Peeling the Bill Walker onion

There are so many layers to the Bill Walker story, it’s like peeling an onion.

Of course, he should never have been a parliamentary candidate, never mind an MSP. But somehow he got through. That should give the SNP and the other political parties pause to consider the rigour of their selection procedures, so that they might be certain that they do all they can to minimise the risk of future Bill Walkers. Given what we know now about his behaviour and refusal to accept responsibility for his actions, a modicum of value-based interviewing, of setting up scenarios to test the approach and attitude of aspiring parliamentarians would surely have found him out. A little less focus on the party credentials of putative candidates and a dollop more on the person and their characteristics before them might result in quite different people coming forward and being chosen to stand.

There are suggestions that some folk in the SNP knew about him much earlier than when he came to the attention of the Sunday Herald and subsequently, the police. There’s already an indication that journalists intend to pursue this line of enquiry, as well they might. The Sunday Herald’s Tom Gordon is already on to it, though his twitter- and door-stepping of someone who had just lost their mother was unedifying. I’m not sure Bernstein would have approved.

But if it is to avoid a witch-hunt led by the slavering political pack, roared on by opportunist opposition MSPs, the SNP needs to take ownership of the situation. The party needs to announce an internal inquiry, investigate every nook and cranny, uncover every layer of who knew what and when. And be seen to do so.

At the very least, it owes the women whom Bill Walker abused physically and emotionally, one while still in her teens, an explanation. The party does not need to lay bare its findings for media edification but if it finds itself wanting, to own up and say what it is doing to change that. And put the onus back on other parties to do likewise: after all, they all have their own bodies they’d like to remain buried.

We must not allow the media to become Witchfinder General as a result of the Bill Walker situation.  Unless we want the parliamentary equivalent of the Stepford Wives. Because Holyrood comprises people, there are bound to be others with stuff in their past, they’d rather we all didn’t know. They are, after all, just like the rest of us. Many of us have life experiences we work hard to forget but those experiences tend to make us who we are, if we have bothered to learn from them.  We are all fallible and gullible;  we can all be vulnerable to the most venal of emotions and actions and actually, we need a legislature which reflects life’s rich tapestry. The alternative is too awful;  indeed, many of us already bemoan just how many professional politicians with no experience of life outside the party presently occupy the parliamentary benches here and in that other place.

The issue is whether there are some like Bill Walker in denial about their current behaviour.  Had the man showed any remorse and responsibility for his actions, had he talked openly about his abusive nature and what he had done since – anger management classes, mediation, therapy – to control his behaviour and create different relationships, had he even pled guilty and spared his abused ex-wives the pain and trauma of having to relive their experience in open court, then our reaction might have been different.  Yet, right to the last, he has continued to blame others for his actions: he is resigning not because he is a convicted abuser of women and children but because the media onslaught made it impossible to continue.

His offensive behaviour continues in the present and he has no place in parliament.  Just as there might well be others whose antics in their personal life run contrary to the grain of public policy and what society has deemed to be acceptable.  Clearly this is tricky territory but the parties are duty bound to have a long hard look at their current crop of parliamentarians and assure themselves – and us – that there are no more Bill Walkers in their midst.  Not for what they might have done before and atoned for, but for what they are doing presently.

That might sound and seem harsh but the Scottish Parliament too requires to provide for anyone struggling with demons. Does it offer a confidential counselling service which MSPs might use?  Does it acknowledge that it has a duty of care to members and their staff?  Is there even a whistle-blowing service for staff who because of the nature of their work might uncover stuff about their bosses they don’t know what to do with and might not feel able to share with their parties?

What duty of care does the Scottish Parliament recognise to Bill Walker’s staff? They will lose their jobs from this;  chances are, given his refusal to acknowledge wrong-doing, that he wasn’t the most pleasant of bosses to work for. He possibly verbally abused and bullied them. Is someone somewhere offering and providing them with support if they need it?

The same applies to the women who bravely came forward to relive their experiences in court, to see justice done. Those who work in this sphere know from what women and children tell them, that the experience of giving evidence in court can be like being abused all over again. Until court proceedings are concluded, there is a sense of life on hold and afterwards, they are all too often left on their own to pick up the pieces. That’s where organisations like Scottish Women’s Aid and the Rape Crisis Centre come in – one hopes that someone has put the women involved in touch with them.

There is always the potential for good to come from a terrible situation like this.  We haven’t had a focus on domestic abuse and violence in the home for a while. It’s there or thereabouts but in recent years, Holyrood has got rather good at congratulating itself at how well we address and respond to this social ill. Yet, the statistics suggest we’re not doing nearly enough. Cases are rising, and worryingly, there are increasing numbers of young people affected, but convictions remain stubbornly low.  A parliamentary inquiry seems timely to explore the issues, what we are doing and what we might want to do differently.

There is great work out there focusing on prevention, to encourage the next generation in particular, to form healthier relationships – it would be good to showcase this and ensure that it is adequately resourced. But as with alcohol, there’s a need for Scotland to tell itself a few home truths, and that is that there are far too many families across the spectrum in Scotland where violence – in deed and discourse – is the norm.  Until we are prepared to acknowledge collectively that we have a problem, we are still far from finding a solution.

In the meantime, there’s a by-election to be prepared for. For the anoraks, the jockeying has already begun with speculation over who might be candidates. There is a suggestion that Labour will field an all-woman shortlist and at least one woman’s name is circulating as a possible SNP contender. Who knows, might the Lib Dems tempt Sarah Teather to come northwards?

Already some are agreed that it would make for a powerful symbol for all the candidates in this contest to be women. And already, this suggestion has been met with the tedious response that the candidates should be the best people for the job.  Just as Bill Walker clearly was, then.

But this by-election allows our political system to say something meaningful to the people of Dunfermline in particular and to Scotland more generally, that there is no place for violent abusers in our Parliament or indeed, anywhere in our society,  but plenty of room for more strong, impressive women. Indeed, some of us are even prepared to campaign across party lines to achieve such an outcome.

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Aitken must go – and so should silent Goldie

The response of Strathclyde police to the latest in a series of shocking rapes and sexual assaults in Glasgow city centre was depressing enough.  “Don’t go off alone” might seem like sound advice but it, as usual, puts the onus on women to keep themselves safe and fails to address the bigger issue, that of men’s continued violence towards them, and the failure of our society to prevent it or to tackle attitudes which permit it.

It negates much of the good work being done by the Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) that is attempting to shift the terms of debate – that violence is preventable, not inevitable – and to encourage a philosophy by which men – all men – take responsibility for the violence that some perpetrate against women and children, but also against each other.  Domestic and sexual violence is not a women’s issue, it is a men’s issue.  The VRU is interested in adopting the bystander approach advocated by “anti-sexist activist and educator” Jackson Katz and Scotland’s first such programme is currently being piloted by Scottish Women’s Aid alongside a host of partners.

But it’s clear we still have a long way to travel, particularly when there are politicians like Bill Aitken MSP around to shock and appal by questioning the morals – and therefore, the impact and seriousness of the crime – of this particular woman and women in general, who by dint of daring to be alone in a city centre are apparently inviting horrific gang rape.  Why this woman was in this part of the city centre, or indeed any part of the city centre, and for what purpose is of no matter.  It does not excuse nor trivialise this atrocity, at least not for most right minded folk.

There is no excuse and no justification for Bill Aitken’s comments, made in a telephone conversation with a Sunday Herald journalist.  They are unacceptable and he must resign from his convenorship of the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee.  By these comments he has proven himself unfit to hold the post.  It does not matter that he is about to retire nor that there are only a few weeks of parliamentary activity left.  If the institution itself is not to be brought into disrepute, he must resign.  If he fails to do so, then other committee members must effect his removal. 

It is not just Aitken’s inappropriate verbosity that is suspect;  Annabel Goldie’s continuing silence on the matter is fast becoming an issue too.  There is nothing on the Scottish Conservatives’ website, neither an apology from Aitken nor an opinion nor condemnation from Goldie.  If he refuses to do the honourable thing and resign his position, then Goldie must act for him.  She must remove him from his portfolio responsibility for justice and insist that he resign the Convenorship.  Then, on behalf of the Scottish Conservative party, she should apologise – to the victim, her family and to women more generally.  If she does not, then her own position becomes untenable.

The First Minister has made plain his disgust, as has Labour’s Depute Leader, Johann Lamont.  Good.  If Aitken has not resigned by the time Holyrood returns from recess next week, the burd hopes that the two main political parties will work together – for once, at last – and take the appropriate action to remove Aitken from his post.

Anything else is a travesty.  And belittles and undermines all attempts to have the crimes of rape and sexual assault treated much more seriously, the impacts of such crimes addressed much more effectively, and the causes of such violence tackled and prevented.

Not ever requires much more than glossy commercials and websites to become a reality.