Shirley Williams has a point when she says that Lord Rennard’s alleged harassment of four female Lib Dem colleagues was very small beer compared with the sexual abuse attributed to so many other prominent people nowadays. Indeed, when the charges were made public early last year, I was underwhelmed by the account given by one of these women of Lord Rennard’s behaviour towards her during a Lib Dem conference in a Peterborough hotel. His knee had brushed hers on a sofa in the bar; and when she had shifted her knee, his had followed and brushed it again. She had fled to the bathroom, only to find him waiting outside it when she emerged. He had then invited her to his room for a nightcap; but when she declined, that was that: end of story. Except, of course, that it wasn’t; for 14 months later the fate of the former Lib Dem campaign chief still hangs in the balance as the four aggrieved women continue to agitate for his permanent dismissal from the party, and party grandees such as Lady Williams and Lord Steel campaign for this man of long and distinguished party service to be welcomed back into the fold.
The reason given by Lord Steel for advocating Lord Rennard’s rehabilitation was that he had brought ‘closure’ to a ‘very unfortunate episode’ by issuing an apology to the women concerned. At this point I find myself beginning to sympathise with the women. Not only have they been let down by their likeliest ally, Lady Williams, who instead of supporting them said that their allegations against Lord Rennard had been ‘hugely blown up’; they are being criticised for not accepting his apology with good grace. But if I were one of them, I would also have found it difficult to do so. For Lord Rennard effectively rejected their allegations against him by apologising for what ‘may’ have been ‘inadvertent’ encroachment on their ‘personal space’, whereas they had accused him of intentional ‘inappropriate touching’.
If ‘inappropriate touching’ is itself a difficult concept, since the point at which a touch is deemed inappropriate is never made clear, it is even harder to understand what is meant by the invasion of somebody’s ‘personal space’. This presumably need not involve any touching at all, just getting somehow closer to a person than is somehow permissible. Do we all go around inside a bubble of personal space to which others are denied entry? Are we each surrounded by the equivalent of a nation’s territorial waters that others enter at their peril? There are people who stand disagreeably close to one when they are talking, but I have never known any of them feel the need to apologise for it. And the enforcement of personal-space limits could result in the eventual dying out of the human race as everyone keeps his distance from the other.
I don’t suppose we will ever know what Lord Rennard did to upset these women, or whether their professed distress was justified. From what little we know, it would seem to me that their only convincing grounds for complaint would be if it seemed to them that refusal to enter unwanted proximity to the portly peer would jeopardise their prospects in the Lib Dem party in which he once wielded considerable power. It would indeed have been very wrong if he had used this power in such a way, but I am aware of no evidence that he did. If for 14 months he insisted that he had done nothing ‘inappropriate’ and that his accusers were lying, it is hard to believe that his belated apology is sincere or anything more than an attempt to draw a line under the controversy and return to business as usual. So in my view he shouldn’t have apologised at all unless he really felt sorry for something he had done, and it seems pretty obvious that he didn’t.
But that is the case with almost every apology made by politicians. They only apologise for things for which they cannot be held responsible (e.g., Tony Blair for the slave trade and for the Irish potato famine) or for things that they simultaneously deny having done (like Blair again making an apology for the scandal in which he vehemently denied having exempted Formula One motor-racing from a ban on tobacco sponsorship of sport in return for a £1 million donation by Bernie Ecclestone to the Labour party). These apologies now so lack credibility that it would be much better if nobody made them any more.
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