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Shirley Williams: Nick Clegg is above all the victim of the Rennard scandal coverage

8 March 2013

A crime reporter friend enjoys telling the story of his first black eye at the local Magistrates’ Court. Like so many, it occurred as he was leaving, and bumped into a convicted defendant. The conversation ran along these lines:

Man convicted of awkward crime: You’re not putting this in the paper, are you? You can’t do this, it’ll ruin my business.
Reporter, in his first job and in a chippy mood: You should have thought about then when you did it, mate.
Man convicted of awkward crime’s right fist makes contact with reporter’s eye.

I remembered this story this evening as the Lib Dems started their party’s spring conference in Brighton with a rally for International Women’s Day. Awkward timing for the party, given the claims that the leadership managed to ignore allegations about Lord Rennard when he was its chief executive. Nick Clegg did the right thing by opening the rally with an address on the allegations and what the party was now doing about them. ‘We let people down,’ he said. ‘Liberal Democrats, that’s not acceptable to me.’

The party has set up two inquiries in the aftermath of the allegations, which Rennard strenuously denies. But if Clegg’s decision to address the scandal head-on soothed frayed nerves in the party, the next speaker didn’t exactly rub in the balm.

Shirley Williams is beloved by Lib Dem activists, and normally conducts herself with a magnificent elder stateswoman manner. She spoke to the conference about the by-election, about the NHS, about Chris Huhne… and about Lord Rennard. And it was her words that reminded me of that altercation outside the magistrates’ court. She said:

‘Journalism is a great profession, but it’s a profession that can demean itself. In the last couple of months, I think it has truly demeaned itself at least in some parts. Some of the right wing tabloids have gone on and on in a way which is almost maniacal and has absolutely place in the sort of serious issues that should have been considered.’

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She drew parallels with the treatment of some Republican candidates by partisan journalists in the US, and added:

‘Please, fellow journalists… don’t let this happen here. Don’t let us fall into the viciousness of partisanship, the extremism that is seen on the American right wing… I say that because Nick has been above all the victim of this.’

What the Lib Dems are doing is just like that defendant outside the court, and yes, there are plenty of chippy reporters encircling them, too. Those women who made the allegations to Channel 4 agreed to speak to ‘self-appointed detective’ Cathy Newman after they felt their complaints had been ignored by the party’s own internal processes. The allegations may be proven to be untrue, but there was a failure of due process, and that’s something that Nick Clegg, Tim Farron, and tonight Jo Swinson, have made very clear. That failure came back to haunt them during their by-election campaign because they hadn’t dealt with the complaints at the time.

In Ian McEwan’s book ‘Solar’, the main character refuses to take responsibility for any of his actions in his personal or professional life. Everything bumbles on well until the biggest day of his career, when everything, from his relationships to his career, ends up being smashed – in one instance quite literally. The Lib Dems are discovering the consequences of refusing to take responsible actions when they weren’t a party of government. And sometimes those consequences only emerge on the big occasions, rather than quietly and conveniently. Their attitude is ‘if only those awful journalists hadn’t reported the allegations of women who felt ignored, then none of this fiasco would have occurred’. It’s an attitude the party enjoys nurturing: the voting system is against us, the press is against us.

But Baroness Williams forgot to mention that it wasn’t the right-wing tabloids who started the Rennard row. It was Cathy Newman at Channel 4, and if the party thinks that her story, which sparked the feeding frenzy, was a partisan plot against the Liberal Democrats, then they should probably have a word with Ofcom. Did they really think that once a story which suggested a cover up at the heart of a political party had broken, the other papers would sit back and wait for the by-election to pass before they tucked in? If they did, they need to remember that they’re a party of government now, not one plodding along in the obscurity of opposition.

As James argued in last week’s magazine, they weren’t acting in opposition as though they were a party in government, which makes it all the easier for the press to hold them accountable. Yes, journalists holding you to account might make you want to lash out, as that man leaving the Magistrates’ Court did to the chippy reporter.

But perhaps some of those women who feel they were victims of Lord Rennard might take issue with the idea that Nick Clegg is the one who really suffered from the scandal. Of course he’s a ‘victim’ (or perhaps ‘focus’) of the story: he’s the party leader. And he’s the leader of a party in government, no less.

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  • foxoles

    Shirley Williams, OBE (Old, Batty and Extreme).

  • MirthaTidville

    The reason she is loved by the Dum Lub activists, is because they are as deluded as each other

  • Colonel Mustard

    Things to look forward to with New Labour Part II (or New New Labour) in 2015:-

    “You have no idea of the extent of the project on which we are embarked…”

    • foxoles

      Excellent piece. Seven incisive minutes of Peter Hitchens is worth several hours of Williams’ cloud-cuckoo-land bletherings.

      • Wessex Man

        The remarkable thing that none of you has mentioned is that when the Lord Rennard scandal broke she said that it was being blown out of all proportion and the Press were tryng to campare it to the Savile case. If it had been a Tory Peer she would have been writing the articles herself and comparing it to Savile!

    • Reasonable Telemachus

      The project is quite literally to rescue Britain from the economic contraction engineered by Osborne
      2015 is coming

      • Colonel Mustard

        No Ridiculous Telemachus. The project is something else entirely and we had a taste of it for 13 years so no more dissembling tripe please. Go and find another website to stalk and heckle on.

  • Reasonable Telemachus

    Yes Clegg is a credible victim
    Remember his 30 legovers

    • Tom Tom

      he had his legovers in a night of action with Willie Hague drinking 14 pints and watching

  • Austin Barry

    See Christopher Hitchens reduce Shirley Williams and the Question Time audience to pitiful rubble.

    • David Ossitt

      Thank you for the link. She was then; as she is now and has always been a batty silly old fool.

  • Curnonsky

    Is she implying that unless the press backs off Nick Clegg will be driven into some sort of extreme, vicious monster of a Liberal Democrat? How can one be extremely pallid, or extremely banal and predictable? It is like being bright beige.

  • anyfool

    Shirley Williams is beloved by Lib Dem activists, and normally conducts herself with a magnificent elder stateswoman manner.
    No she is a treacherous old crone “although as it was Labour she stabbed in the back is some mitigation” a bag women for a party without any principals whatsoever.
    That people think she is a serious thinker is a serious reflection on their thinking.

    • salieri

      “Without any principles whatsoever” may be going too far. She has, after all, made a career out of having principles without ever having to be too specific about what these might be. It was the appearance of having them, and of course of caring about them passionately, that mattered, and in this she was well ahead of her time, becoming an elder stateswoman by dint of survival, beatification by the BBC and chairing a number of right-thinking (i.e. left-thinking) committees.

      I had a girlfriend at University who was besotted with the idea of becoming a second Shirley Williams and Caring Passionately – without knowing exactly what about – and who duly followed her with unfailing devotion through the Labour Party, the SDP and then the LibDems before eventually receiving her own elevation into the Establishment. The done thing as an undergraduate in those days was to attend a War on Want lunch (consisting of a stale roll, margarine and a hunk of bacterially prolific cheddar) while listening to worthy speeches about poverty, apartheid and arts cuts, before taking a communal punt packed with strawberries and sauternes down to Grantchester. How good they felt about themselves, every Wedneday. We gentle piss-takers were dismissed as having no soul and no vision. It was never possible to establish what La Williams had actually said or done that was so inspiring. She was, however, married to a serious thinker, and was therefore readily regarded as one herself – as long as she looked sufficiently serious and of course caring. She perfected this art. The photograph is brilliant, by the way.

      • Tom Tom

        She had the fine art of English Hypocrisy sending her daughter to St Paul’s and imposing Comprehensives. As Minister for Prices she subsidised Danish Blue (“the working class cheese”) and not Blue Stilton (“too middle class”) as she used taxpayer funds to fiddle the RPI. She is lightweight but probably an affable dinner guest with the appropriate contempt for the peasants. She was in OUDS – the Dramatic Society at Oxford with the father of Alan Parker of Brunswick PR.

        • Andy

          Yes well she is a typical Labour politician – that is what she was and what she remains. I always feel she is puffed up with her own self importance, with a grossly exaggerated opinion of her own meagre talents. Similar to Roy Jenkins really.

        • 2trueblue

          Definitely not the “affable dinner guest”. Be kind to your mind and stomach.

      • HookesLaw

        Its easy to have principles so long as you do not have to make any meaningful decisions where they get in the way.

    • Tom Tom

      She is the earlier version of Harriet Harman

      • Andy

        But with a tad more charm.

        • HookesLaw

          I was going to say ‘but without the charm’

          • Andy

            Harman is just a Bolshi cow. No charm whatsoever.

  • salieri

    Good piece! And without even mentioning the word sanctimony.

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