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Sex, politics and the new blasphemy
December 2017 / January 2018

And now Westminster is swept by allegations of sexual harassment. In the bad old days, some of the stories which have come to light would have been regarded, like drunk driving, as acceptable, though slightly imprudent. Anecdotes would be told for comic effect. There is a kind of Englishman who longs to extract every possible joke from a situation. Here is a way of not having to think or feel too deeply about some potentially embarrassing episode. It can be played for laughs. A light tone can be preserved. The evasiveness of the procedure can itself become part of the joke.

During my brief spell in the Conservative Research Department in 1983-84, I recall gossip and conversation of astonishing salaciousness, quite at variance with the image the party conveyed under the stern, respectable leadership of Margaret Thatcher. And at the Daily Telegraph in the same period, the revels of the journalists were strikingly at variance with the image of the paper as the voice of the decorous suburbs.

But now the laughter has to stop. For it invites the accusation that whoever is making the jokes is covering up grotesque abuses of power. Powerful men have inflicted their unwanted advances on junior employees who were in no position to defend themselves, and had no one to whom they could complain. Who does not feel indignant when the point is put in that way? Modern feminism and old-fashioned chivalry converge, for as Cardinal Newman observed, “It is almost a definition of a gentleman to say that he is one who never inflicts pain.”

We are no longer allowed to scoff at the idea of sexual harassment. New pieties are replacing the old. A strong element in the old idea of blasphemy was the outraged recognition that religion was being mocked. This could not be tolerated, for it threatened the very foundations of society. As the Chief Justice, Sir Matthew Hale, said in 1676, in the first reported trial for the common law offence of blasphemy, “Christianity is parcel of the laws of England; and therefore to reproach the Christian religion is to speak in subversion of the law.”

The reader may object that what I am terming, rather loosely, the new law of blasphemy is not actually written into law. I plead guilty to a degree of imprecision, though I am not sure the old law of blasphemy was all that precise. But in any case, there is now growing pressure for new rules to be drawn up about sexual harassment, which are likely to acquire the force of law.

For some conspicuous injustices, or seeming injustices, have occurred during the present wave of allegations against British politicians. Carl Sargeant, a Labour Member of the Welsh Assembly, committed suicide after he was sacked as communities minister, and suspended from the Labour Party, because of allegations that he had engaged in “inappropriate touching or groping” of a number of women. His family protested he could not defend himself, and had not received “natural justice”, for he did not know the details of the charges against him. In place of the presumption of innocence came the presumption of guilt.
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Lawrence James
December 21st, 2017
10:12 AM
We are well rid of the old blasphemy for law. It was always unfair since the victim [ s ] were never present in court for cross-examination.

F Hugh Eveleigh
December 7th, 2017
8:12 AM
What a well written and argued article. As one born in the late 1940s I have sufficient memory of what was allowed (or not) in earlier times as to be able to understand the transient nature of much of the current madness. We are all human beings but the 'sapiens' part of our Latinate descriptor is sometimes a little suspect because many of us have at some stage said or done something spontaneously which could 'offend' someone somewhere and which in retrospect we might have managed in a more nuanced manner. As most of us are not politicians, actors or widely known in any sense our actions are a part of the somewhat idiosyncratic cut and thrust of daily living and go unnoticed. Balance and 'common' sense are lost in the current flurries of outrage and offence. It will, like most trends, pass in due course but in the meanwhile many public lives are being ruined because of PC reactions to alleged misdemeanours of word and deed.

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