I was seated at a rather stiff and formal BBC dinner a dozen or so years back, one of those ghastly occasions upon which the boss class attempt, painfully, to commune with the corporation untermenschen over noisette of chicken, or something similar. There were perhaps 15 of us, drawn from various levels of the BBC strata, with the then head of news — and now director-general — Tony Hall seated somewhere democratically in the middle. Along from me was a lowly but attractive female production assistant whose dining was interrupted by an unwelcome hand snaking along her inner thigh. The errant hand belonged to the well-lubricated reporter on her immediate left. The young woman took a sip of wine and said to the transgressive journalist, just loud enough for me to hear: ‘Try to touch my clunge one more time and I’m telling Tony.’ Reader, the invasive behaviour ceased forthwith, I was reliably informed.
I was reminded of this incident by the recent hilarious revelations of apparent sexual misconduct in the Liberal Democrat party, and in particular the forlorn efforts of that blubber-mountain Lord Rennard to cop off with seemingly any lithesome and progressive bint who hove into view; or maybe not so lithesome — all she needed, to be of interest to Rennard, was a party card and a pulse. His noble lordship’s approach was, by all reports, a little less objectionable than that I described above: his hand rested only on the knee, it seems. He did not stampede towards the vagina like a bull at a gate. But it was still most unwelcome all the same. I suppose saying: ‘Touch my knee once more and I’ll tell Ming’ (or whatever poor sap was leading the epicene opportunistic rabble at the time) lacks a little force, is a bit short in the threat department.
But a quick retort of ‘In your dreams, you repellent centre-left garden slug’ should have put a swift end to the knee-patting business and doused Rennard’s corpulent ardour. Or perhaps a swift kick to whatever Rennard possesses in lieu of a shin. Or a glass of house chablis thrown in the face. Or semi-voluntary projectile vomiting. But instead, this being the Liberal Democrats, they have twisted themselves into paroxysms and built it up into a real crisis; the transgressed women find themselves, all these years later, full of outrage, and the leadership has resorted to that thing it does habitually, lying about stuff.
Clegg and co. are caught between not taking the thing terribly seriously — Rennard is a bit of a dirty old lech and should be embarrassed by such behaviour and maybe we should have a word with him, etc — and the modern party line, which is what they have to spew out in public: all such transgressions are extremely serious and indeed tantamount to rape, and further they are symptoms of a deeply, irrevocably sexist society and are the reason why we have so few women MPs and women businesspeople etc. That is what they are supposed to think, even if it is largely rubbish. But like the SWP, which recently held a central committee meeting to clear a comrade of rape because they, uh, possessed no faith in the bourgeois courts, and the leftie supporters of Julian Assange, who refuse to even contemplate that he might be guilty of the same offence because he is a noble warrior for freedom against the fascist USA, the normal rules do not apply when you are on the left. And sometimes — such as in the case of Rennard, one suspects — the normal rules, which they have imposed upon us, are wrong. And sometimes — in the case of the repulsive Assange, for example — they are not.
I don’t doubt that it is sometimes unpleasant for women to work in some male-dominated trades and professions, because of the behaviour and attitudes of some of the majority gender. Nor do I doubt that plenty of professions are still rife with sexism and discrimination, politics almost certainly being one of them. But I am not convinced that Rennard’s alleged crimes give us much evidence of this. One of the accusations against Rennard is that he ‘propositioned’ a couple of women, despite apparently being aware that they were in long-standing relationships.
Now, it may slightly turn the stomach to be propositioned by a sweating Europhile lardbucket with breath that could stun a badger at 30 paces, but — hell — a cat can look at a king. If you don’t ask, you don’t get, etc. Sometimes if you ask you also don’t get. All the time, it would seem, in the case of Lord Rennard. But the poor bloke should be allowed to ask, shouldn’t he? Over the past 30 years the workplace has become the venue within which we meet our sexual mates, as Chris Huhne will confirm for you. Obviously these relationships have to start, you know, somehow, don’t they? And asking nicely seems to me a reasonable means of finding out if they are going to start at all.
I have the distinct suspicion that Lord Rennard’s overtures might have been considered less obnoxious if he more closely resembled, say, Orlando Bloom or Joaquin Phoenix than Jabba The Hutt. And a similar suspicion that the anger of the women would have been less deeply felt if they hadn’t discovered he’d tried it on with loads of others and that they weren’t special after all. The hand-on-the-knee business is not especially pleasant, for sure; but is it too antediluvian, too chauvinistic, to suggest that it might easily be brushed off?