Sorry, not sorry: hubris, hate and the politics of shame

In the early days of the election, I was struck by the number of MPs who were standing down this time round and the different reasons that women and men gave: a number of men were standing down because of party differences around Brexit and the withdrawal of the whip (eg Ken Clarke, Oliver Letwin, Phillip Hammond) while women spoke of trolling, intolerance and abuse (eg Gloria de Piero, Caroline Spelman). Nicky Morgan cited the toll her life as an MP had taken on her family and “the other sacrifices involved in, and the abuse for, doing the job of a modern MP”. Similarly, in the letter of resignation she sent to her constituents, Heidi Allen said, “You are attacked on a daily basis, on email, on social media, people shout at you in the street”.

Although reasons for standing down could be about agency – men going because of the principled things they did, women resigning because of the unprincipled things done to them – there is a larger point to make about sex, abuse and politics. Some of the other retiring male MPs were standing down for altogether less honourable reasons including inappropriate conduct in both words and deeds. As I read through the reasons why so many men were no longer standing – either pushed or jumped – I realised that I was looking at a taxonomy of testosterone. Men who had been under investigation for sexual misdemeanours whilst insisting on their innocence were now standing down to spend more time with their families (Kelvin Hopkins) or retiring early (Keith Vaz).

Those resignation stories echoed many others, including those about a whole slew of Prospective Parliamentary Candidates, as one story after another piled up in my notes, stories of men whose past had finally caught up with them but who often claimed their words or actions were those of a younger, sillier, less self-aware self. Sometimes, rather extraordinarily, they were given grace to continue. Ian Byrne was allowed to remain as a Labour PPC after he apologised for making and sharing “unacceptable” social media posts describing women MPs as c**ts and b**ches, insisting that he was a “very different person now”. Well, that’s all right then.

Ian and some of his fellow hopefuls are men who wished that the ‘right to be forgotten’ really was a thing, a handy tool for erasing some inconvenient truths. Their post-hoc justifications echo the sorry excuses which tumbled out of the mouths of so many sympathisers during the Jimmy Saville enquiry, claiming that sexual mores were ‘different’ back then and shouldn’t be judged by today’s standards. In 2014, Nick Conrad said that if women didn’t want to get raped they should “keep their knickers on”. Admittedly, he was a BBC local radio jock at the time and he did apologise a few days later saying that his words were ill-judged and that he was sorry to anybody who was offended. This was a prescient apology as it contrasted rather spectacularly with comments made by Boris Johnson during the BBC’s first Question Time election special of this election, on 22 November, when he said that (when writing as a journalist), he had the right to speak out even if his words could have been seen as offensive to some people: he resolutely did not say when asked, that he was sorry for causing offence. The column inches and screen space which were subsequently devoted to lambasting Johnson’s casual arrogance did finally push him to articulate contrition, albeit rather too late for many of us to believe he really meant it.

On the other hand, despite his apology five years earlier, Nick Conrad decided to stand down, as did two other men whose past deeds rather than words resurfaced around election time, both sitting Conservative MPs, one accused of sexual harassment (Andrew Griffiths) and the other of sexual assault (Charlie Elphicke). In one of those odd little election quirks, their wives, Kate and Nathalie respectively, were subsequently selected to replace them on the stump, both going on to win their (relatively safe) Tory seats.

We should not expect our politicians, the women or the men, to be more moral or upstanding than the rest of us and we shouldn’t be surprised when our unrealistic expectations are then unmet and we find that this or that politician has feet of clay: women were de-selected over accusations of anti-Semitism, men resigned because of racist tweets. But we surely can expect them not to be stupid or think that we are. We are mired in a post-truth political landscape where we can find out almost anything online, including evidence of past indiscretions and accusations. Despite efforts to expunge them, they leave sufficient trace to tantalise the newshound and netizen alike, both seeking stories which are absolutely not about Brexit.