In Tyneside when I started secondary school I was picked on for being a first year and having a southern accent. Got my head flushed down the toilet on Foggy Friday. Later, I was jumped on for being little and in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was so little it took me until year 9 (3rd year in old money) to get to 5 foot. I was small enough to have the nickname ‘pid’. So, my growth spurt after that was merely something of a late rally. Anyway, in both those cases the perpetrators ‘legged it’ afterwards. For as bullies they weren’t that powerful and needed the make a quick getaway.
I have only been blatantly bullied once. By that I mean aggressively confronted by someone who wasn’t seeking to hide and was unconcerned about being overheard. This was by a local councillor in a town hall corridor. In my work in London and elsewhere, I have friends and colleagues who have experienced similar confrontations.
Now, we have all discussed this with people who say but politicians are basically good people seeking to serve. But that is not a defense, it merely serves as a cover for not dealing with underlying issues. I have many good friends, whom I respect, who are elected politicians, but they should not be above scrutiny.
Now this relates to the #me too movement that is growing and highlighting a real crisis. As a white male, I am not putting my experiences on a par with women and black, minority and ethnic people in our society. They suffer greater, chronic and insidious abuse that needs to be addressed. It is good that people are finding their voice.
My reason for mentioning my experience was to affirm that politics has a problem. The problem is of people in power who believe that they have license, who control the prospects and livelihoods of others, who believe that being elected and having status takes them above normal courtesies and behaviours or even that such aggressive behaviour is the way to get things done. Or it may simply be that they have become accustomed or resigned to this being the way things are around them. I am connecting sexual exploitation with power. It is also the power of patronage and celebrity that has enabled film producers etc. to practice serial exploitation.
Churches are not immune from exploitation at the hands of leaders. So we have a common problem of power.
We have a situation where sexual temptation and exploitation is widespread and needs to be tackled by policies, monitoring and training. We do need mechanisms for protecting people and hearing concerns. But deeper than that we must address power; we must consider who we value, people especially those who serve rather than rule and those who are weaker; we must seek to build different cultures in politics, the arts and in many other spheres of society. This is a matter of values, education and support for all.
I write this after political leaders have met to agree actions and we have learnt of the death of welsh cabinet minister Carl Sargeant. This says to me that immediate headline reactions are being made to calm a crisis and address media attention. But the culture and values are not securely in place.
Whilst high profile leaders can still make ‘shoot from the hip comments’ which betray their values and attitudes we cannot be confident that things have changed. Politics, the arts, faith and other spheres and structures in society matter. So, what do we do? Educate, value the sphere of society more than the people at the top, respect our leaders as servants not patrons. And in the short term, when new practices are drawn up in Westminster, Hollywood and elsewhere check them not by what the authors of policies say but by how those on the receiving end respond. Some once said – the first shall be last and the last first.
Graham Brownlee, November 2017