I’M an outspoken woman and I live in South Yorkshire, so I have a lot to say on this subject. I won’t mince my words. We don’t round here.
How come Rotherham Labour MP Sarah Champion has been forced to resign her front-bench role because of comments made about the grooming of girls by men of particular ethnic origins, but William Hague, former Conservative party leader and ex-member for Richmond, can say pretty much what he likes about rape, torture and sexual abuse and not be criticised?
It seems pretty unfair to me for the rules to differ, depending on which sex you happen to be. It’s all very well for Hague to wax lyrical to political interviewer Peter Hennessey on Radio 4 about how his formative years in the pubs and clubs of Wath-on-Dearne and Goldthorpe helped to shape his trenchant way with an argument.
He says it toughened him up and honed his rhetoric. It would do. Hague was a Tory growing up in an area which had been dominated by the Labour Party for generations. It was also in the midst of industrial strife. In the Hennessey interview, it was clear that Baron Hague of Richmond – as he is now – is immensely proud of his straight-talking Yorkshire roots. They have served him well in life.
It’s also perfectly acceptable – if a little bizarre – for him to join forces with Hollywood star Angelina Jolie to campaign on a whole platform of issues which affect women, including FMG (female genital mutilation) and the use of rape as a weapon of war.
So seriously does he take such matters, in 2015, Hague even oversaw the spending of £5m of taxpayers’ money on holding a high-profile London summit which attempted to establish ways to prevent rape being used in war zones. Politicians and dignitaries, including former US Senator John Kerry, who gave the keynote speech, were flown in from all over the world and spent four days at London’s Excel Centre thrashing out potential solutions.
He did face criticism for the cost, and rightly so. However, he did not find himself having to stall his political career for the sake of making a stand. Meanwhile, Sarah Champion writes a column in The Sun newspaper about sexual abuse much closer to home and finds herself having to back out of a job, as Shadow Women and Equalities Secretary, which arguably exists to put right the very wrongs she highlighted and ensure lessons are learned from Professor Alexis Jay’s devastating report which was published three years ago this week.
Her written words simply reiterated the fact, proven over and over again in a court of law, that a very, very tiny group of certain men of a particular ethnic origin have been found guilty of abusing girls of a different ethnic origin. You might think that with her Ministerial brief this would be a subject in which she was both well-versed and entitled to an opinion.
And clearly, this was no maverick rant, fired off in knee-jerk anger. By all accounts it had been checked and signed off by Ms Champion’s aides before publication. Presumably it was also approved by the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who makes much of his vow to stand up for those who don’t have a voice.
There cannot be a group of more voiceless souls in the UK than those girls in Rotherham who have had their lives blighted by men who did them harm, so imagine the impact upon them that silencing someone brave enough to speak on their behalf. It seems to me that it’s acceptable for politicians across the spectrum to campaign for the human rights of people in countries far from our shores, but bring the debate back home and a wall of silence falls.
Banning this argument and sacking this individual each time a few uncomfortable truths are raised is counter-productive. Instead of airing debate, this run-for-the-hills mentality forces politicians and public alike to take sides and polarises communities yet further. Extremism of all forms is a real and present danger to our collective security, not just in the UK but every corner of the world. Tragic events in Spain last week have proven this yet again. However, it won’t go away if we don’t talk about it.
More worryingly, I think, it also opens up a glaring and growing chasm between the sexes which does our so-called democratic country no favours at all. We might raise a wry eyebrow at William Hague escorting La Jolie along the red carpet to some high-profile campaigning event, but we don’t question his right to speak out on mutual matters which concern them both.
Why then do women such as Sarah Champion have to be sanctioned? Is this because of the problem which really dare not speak its name? Pure and simple sexism. Rife in the Labour Party. Rife in Westminster.
Rife in our universities and workplaces, and reason why women and girls are abused, whether they live in Rotherham or Riyadh. That’s what I really want to know. Who will be left to campaign against this when all the voices have been silenced?