Wednesday, 25 March 2020

We Need to Talk About Alex (2)

Here's a thoughtful piece by Melanie Reid in The Times which focuses on what the writer the 'casual sexism of the 1970s' with the more modern describes as morality of the MeToo movement.


Alex Salmond trial: An alpha male up against MeToo

The case was a collision of the casual sexism of the 1970s with the morality of today

Alex Salmond with the golfer Kylie Henry in 2014. He was known for a sense of fun but many saw his attitudes as outdated - DANNY LAWSON/PA

Melanie Reid - The Times

It was on the fourth day in court, during an encounter between Alex Salmond and Woman A, a senior official in his government, when the trial was caught in the crosshairs of the culture wars. This, inescapably, was to become the kernel of the matter — the casual sexism of the 1970s versus the #MeToo movement.

Mr Salmond’s QC, Gordon Jackson, big, swashbuckling, avuncular, was cross-examining Woman A. Here was an advocate of the same generation as the accused, bringing to bear the attitudes of yesterday to the morality of today. He questioned whether Mr Salmond’s hands, running down her body at a Christmas party, tracing her “hourglass” curves, amounted to an offence.

Mr Jackson’s voice grew louder. “It’s hardly groping — would you call that groping?”

“Yes,” replied Woman A. “He touched my breast, my waist, my hips.”

Mr Jackson was dismissive. Surely none of this was as distressing as she claimed, and had only been raised later. Didn’t Mr Salmond behave like this because he was “that sort of man”, a “touchy-feely” sort of person, who hugged and kissed everyone? Why the fuss? These things were nothing at the time, it was only later they were regarded as criminal.

The jury agreed with him.

The salacious trial of the former first minister hinged on his tactile behaviour towards female staff during his seven years in Bute House. He was found not guilty of any criminality in the face of claims from nine women that ranged from groping, face-stroking, indecent assault, inappropriate sexual come-ons, and attempted rape.

By day five, Mr Jackson acknowledged that his client’s behaviour, by modern standards, was inappropriate. Wrong, even. But again he insisted, not criminal. This was what men of Mr Salmond’s age had always done. One young woman’s humiliation was merely an older man’s failure to keep his distance. This was the generational chasm that split the jury, and by a majority they chose not to convict.

What emerged from the trial, however, does Mr Salmond’s reputation in power few favours. Staff found him to be a demanding, volatile, sometimes volcanic-tempered boss. Two defence witnesses admitted he could be “extraordinarily pugnacious” and “extremely demanding”. Female staff found his tactile behaviour inappropriate but rarely felt able to express this.

Staff in Bute House developed a “gallows humour” to deal with the stress. Male civil servants said that they were concerned for their female colleagues. One who witnessed him stroking a woman’s hair knocked his hand away. His reputation for being touchy-feely was referred to by one woman as “the lower-level behaviour that we almost took as a baseline”.

After incidents that the most powerful man in the country described as “playful” and “high jinks”, the civil service informally altered rotas in Bute House to prevent female staff from working alone after hours with him The jury decided these incidents were not criminal, although the women said they were left frightened and shocked and too fearful of their jobs to complain.

The complainers were not lowly minions. They ranged from senior officials in the Scottish government to SNP politicians, party employees and civil servants. All described a sense of powerlessness, panic and embarrassment at his tactile behaviour. It was easier to say nothing, move away, or place their handbag strategically between them, than to antagonise him.

Herein the eternal dilemma of a touchy-feely male boss. Women are often criticised for not complaining at the time that they are being made to feel uncomfortable, and Gordon Jackson rehearsed this. Why not tell him to stop and report him, he asked Woman A. “I was embarrassed . . . it would make me look weak.” Likewise, other women said that they froze, trapped by their subordinate position. Women everywhere will recognise these reactions to a boss’s inappropriate behaviour, as will those who lived through the 1970s.

Besides, something else was at play. Mr Salmond’s victims were aware that any fuss might upset their cause of achieving Scottish independence. They felt a huge obligation — an all-too classic example of women taking responsibility for men’s inappropriate behaviour — to keep it out of the public domain.

At times, the scenes at Bute House were, although not found criminal, clumsily farcical. The first minister’s high jinks included suggesting one member of his staff recreate a kissing scene from a Christmas card with him, and doing zombie impressions with another. He said in evidence that it was “a bit of fun” that had been exaggerated.

He liked to greet his staff with kisses that they did not welcome. Mr Salmond admitted that he had occasionally “tugged” the hair of Woman D, but insisted it had been “affectionate” and nothing sexual. He once stroked her face after she fell asleep in his car during a foreign trip to gently wake her up.

Mr Salmond said: “I wish I’d been more careful with people’s personal space, but there was no intention to offend.” Woman D said she endured him touching her hair, face and arm because “he was the leader of the country”.

Before he gained power, as an SNP Westminster candidate, female reporters remember competing to interview him. He had a sense of fun and he put women at ease. Old friends confirm that in earlier times women were comfortable in his company. “He was a left-liberal and open-minded. Even drunk, he was never sleazy.”

After 2007, when he became first minister, Mr Salmond achieved semi-Messiah status. If his legacy is tainted, it is by his inability to observe changing attitudes between men and women.

Everyone who knows him agrees he is an unreconstructed alpha male, from the days when casual sexism was the fabric of life. He was the dictionary definition — laddish, tactile, touchy feely, back-slapping — happiest drinking with the boys, or on the golf course.

Alex Bell, a former special adviser to Mr Salmond and a defence witness, revealed his boss’s out-dated attitudes. A proposed official Christmas card from Bute House was the Jack Vettriano picture, Ae Fond Kiss, a sexily dressed woman reaching up to kiss an older man. Mr Bell said that the reaction at the meeting was, “you’ve got to be kidding” — except for the first minister.

Mr Salmond’s marriage to Moira, now 82 and 17 years his senior, was regarded by friends as unusual but truly loving. She is, though, among a separate coterie of women affected by this trial, including his sisters, Gail and Margaret, and his former constituency office worker Isobel Zambonini, who loyally flanked him into court every day. On that list is Nicola Sturgeon. Her ex-boss has been cleared of criminal behaviour towards women, and it would be a profound irony if a progressive modern politician, the only woman to have led her country, were to fall because of his old-fashioned behaviour.

The man himself remains an enigma. He might agree wholeheartedly with the cry of a generation of older men who feel they’re being accused of things they don’t understand.