exempt from the behaviour of men, I do not believe that isolated incidents of an abuse of that power dynamic should be misinterpreted as a widespread culture of sleaze.
It’s very hard to prove a negative but on the basis of allegations including stalking, sexting and sexual assault, the Scottish Parliament has been thrown into turmoil and self-examination. In the face of a growing clamour for ‘something to be done’, regardless of whether something needs to be done, the parliament has acted swiftly. A confidential phone line has been launched and a survey will be distributed to all those working within the parliament over the next few weeks.
That can be only for the good. I hope those actions and the raising of the profile, emboldens any woman that has not yet spoken out for fear of recrimination to seek what she requires to heal. I hope it make us all examine our own actions and makes us more aware of what is going on.
But, for what it’s worth, my own observation would be that Holyrood’s corridors of power are less awash with sleaze and more dripping in terror for fear of being found to be complacent.