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Eilidh Whiteford: We need to stand up to bully-boy culture

THERE has been a nasty, belittling and misogynistic undercurrent to the events of the past two weeks. In so many ways it would have been easier to ignore the comments directed toward me by Ian Davidson MP during a meeting of the Scottish Affairs Committee.

Instead, I spoke out about the use of threatening language by the chairman of a parliamentary committee and have been vilified as a result. Like other women who complain, my motives have been questioned and some have tried to smear me. But the bully-boy culture of Westminster has to end. We must stand up to it.

I am not alone in my concerns. Over the past week Labour MPs both front- and back-bench sidled up to me to express their support for my position. Most talked under their breath.

As an aside to the issue of bullying and misogynist language in parliament, the fear of speaking publicly amongst Labour MPs and the failure of its leadership to take proper action against Ian Davidson – a man who is being allowed to stand for a leadership role himself – speaks volumes about a party that has lost its way.

By contrast, non-party political organisations and individuals have rallied in a more public way. They point out the unacceptable nature of Mr Davidson’s threat to give me “a doing” during a meeting of the Scottish Affairs Select Committee, which he chairs.

Organisations and individuals interested in good parliamentary representation highlight the ease with which misogyny can thrive within a political institutional architecture where only one in five MPs is female. The gender imbalances are compounded by a relentlessly adversarial format of debate that limits opportunities for meaningful discussion.

My experience is just one consequence of the chronic under-representation of women in public life. The former MP Tess Kingham described it as “yah-boo nonsense, point scoring and silly games”. Until we blow the final whistle on these silly games, large numbers of our citizens will remain alienated from the political process. On the evidence of this week, Westminster has a long way to go.

Ian Davidson’s denials finally unravelled in a radio interview on Thursday when he admitted having made the remarks. But his admission was followed by an extraordinary attempt to pass the buck on to other committee members. Like a playground bully caught in the act, he resorted to the tired old defence – “it wisnae me, it wis them too”.

Well, let me put it firmly on the record. At the committee meeting Ian Davidson said I would get a doing if I stepped out of line. In his radio interview, he altered this to claim that all he said was that I “got a doing” at the Scottish Affairs Committee.

The change of tense is transformational. It is no longer a threat but a boastful observation. It suggests collective culpability. Unfortunately for Mr Davidson, that’s not what happened.

Cathy Jamieson and Fiona O’Donnell did not give me a “doing”. Nor Mike Freer MP. Simon Reevell made his points in his usual urbane way. And the idea of Alan Reid, the mild mannered Liberal Democrat MP for Argyll & Bute, giving anyone a doing is frankly laughable.

The only person who went too far – way too far – was Ian Davidson. To try to pin responsibility for his own behaviour on others, while painting himself as the referee who called time in the ring, does a huge disservice to fellow committee members who kept the language of their criticisms within the prevailing conventions of parliamentary norms.

One female committee member was concerned enough to pass a note to the chairman suggesting his remark was unacceptable. If the past tense was used, and I “got a doing”, why on earth would she have felt the need to advise the chair that his comments might be misinterpreted in a sexual way?

Why would she have felt the need to mention it again – according to Mr Davidson – when leaving the meeting early? And why would Mr Davidson have felt the need to clarify his remarks to me afterwards? He approached me to point out they were not sexual in nature. I said I found the threat of physical violence just as offensive.

The MP who wrote the note might be able to shed some light on this matter – but there has been silence on that front so far. The inference has been that the “doing” I am alleged to have received was punishment for my “misbehaviour”, as if I were some deviant six-year-old sent to stand on the naughty step.

It does not matter that all I had done was disagree with the committee. In fact what inspired Mr Davidson’s remark is utterly irrelevant. There is no action, no misbehaviour that justifies the threat or act of “a doing”. We hear too often of women being told they were “asking for it” in justification for intimidation or violence. I never expected to hear that from an MP in Parliament.

But this is not simply an issue of aggression towards woman; it’s about a culture of intimidation and bullying affecting men and women that seems to flourish with impunity in the Westminster world.

Moving Scotland forward has to involve moving our political discourse beyond its present tribal partisanship. We need to learn to accept our differences and how to distinguish dissent from treachery. We need to foster political institutions and ways of working that put dignity and genuine equality at their heart. And, as I learned over the past two weeks, we need to move beyond fear of those who try to use aggression and humiliation to silence and intimidate us, and instead call those people to account for their actions.

Dr Eilidh Whiteford is SNP MP for Banff and Buchan

 

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