Monday, 3 June 2013

Why isn't everyone talking about Shirley Williams?

In the Sun (reproduced in the Mail) today, Shirley Williams describes being sexually assaulted during the 1970s by "more than one" Labour cabinet minister.

She doesn't name names and she doesn't go into much detail, beyond saying that she had spent "a great deal of my youth being pursued by senior gentlement" and that some of the incidents were "much worse than groping".  As to why she didn't report the assaults, she resorted to the kind of reasoning we've heard from TV and radio presenters: that she was given to believe that such behaviour was par for the course, politics is "not a soft business."  Which is true enough.  She might have slapped them, though.

It's odd in any case, given these personal experiences, that Shirley Williams remains a strong supporter of Lord Rennard, who has been accused of various types of sexual harassment by several women.  Possibly she really does think that such behaviour is something that women just have to put up with.  I'm even more surprised that this hasn't been a bigger story.  Here we have allegations that more than one Cabinet minister engaged in fairly serious sexual assault on another leading politician, assaults which they both expected to, and did, get away with.  It's possible, given the passage of time, that Williams' assailants are all dead (but then why not name and shame?).  Even so we are dealing with misbehaviour in very high places, which ought to garner more attention than the doings of half-forgotten DJs or comedians of the same era.

If someone as prominent, as self-assured and as politically astute as Shirley Williams had to submit to the unwanted gropes (and "much worse") of her male colleagues, what of less powerful women?  What of all the researchers, secretaries, lobbyists and journalists that make up the Westminster ecosystem?  What stories and scandals must be buried there.  If power is the greatest aphrodisiac, as they say, and if politics is show business for ugly people, as they also say, then we should expect a veritable Pere Lachaise of skeletons to be rattling around the Westminster cupboards.

When you consider how casually sexist and male dominated the House of Commons was even twenty years ago, to say nothing of the 1970s, it would be remarkable if Shirley Williams' experience was uncommon.  Famous, respected, even revered Parliamentarians of all parties might well turn out to have been inveterate sex pests.  So far, though, there's been nothing like the rush of revelations (or, at least, stories) about the BBC that emerged in the wake of the Jimmy Savile. Perhaps no-one's even interested.  While there remains intermittent and half-hearted interest in alleged highly-placed paedophile networks (arrests are always in prospect, but never seem to materialise) today's extraordinary, first-person account of sexual assault by one of our most enduring public figures has caused barely a ripple and raised scarcely an eyebrow.