Sex, politics and the new blasphemy

Westminster is scandalised by sexual harassment that would once have been treated as a joke. But does the nation take it quite so seriously?

Andrew Gimson

Michael Gove on the “Today” programme on October 28, when he made a joke comparing John Humphrys to Harvey Weinstein (©Rick Findler/PA Wire/PA Images)

On the morning of Saturday October 28, 2017, as the Today programme celebrated its 60th anniversary by broadcasting in front of a live audience in the Wigmore Hall in London, Michael Gove was rash enough to tell a joke. John Humphrys had suggested there was a danger that aggressive interviewers would make politicians look silly, and diminish them in the eyes of the public.

Gove responded: “I know what you mean. Sometimes I think that coming into the studio with you, John, is a bit like going into Harvey Weinstein’s bedroom.”

This produced a burst of laughter and clapping from the audience, and Neil Kinnock, who was also a guest on the show, joined in by saying, “John goes way past groping! Way past groping!”

“You just pray that you emerge with your dignity intact,” Gove said.

At home, I too laughed, and told a visitor who had not been listening to the radio how funny Gove had been.

Yet before Today came off air, Gove had issued the following tweet: “Apologies for my clumsy attempt at humour on R4 Today this morning — it wasn’t appropriate. I’m sorry and apologise unreservedly.”

The boundaries of permissible speech are shifting at such speed that even one of the nimblest minds in the Cabinet can get caught out. An angry feminist tried to explain to me what was so objectionable about Gove, Kinnock and Humphrys: “It was white men sitting around on a cosy radio show not taking the experience of women who’ve been raped seriously, and trivialising those women’s experience, and suggesting that’s the way you should see the world, imposing their white male view of the world on everyone else.”

If you try to defend yourself against this kind of attack, you merely add insult to injury. However much you insist you take rape seriously, you sound as if you don’t. Soon you are accused of sympathising with Harvey Weinstein.

My purpose here is not to justify what Gove said. I do not want to be the kind of reactionary who, in the words of Czeslaw Milosz in The Captive Mind, “cannot grasp movement”. My interest is rather in trying to understand what is happening. For the pace at which words which used to be considered harmless have become unusable, and words which used to be considered obscene are printed even in reputable newspapers, is so rapid that it disorientates many people. In July 2017, a Conservative MP, Anne Marie Morris, had the whip withdrawn from her for using the expression “nigger in the woodpile”, which Theresa May described as “completely unacceptable”. According to the Prime Minister, “Language like this has absolutely no place in politics or in today’s society.”

Again, I offer no judgment on the rights and wrongs. That strikes me as fruitless. Indeed, I found it fruitless when I told my own children (aged 22, 17 and 15) that the expression had been used quite innocently by myself and others when I was a child (I was born in 1958). That was certainly not regarded as a mitigating circumstance, and even to suggest it might be was considered highly offensive.

So what is going on? It seems to me we are inventing a new law of blasphemy. In 2008, the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel were abolished in England and Wales. The last attempted prosecution for blasphemy was in 2007, by a Christian group which objected to the portrayal of Jesus in Jerry Springer: The Opera, and the last successful prosecution was in 1977, by Mary Whitehouse against Gay News and Denis Lemon, for publishing a poem about Jesus and gay sex called “The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name”.

From the start of the Sixties, any kind of restraint on what could be said about sex seemed to be dying away. The failure in 1960 of the prosecution brought under the Obscene Publications Act 1959 against Penguin Books for publishing Lady Chatterley’s Lover had ushered in more permissive attitudes. Repression was in headlong retreat. Yet immediately after the Lady Chatterley trial, Michael Frayn wrote a prescient piece for the Guardian:

Fort Sex is the last stronghold of taboo in our society, and already the outer fortifications are starting to give way before the assault, and then there won’t be any more taboo subjects left. Or will there? I have a horrible suspicion that people may insist on keeping one area permanently shrouded, shifting the subject as their feelings dictate. I suspect that even sex has been opened up once before (they must have talked about it in Anglo-Saxon days, at any rate) and then closed down again as a compensation for all the areas that have slipped out of taboo with the shift away from religious explanations.

My prediction is that the new taboo subject will be something analogous to sexual relationships — an experience which will be fairly universal, involving a skilled technique which gives pleasure if properly understood but leads to disaster if misapplied. How about motoring, for example? I foresee that the day will come when the bonnet of a car may be opened only in the privacy of the garage, and when the man who doesn’t want to be arrested for public indecency will restrict his driving to the dead of night.

Oddly enough, attitudes to drink driving — still regarded as an acceptable, though slightly imprudent, activity in 1960 — have since become as censorious as Frayn, for comic effect, suggested attitudes to driving in general might become. But some of the fiercest taboos are still to do with sex. Paedophilia is condemned with the ferocity once reserved, in some quarters, for homosexuality.

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.

At Westminster, a Conservative MP, Charlie Elphicke, likewise had the whip suspended without knowing why. The first he knew of it was when a journalist rang him on a Friday evening, for the press had already been tipped off that the announcement would be made in time for the ten o’clock news. Julian Smith, the Chief Whip, rang him a few minutes later, but would not tell him what he was accused of, and instead issued a statement which said “serious allegations . . . have been referred to the police”.

Elphicke’s wife, Natalie, protested at the extreme unfairness of doing this before the allegations had even been investigated: “Taking away the whip is a political punishment. It will never be the right action to withdraw the whip before the police have had a chance to consider whether to take action — or before an independent body has had a chance to consider appropriate action.

“To suspend the whip in such circumstances is to put at risk the rule of law itself and the chance for a person to have a fair hearing. It makes the job of the police harder. We have seen in other situations that taking precipitous action can result in extreme prejudice and false allegations.

“I cannot begin to describe the hurt and strain, the confusion and fear for me and my family . . . I ask her [Theresa May] to stop the desperate madness, to put an end to these kangaroo courts by political central offices and to support a creation of a truly independent and non-political arbitrator. To support the rule of law, and allow all claims made by any complainant to be handled in a professional, independent way.”

The whole subject is so serious, both for victims of sexual harassment and for alleged perpetrators, that there is now general agreement on the need for a properly impartial system. The leaders of the political parties, and parliamentary authorities, know that unless they get a grip on the sexual harassment scandal, their own careers are in peril. A single mishandled allegation — a horrible incident which is hushed up, a horrible accusation which turns out to be false — can lead to disaster.

And yet this newfound seriousness is not the end of the matter. For in the wider nation, not everyone shares it. Some are devout believers in the need for urgent and thorough reform. But some are, as it were, blasphemers. They think the whole problem has been grossly exaggerated, and is being used to institute a tyranny of prigs and prudes, who wish to ban harmless flirtations, and can’t take a joke.

Just now the reformers have the upper hand. Whether in Hollywood or in Westminster, they want to root out abuses. Any hint of opposition arouses their wrath, and they are determined to suppress dissent. As Charles Moore has pointed out, they have a tremendous belief in diversity, except diversity of opinion. There they become unselfconsciously intolerant. For like the Church of old, they know their own doctrines are the only true ones, and that false teaching will subvert the whole basis of society.

And yet their sacerdotal pretensions breed opposition. The new morality seems so humourless, so lacking in any sense of proportion. It intrudes on harmless pleasures and reclassifies them as mortal sins. No distinction is allowed between atrocious crimes such as rape and tasteless jokes of the kind told by Gove at the start of this piece.

This is not just an abstract point. It has political consequences. Glance for a moment across the Atlantic. The Americans have elected a President who has attracted an astonishing number of complaints of sexual harassment. His manners are those of a braggart and an oaf. But the more he shocks and pains respectable members of the American Establishment, the better pleased his followers are. He is their revenge on the pious, pompous, hypocritical Democrats and Republicans who look with disdain on ordinary folk.

“He makes a joke of everything.” So say members of the British Establishment about Boris Johnson. How solemn and self-regarding they sound as they say it. Like many moralists, they secretly enjoy being scandalised. They condemn him as unfit to be Foreign Secretary, and ignore the many occasions on which by an effort of will, he makes no jokes, for these periods of self-restraint do not conform to their ignoble idea of him. And then, you know, his private life is not irreproachable. My dear, how shocking! How in this day and age can one be a statesman unless one has an irreproachable private life?

Again, the wider public detects the bossiness, the control freakery, the conformist cant and holier-than-thou puritanism behind such attacks. It wonders if Johnson can be quite as bad as all that, or his critics quite as good. During the EU referendum campaign, people liked it that he rebuked Barack Obama, the most powerful man in the world, for coming over here and telling British voters to tolerate sacrifices of sovereignty which the American people would never dream of making. His opponents, who will never forgive him for his role in bringing about Brexit, pulled him up for calling Obama “part Kenyan”. But that in the end was a detail in the bigger story, which was that the President had no business coming over here and interfering in our referendum.

There is much to be said for purifying the language of public life, so no one ever utters a racial epithet, or says something which is at variance with received ideas about sexual matters. But if we concentrate too heavily on eradicating such lapses, we may also find that our politicians become entirely cut off from the wider public. When the language of politics, and the language of ordinary people, cease to bear some resemblance to each other, it becomes impossible for politicians to talk to the people, and a waste of time for the people to listen to politicians.

In these circumstances, a new tone is needed. That is what Jeremy Corbyn offered at the last election. I am inclined to regard Corbyn as a false prophet, but at least he did his time in the wilderness. For year after year he resisted the Blairite pieties which came to dominate the Labour Party, at the end of which he routed the three sub-Blairite candidates who supposed they could compete among themselves to decide who would carry forward their by now hollowed-out faith. Corbyn was the blasphemer, who would not accept the gospel according to Peter Mandelson.

Blair remarked in 1996 that “my project will be complete when the Labour Party learns to love Peter Mandelson” — an amusing way of putting it, but an aim which has not been achieved. Indeed, the party has fallen out of love with Blair himself. For his self-righteousness, artfully disguised in his early days as leader by good manners and self-deprecating jokes, at length became unbearable. To this day, he not only wants to think of himself as morally irreproachable, he wants to make the rest of us think of him as morally irreproachable. He set himself up as a high priest, entitled to tell the rest of us how to behave. After a while, that kind of coercion becomes intolerable.

There is a warning here for all politicians who adopt a high moral tone. However thrilling this sort of approach may be at the start, after a time it becomes wearisome. The Pharisees and their spiritual descendants never grow loveable. The longer they tell us what to do, the more hypocritical and power-hungry they look. So the sexual harassment scandal needs careful handling. Those who say it is about power rather than sex are correct. It is indeed about the abuse of power. But the cure for it can become a power grab too: a pretext for minute interference in relationships which were already being adequately managed by the usual processes of give and take. The whole dreary panoply of best practice and correct procedure can supplant common sense and common decency.

For the press, the scandal offers a wonderful chance to gain readers by discovering and publishing even minor misdemeanours by MPs, while at the same time holding the moral high ground. For readers, it is titillating to read about other people’s offences, one’s amusement ready in case of need to be concealed, perhaps even from oneself, by a frown of disapproval.

The man in the pub has always said all politicians are corrupt, in it only for what they can get, and here he can find his prejudices confirmed. A sex scandal which brings down an MP serves an egalitarian function. The craving for equality which is such a marked feature of democratic societies is for a moment or two satiated by such descents.

The new rules are made in the name of equality. Let the weak be protected against the strong. It is hard to quarrel with that. Yet go to any downmarket pub and you will find that such exercises are regarded with blasphemous scepticism, as a means by which a greedy Establishment can offer an appearance of irreproachable conduct, behind which the same old vices can flourish.

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