A spectre is haunting British politics. At a time of high-wire politics, instability and the biggest constitutional challenge – Brexit – in post-war times, the political classes are obsessed with allegations of sexual impropriety, harassment and abuse.
This affects all the main parties and at the most senior levels – the Conservatives and de facto deputy prime minister Damian Green, Labour's Kelvin Hopkins, the Lib Dems with the previous Lord Rennard scandal, and the SNP with the resignation of children's minister Mark McDonald. While allegations have centred on the House of Commons and 'the Palace of Pestminster,' other legislatures such as the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly are not exempt.
This is a political, cultural and ethical storm. There is clearly a spectrum of allegations, from former defence minister Michael Fallon putting his hand on journalist Julia Hartley Brewer, to allegations of groping, grooming and even rape. What is seldom reflected upon is the strange nature of party politics, and indeed, of the cultures which have historically existed in and around the Commons.
This is after all something which has been until recently an all-male club. The first woman elected wasn't until 1918 (Constance Markievicz elected from her cell in Holloway prison); the first to take her seat in 1919 (Nancy Astor). When Margaret Thatcher became education minister in 1970 she was only the sixth woman cabinet minister ever; and when she became prime minister in 1979 there were a mere 19 women MPs.
It's all meant to be different now with 208 women MPs elected this year, but the traditional masculine cultures of the main parties still have an effect. The public school ethos shaped generations of Tory men and to this day exactly 50% of the parliamentary party is privately educated. Labour, from a very different tradition, used to have a machismo trade union and workerist outlook which often viewed women as secondary citizens. The Lib Dems have for decades had a problem selecting and electing women, one made all the worse by the Rennard revelations and the party's subsequent failure to discipline him.
Despite the seriousness of some of these allegations, there is a host of opinions that all of this is a storm in a tea-cup: a witch-hunt out of control and the hysterical reaction of the politically correct classes. One strand of backlash comes from the reactionary right, which seeks to blame everything in modern society on equality and feminism. In this perspective, feminism has pursued a consciously anti-male agenda, presenting men as perpetrators and sexual abusers and women as powerless victims.
This ridiculous and far-fetched perspective is found day in and day out across numerous newspapers and column inches. Thus, the neo-conservative Douglas Murray wrote in the Spectator that '"feminism" isn't producing guides for helping men. It is producing manifestos for torturing them.' In the same issue, Rod Liddle, who used to be a liberal type, continued his war on all the views that he previously held in a piece entitled: 'So what attracted you to that powerful man?' and reminisced about his days as a young Labour canvasser when he wished he had the attention of an older 'cougar' woman.
Perhaps the most over-the-top reactionary piece came from Peter Hitchens in the Mail on Sunday who took the opportunity to link the allegations of sexual misbehaviour with his paranoid fears about the Islamisation of British society. Hitchens wrote:
Wise men at Westminster will in future go about with chaperones, record and film all conversations with the opposite sex, require women to sign consent forms before meeting them, and certificates of good conduct afterwards. Nothing else will keep them safe from claims that they momentarily applied a 'fleeting hand' to someone's knee.
These controversies have all been aided by the forward march of feminism: 'They actually see men as the enemy, the "patriarchy", to be overthrown by all means necessary and replaced by a feminised society.'
From this it is on to posing an unholy alliance of the two greatest threats in Hitchens's mind to Western civilisation: radical Islam and feminism, writing that if the old days of courtship between the sexes have gone forever, 'there is always the other solution, the niqabs, the burka and the segregation of the sexes.'
The language of the likes of Peter Hitchens and Douglas Murray is nothing short of paranoid and rancid – Murray accusing feminism of torture, and Hitchens of wanting to end patriarchy 'by all means necessary' with its evoking of Malcolm X and militant black nationalism. The right has long been fighting a cultural and political war against progress on gender equality and any kind of equality. But what is revealing and sad is that in today's maelstrom they are now joined by disillusioned liberals who think it has all gone just a little too far.
Melanie Reid in the Times thought that present-day controversies called for an updated version of the 1980's board game 'Scruples'. In the new version she posed such dilemmas as: 'You are a man and a female employee comes into your office and shuts the door. Do you: a) run out of the room as fast as you can; or b) stay but insist on a chaperone.'
Similarly, Iain Macwhirter in the Sunday Herald dismissed comparisons between the parliamentary expenses scandal and the current wave of sexual allegations, writing (about the Tory list of misdemeanours): 'It is mostly gossip about who's sleeping with who, and even in this increasingly prurient age, sexual harassment is not a crime.'
These are way too simplistic and dismissive. We don't live in an age only defined by prurience, but by the sexualisation of nearly everything, from our bodies, language, products we buy, and more. Indeed, the ubiquitous nature of sexual imagery and titillation is often combined in the same breath with prurience: as in the manner in which the Daily Mail and the Sun cover much of modern life.
The rise of an increasingly individualised, less respectful and deferential society has made issues which were once cloaked in darkness and secrecy public matters. What were once traditionally seen as private affairs have become public affairs. Thus, it took until November 1958 before the first UK government minister, Ian Harvey, resigned in a private scandal, having been caught by police having sex with a guardsman in St James's Park, London.
Once the codes of secrecy were broken there was no turning back and in recent times – from Cecil Parkinson to John Major's 'back to basics' – political resignation over private scandal has become more commonplace than admitting political failure.
The last few weeks have highlighted a major problem in how politics is done in Britain, and in how some politicians – nearly all but not exclusively men – don't seem to live in the same age as the rest of us, or think the same manners and ethics cover them.
Equally, the misplaced anger that some feel towards equality and feminism, wanting to blame them for every sin under the sun and equate them with terrorists or militants, is symptomatic of something far wider. Our society has experienced huge shifts in economic and social power, with the worlds of work and employment changing dramatically, as older notions of male labour have disappeared and millions of women have entered the workforce. Such shifts have produced a reactionary backlash from right-wingers and an anger that is elemental and irrational, but which also finds voice in embittered and disillusioned liberals.
Politics and public life face many seismic challenges, but we have to demand the right to treat each other with dignity and respect. That means taking allegations of sexual misbehaviour seriously. It means recognising that this isn't just an issue for women to speak up about, but men as well, calling out the old tropes of sexism and sexual misbehaviour, and that the cause of equality is a concern for all of us, not just one part or one half of humanity. If we cannot deal with these issues, what chance have we of getting Brexit right or dealing with the real Bermuda triangle of tax havens used and abused by the super rich?