My family holiday last week in England followed a strange pattern. Each day we went for lovely walks or excursions. Every evening this holiday feeling was broken by the BBC News, with new allegations of sexual harassment by MPs and new political resignations.
Britain is used to scandal but the unfolding events are still remarkable. As a senior female Conservative politician put it, following the Weinstein affair “the dam has broken” on decades of sexual misbehaviour in the corridors of power at Westminster. Defence minister Sir Michael Fallon resigned over allegations of sexually harassing a journalist. Two other government ministers are being investigated over allegations of inappropriate behaviour. The opposition Labour Party is not spared. Two Labour MPs have been suspended over harassment allegations. A woman activist says she was raped at a Labour event. Carl Sargeant, a Welsh Labour politician died this week in an apparent suicide following allegations of sexual misconduct.
Britain’s parliament has been a hostile, and evidently dangerous place of work for women for too long. The cause? The misuse of power in the deeply entrenched ‘old boys’ club’ culture of conservative values, big egos and sexism, fuelled by drinks from the parliamentary bar. A tribal loyalty among MPs pressured victims not to speak out. And MPs directly hire (and fire) their staff, making complaints even more difficult.
Where will this lead? If things looked tough before the scandal for Theresa May, the embattled prime minister, they now look almost impossible. This could have been May’s moment - remember the pictures of her in a T-shirt with the slogan “This is what a feminist looks like”? Yet her weakness has been exposed, with the scandal shattering her attempt to keep her government focussed, especially on Brexit. Meanwhile the country’s urgent social or economic problems mount up.
Yet Britain is better for the scandal. The bravery of the women who have come forward has kick started the process of turning Westminster into a modern, decent parliament. It’s about time.
This original version was edited slightly as published in German