I had a lovely couple of days in Wales, doing a talk for the Caernarfon branch of Yes Cymru. It was a fantastic evening, and the venue was packed out. In fact it went so well that now Yes Cymru is considering organising a national tour of Wales for the dug. I’ll get to tag along too. The news about Alex Salmond’s resignation from the SNP broke when I was away. That was what the British parties and the anti-independence media had been calling for ever since the allegations against the former First Minister came to light last week. You’d think that his resignation would have made them happy, but no.
Instead of being satisfied that Alex Salmond had done what the British parties and media had been demanding that he do, demands that were loud and shrill, they’re now working themselves up into a froth of indignation because he has had the audacity to crowdfund his eye-wateringly expensive legal action against what he feels is an unfair complaints process. It makes you wonder just what he could do to satisfy them while at the same time maintaining his heartfelt belief that he’s done nothing wrong and the complaints procedure used against him is flawed. The answer of course is nothing at all.
It is vital that people who have been subjected to sexual harrassment feel able to come forward and to make a complaint. The mere fact that two women felt confident enough to speak up about their complaints against the most powerful man in the land is a good sign. It means that in Scotland there is no one who is too powerful or too well connected not to be held to account. We should, as a society, acknowledge that as a sign of progress in our gender politics.
Those amongst us who are indulging in conspiracy theories should recognise that that there are a million and one possibilities here which don’t involve dark machinations of the British state. It is perfectly possible for a person to feel quite genuinely that they have been sexually harrassed, while the person accused quite genuinely feels that they have done nothing wrong. This is what makes these cases sensitive and difficult. This is why these cases need to be treated with respect, immense care, and an avoidance of prejudgement so that all those concerned can seek and achieve justice.
I offer an example from my own experience. It may explain why I try to avoid making this a gender issue. In speaking about this I am not making my own contribution to the MeToo movement, and I am explicitly not offering this as a possible scenario of what might have happened in Alex Salmond’s case. I don’t know what happened exactly with the allegations against the former First Minister, and neither does the Scottish media.
I am telling you this, something I’ve never spoken about in public before, because it is so important that victims of sexual harrassment at work are able to speak up, and because I know that the aggressor in this scenario genuinely felt that he had done nothing wrong.
Almost three decades ago, not too long after I had come out as gay, I was working for a large organisation in London. Back then in the stone age of sexual politics when blatant homophobia was the staple of the press, there was a widespread attitude that if you were openly gay you were sexually promiscuous and sexually available. It was, in fact, very much like the stereotype that a woman in a short skirt is inviting sexual harrassment.
My line manager’s boss was a much older closeted gay man who continually found excuses to be in my office. He kept asking me out, even though I always rebuffed his advances and told him I was quite happy in a relationship. He would make inappropriate remarks about my physical appearance, and on more than one occasion got a bit handsy, putting his hand on my backside or crotch. I tolerated it, without saying anything, mostly because I didn’t expect to be believed, because I wanted to keep my job, and because I knew that this man would retort that he was merely being “friendly”. It made my working environment deeply uncomfortable. It was only when he started to call me at home asking me to meet up with him “for drinks and a chat”, that I made a complaint. Only to be told by a senior female manager that “We all know what X is like.” And she advised me to laugh it off. I left that job shortly afterwards. To this day, I am convinced that this man believes that he did nothing wrong, that he was just being “friendly”. I am equally convinced that I was a victim of sexual harrassment.
There are many ways in which these and similar scenarios can play out, none of which involve a conspiracy organised by British secret services. They run the gamut from innocent remarks that can be misinterpreted or consensual alcohol fuelled acts which were later regretted, to aggressive sexual harrassment that the instigator – who is invariably male – feels entitled to and which is forced upon an unwilling subordinate who feels incapable of refusing, or whose refusals are ignored or trivialised. In all these scenarios and the millions of variations in between, the person later making the allegations feels genuinely aggrieved, the person who is subject to the allegations genuinely feels that they’ve done nothing wrong.
I repeat, I have no clue what happened with Alex Salmond, but we do all know that there are two women who feel aggrieved, and that Alex Salmond equally feels he’s done nothing wrong. I don’t know where the truth lies, and neither does anyone else in politics or the media who has commented on this matter. Justice for all the parties concerned means that we don’t rush to judgement. A complaints procedure is designed to get at the truth.
However, prejudging the matter is precisely what the British media has done. We live in a country where the media is constantly in search of SNPbad stories, and in this story all their SNPbad Christmasses have come at once. The media in this country is incapable of distinguishing between Alex Salmond the individual, and the broader independence movement. Witness the number of times during the 2014 referendum that the vote was referred to as “Alex Salmond’s referendum”. That identification is still first and foremost in the minds of the British media. Just last night on Newsnight Emily Maitlis aggressively questioned the commentator Iain McWhirter about the issues around Alex Salmond, her tone was noticeably softer with the former Labour advisor Ayesha Hazarika. Emily Maitlis started one of her questions to Iain McWhirter by addressing him as someone who had “signed up to Alex Salmond’s project”. By which she presumably meant Scottish independence. Iain was, quite naturally, not impressed by this line of questioning.
The line that has now been adopted by the British political parties and their media chorus is that Alex Salmond is using his power to slap down women who had the nerve to speak up against him. They are claiming that he is using the fundraiser to demonstrate that he still has influence and followers, and that those followers will back him up against any allegations made against him by any women. Some who make that allegation are genuinely unaware of the wider political and media context in Scotland. Others know but don’t care, because they’re interested in waving any stick they can find to beat up the cause of independence. In either case it’s still not true. Alex Salmond is not using his power to slap down women. He is using his power to slap down the media. He is using his power to assert that he will not be subjected to a trial and conviction by the Scottish press in the same way that media has played judge and jury with other SNP politicians.
The reason that so many people in Scotland have contributed to his fundraiser is because they know that the media in this country is using the allegations against Alex Salmond as a proxy with which to attack the cause of independence. That’s unjust to Alex Salmond, it’s unjust to the wider independence movement, but most importantly of all it’s unjust to the women who made the complaints against him. They do not deserve to see their complaints being used as pawns in a wider political battle, and by doing so the Scottish media is not only denying Alex Salmond natural justice, they are also denying natural justice to those women whom they are claiming to speak up for.
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