Following Michael Fallon’s resignation over allegations of sexual misconduct earlier this week, the dam at the heart of Westminster has well and truly broken, exposing its centuries-old toxic foundations.
Tory MP Charlie Ephicke’s recent resignation, after “serious allegations” pending police investigation, along with claims of groping and inappropriate behaviour by Labour MPs Clive Lewis and Kelvin Hopkins, seem like just one more strand in a complex web of harmful masculinity.
Therefore, Theresa May’s decision to award the newly-vacated position of Defence Secretary to Gavin Williamson: a man famed for his naked ambition, a penchant for theatrical power play and his pet tarantula, Cronus, feels all the more poignant.
Had the timing been different, it would be easy to dismiss Williamson as an archetypal Machiavellian politician. When Ruth Davidson and former Cabinet minister Iain Duncan Smith called on May for a reshuffle in the wake of Fallon’s resignation, there was a sense that the Government might have used the occasion to show an outright condemnation of inappropriate behaviour.
That didn’t happen. It is an insult to Mark Garnier’s assistants, whom he asked to buy him sex toys. It is an insult to all those who came into contact with 25 Tory MPs who are alleged to have behaved inappropriately with colleagues and staff. It is an even bigger insult to the overwhelming number of female victims of Tory austerity (cuts have affected women by a total of £79bn since 2010, against £13bn for men). It is an insult to women whose safety has been jeopardised by government cut-backs and institutional indifference.
It is also an insult to teachers and practitioners committed to developing positive, inclusive educational models, who have had to stand by and watch girls’ educational attainment rapidly decline between 2005 and 2015 under this Government, as noted by the Gender Equality Index.
Instead, Williamson’s appointment not only cements the Tories’ catastrophic failing of, and contempt for, women, it also reminds us of the absence of any motivation to challenge a political culture that promotes aggressive assertion of power over those perceived to be weak.
If the outpouring of women’s and men’s stories as a result of the Westminster scandal teaches us anything, it is that the roots of this problem go far beyond the actions of a single party. Whilst Corbyn has been quick to propose a greater degree of accountability for perpetrators of assault and harassment, it is clear that this will not happen without a profound overhaul of a workplace culture that has caused so much damage and distress – inside Westminster and out of it.
Westminster’s historic attachment to this type of masculinity has perpetrated a culture of silence and shame. Professor Terry Kupers’ definition of toxic masculinity as a “constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia and wanton violence” pretty much sums up recent Government policy.
Whatever Theresa May’s motivations for appointing Williamson, and regardless of the implications for her own precarious position in Downing Street, this appointment is symptomatic of a crisis of masculinity.
Conscious cruelty has become an established staple of current policy. Our Government has created a political climate in which vulnerability is abhorred. Power play and humiliation have become normalised, if not expected.
Whilst it is not up to the Tory party alone to fix the problem of systemic sexism, now is the time to begin honest and urgent conversations about the untenable nature of toxic masculinity and its pervasive grip on so many of those in power.
After all, the poisonous web underpinning the heart of Westminster has been brought into stark relief through May’s sacking of Fallon, and replacing him with the infamous tarantula in the glass box.
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