Is Westminster Really A Den Of Sin?

by Ray_North on February 27, 2013

images-1Sometimes I know even before I’ve turned my computer on that I’m going to get slaughtered for the words that are about to come out of my head – and this, I fear may be one of those times.

But, here goes.

In the last week, we’ve all listened with interest to the latest ‘sex’ scandal to come out of Westminster. I use the term ‘sex’ in just about the loosest possible way, as I don’t think that sex was ever realistically on the cards in this business involving Chris Rennard.

As it happens I know Lord Rennard quite well, not in a confide in each other over a cosy drink kind of way, more in a shake hands and smile briefly and enquire about each other’s fortune if we happened to bump into each other way (mine, fairly predictable and on the whole dull, his, full of surprises). And, I have to say, that of all the Lib-Dems I knew and worked with during my six years in Parliament, he would have been fairly well down the list of would-be predatory lotharios.

But, although I am surprised to see Chris Rennard’s name in the paper connected with these complaints, I am not surprised for one second to see that another politician has fallen foul to scandal of a sexual nature.

As a 21 year old political junkie with massive ambition, Westminster was an incredibly exciting place to go to work. I loved it. It was full of characters and political intrigue; everything was exhilarating from the mad dash when the division bell was rung to the sound of sharpening knives when one politician or other had managed to wound himself through professional or personal folly and was about to be set upon by the wolves of ‘public opinion’.

But, as well as being an exciting place to work, it was undoubtedly oppressively masculine in its culture. I don’t mean it was overtly chauvinist or misogynistic, I can’t remember much obvious sexism (certainly not within the Lib-Dems, nor Labour from what I could gather, the Tories still had a different idea). Instead, it was a harsh and brutal place, there was little room for sentiment, or gentleness or sensitivity. It was a place where you could be called upon to fight and everyone could at some point become your rival. Many of the women who thrived in this atmosphere did so because they were able to play the game of politics with the same machismo as any of the men and as such the culture was profoundly masculine, which, may be (and I have no experience of this), similar to the atmosphere of a boys public school.

But, worse than any public school, the Palace of Westminster is full, not of spotty, stinky posh boys, but, by incredibly ambitious driven people who have an ego robust enough for them to offer themselves to the public for rejection or affirmation. These are not normal people, these are people with a very positive opinion of themselves living strange lives away from their friends and their families.

Drink also played a massive part of the culture – in my day the six or seven bars of the Palace were always packed, whilst almost every week there would be at least one free piss-up organised by some pressure group or other. MPs and researchers got pissed. A lot. Many of the MPs drank because they were bored, because they were lonely, and sometimes, because it was just easier to communicate with your colleagues when you’d had a skinful. And in drink – well, stuff happens.

To add to the ‘stuff’ happening, you can put into the melting pot the large number of young people who work in the Palace, interns who work there for a few months, researchers who may do a couple of years before going off to do a better paid job, the turn over of young enthusiastic people is high.

And in this maelstrom of weird, as, I said, ‘stuff happens.’It is not a place of sin, but it is a place that can bring out the sin in the best of persons; casual sexual relationships are commonplace. I’m not saying that’s good or bad. It just happens.

And, in the midst of this ‘stuff’ in the midst of this ‘sin’, you’ve got the added complication of a press that feeds on one of the most fertile rumour-mills that you could possibly imagine. Every indiscretion alleged or real is remembered and ruminated upon, reputations are built and destroyed – so and so is a shagger, someone else is a drunk, another person is in the closet. More often than not the weaknesses and indiscretions are not of the most serious kind, but, as a result of the immense pressure we put on our MPs and politicians to be morally righteous and beyond reproach, the misdemeanours can become extremely serious.

Now, clearly, there is a difference between people having casual sex and men (or women I suppose), especially those in a position of power, abusing their positions by touching up people who are to all intents and purposes subordinate to them (or at all); and if they do so without the consent of the person they are trying to touch, then they should be removed from their positions of responsibility. But, we should remember that on the whole Westminster is not a place where sexual crime is commonplace, nor is it a place that is rife with corruption – it is, what it is, an odd place, with a strange culture, a culture which is slowly but surely changing as more women come into politics and mass media means that it is difficult to hide.

So, in conclusion, Westminster is prone to ‘sin’, probably more than most ‘ordinary’ places, but, I’d wager that the amount of ‘sin’ going on, is probably less than it was and that what there is, shouldn’t worry us unduly.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike Killingworth February 28, 2013 at 8:57 am

Where there is power, there there is abuse.

The real issue is that a powerful male – let’s call him Roger, shall we? – can have sex with women who say “yes” at the time because they’re not thinking straight. Then they change their minds (perhaps they talked to a girl-friend, perhaps he didn’t send them those festival tickets he sort-of-promised, perhaps both) and they feel utterly abused – more so even than the rape victim who, once she’s satisfied herself (with out without counselling) that she did all she could to stop it happening, can begin to get on with the rest of her life.

And it’s an issue because as a culture we haven’t decided whether it’s Roger’s fault, her fault, everyone’s or no one’s. We used to know how to define sexual sin but we’re not so sure any longer.

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Ray_North February 28, 2013 at 9:53 am

Mike, I think your comment is extremely perceptive. I am afraid that I deal with sexual crime a lot and, perhaps rightly or wrong, feel that there is a massive difference between an incident where lack of consent is clear and an incident where the boundaries are blurred and everyone ends up feeling a little seedy and sorry for themselves. You are spot on in your conclusion – the definition of sexual sin is not always clear.

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George_East February 28, 2013 at 10:07 am

But this is not what the Rennard story is about. It is not about sexual crime (at least not yet – I note that Alison Smith says the alleged incident involving her was more serious than has been reported) and I think that is the wrong prism through which to see this.
This is a question of an alleged abuse of power in a situation in which the power imbalance is enormous. It is the same with teacher/student, boss/secretary, President/intern situations. A powerful man (and it overwhelmingly is that way round) in a position to dish out favours or prevent careers advancing requires something in return. It is why professional distance is needed in such circumstances – it protects both parties.

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Ray_North February 28, 2013 at 10:13 am

I’m not sure the teacher/student analogy is good one – there, there is a direct duty of care and clear and defined position of responsibility – the line which must not be crossed is easy to see. In politics the relationships between individuals within the party structure and parliamentary structure can be really vague – it then becomes a matter of judgement for the individual concerned – Rennard, if the allegations are correct, got the judgement wrong and he clearly paid the price for that. As Mike implied sexual politics isn’t always straightfoward.

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George_East February 28, 2013 at 10:29 am

Not teacher/pupil. Teacher/student – as in FE college or university. The analogy is precisely right.

And there is nothing vague about the difference in power and status of the Chief Executive of a Party (and campaign guru) and prospective candidates. Sexual politics isn’t straight forward, but power politics when the gulf in status is as big as this, means that to be anything less than very careful is to invite difficulty. As I said, like Monica and Bill, distance is the best strategy for both parties.

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Charlie_East_West February 28, 2013 at 11:03 am

Ray – Spot on. Having worked with you at Westminster Sin City, I also know that many bad things occur within the bowels of parliament.
I have a few stories behind my own eyes – one of which featured a cameo appearance from Ted Heath in a toilet cubicle.

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Frances February 28, 2013 at 10:18 pm

Curious, a discussion about misconduct predominantly by powerful men towards women and I am the token woman to comment.

The points that Ray makes regarding Parliament seem likely to be sound but they have much wider application; it is the conference mentality. People will do things they would not normally do when away from home and I note that the allegations regarding Rennard appear to be at conferences. I remember being taken to a conference dinner which my mother was organising when I was about 17. I was they youngest person there and the number of men who made a bee line for me (in one case literally from across the room) was comic. The fact that they were married and my mother was hosting the dinner did not seem to deter all of them from trying it on.

In terms of declaring interests I have met Lord Rennard once in passing (my husband knows him) and am only mildly offended that he didn’t make a pass at me! I would also say that, although care is needed in a relationship with a potential power imbalance, that does not preclude such a relationship from working.

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Nick Evans March 6, 2013 at 1:14 pm

On the point of only men commenting so far, I did wonder whether Ray’s view that Rennard would have been fairly low down the list of would-be predatory lotharios would have been the same if he’d been in Parliament as a 21 yr-old woman.

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Ray_North March 6, 2013 at 10:09 pm

Fair point, well made!

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