Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Why sorry seems to be the hardest word

And so, Chris Rennard refuses to apologise for allegedly sexually harassing four women. Quelle surprise.

Elton John was right - so often sorry really is the hardest word.

I am not necessarily convinced of Rennard's pleas of innocence. At the very best, I suspect he has rather limited self-awareness. But this alone does not mean that I believe that he should be treated in the way he has. Every convicted criminal in this country has been subjected to due process, and that should also be the case for Lord Rennard.

The problem, as so succinctly described on Channel 4 News, is that while Liberal Democrats are strong believers in process, we don't actually agree on what that process is.

And of course Rennard will not apologise, as long as there is any suggestion that doing so would be tantamount to an admission of guilt. Sorry is such a difficult word, because of the perceived consequences. It's also difficult, in Rennard's case at least, because his advisors are offering somewhat questionable counsel. Intense media scrutiny does little to make apology easier. No doubt Rennard also has some difficulty in apologising as he fails to understand that the fact that behaviour is not criminal does not in itself mean that such behaviour is acceptable.

I understand why many are demanding an apology - I hoped Rennard would bring himself to at least apologise for hurt and offence inadvertently caused. But that hasn't happened and no amount of pressure will now achieve anything more than to stiffen his resolve and increase the potential for internal conflict. It's not an approach likely to bring about meaningful resolution.

Barring a complete climbdown by either side, the most logical way forward is via arbitration or reconciliation. I hope this is attempted, as it is surely the only means of avoiding what appears to be an otherwise inevitable slide into unpleasant confrontation. Even that will require some to admit to mistakes and to back down from unrealistic positions, but it is certainly achievable.

The alternative, so we hear today, is a legal challenge from Lord Rennard. I do not believe for a moment that this is what either side wants. But I understand Rennard's impossible position. Those who would criticise him for even considering such an action against "the party he loves" must appreciate that, without the party, Rennard has nothing. He has given so much of his life to it that, in his mind and those of many others, he and the party are inseparable.Their identities are interconnected.

I am reminded of an occasion when another politician, who had given over 30 years of service to his party, took it to the Court of Session after being suspended following serious allegations. The politician's name was Pat Lally, the former Provost of Glasgow. In 1997 he and Alex Mosson were suspended after a "votes for trips" scandal. They denied any guilt, but voices both within the Labour Party and outwith argued that they should resign from public office. Party members urged Lally to consider the good of the party; the Evening Times stated that "while Pat Lally has done many things of which Glasgow should be proud...for the good of the city he must stand down now".

There could be no denying that Lally loved the Labour Party, although he was later to fall very much out of love with what it became under Tony Blair. The fact that he felt compelled to go through legal channels should not have been interpreted as a sign of disloyalty. Lally was ultimately successful and readmitted to the Labour Party, but the outcome itself is largely irrelevant to my purpose here. I would not hold it against Rennard should he pursue legal action, but I would certainly hold it against both "sides" if sufficient efforts are not made to avoid it.

It is unclear what the outcome of such a legal battle may be, and how long it could take. What is more certain is the impact it will have on the credibility of the party in the run-up to the 2015 General Election. It will be undeniably damaging. Parties can and do recover from apparently devastating setbacks, but the timing could not possibly be worse.

But if sorry is a hard word for Rennard, it is equally hard for many who wish him to apologise. Where is the apology from the leadership for the kamikaze-style way in which they have dealt with what is clearly a long-standing issue? Where is the apology for failing Rennard's alleged victims, who have been roundly diminished? Where is the apology for not having confronted Rennard properly in over a decade, thus arguably reinforcing his belief that such behaviour is acceptable? Where is the apology for relying on procedures so unfit for purpose, they make the Church of England's organisation look positive progressive? In short, where is the apology for having failed everyone concerned? Where is the apology for apparently denying the right of all party members to be treated properly and fairly in accordance with the party constitution to Rennard? It is not only Chris Rennard who has appeared recently to misunderstand the experiences of women (and, also - lest we forget - some men).

Of course sorry is the hardest word. To say sorry requires an admission that, at some stage, we were wrong - if not in intent then in deed. Rather than persist in unrealistic demands, the situation needs to be de-escalated. This requires no shortage of political skill, but also an abandonment of the superficially easy options. There needs to be an emphasis on rehabilitation rather than exclusion, on reconciliation rather than conflict. Within the party, some sober reflection may yield more dividends in the longer-term than anger and what Nick Clegg unhelpfully describes as "shrillness".  The process may be long and difficult,

The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. That, at least for me, isn't Chris Rennard's political future - it is ensuring that no further harassment of any kind is tolerated in the Liberal Democrats. The inept, creaking party organisation must be overhauled if we want to turn the situation around. The party must admit to its mistakes, and take steps to become more responsive to complainants while creating a new culture in which the kind of behaviour alleged of Rennard cannot thrive.

I too would like some apologies. I would like Lord Rennard to realise that, whatever has happened, clearly misunderstandings have taken place and consequently people are both hurt and angry. No-one deserves to be treated with desrespect. But similarly, if progress has to be made, the leadership must also apologise for the party's failings and the poor handling of the saga to date.

Perhaps, given the significant damage already done to our party, all those on both sides who have made frankly ludicrous things in the last few days could also apologise?  Or is sorry just too hard to say?


Bob Wootton said...

A wise and perceptive post that I agree with.

Anonymous said...

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