I've had a post in drafts for the last 3 days about the fallout from Alistair Webster's statement
but my heart has been so heavy that it's only now I feel able to complete it. I have to thank Lord Carlile of Berriew for his help in that regard. His statements across various media have been so unnecessarily aggressive, rude, bullish and, frankly, unhelpful to anyone that he's helped clarify my thoughts. There is also an irony about the man who so strongly supported the introduction of secret courts complaining about secret justice in this matter. To be clear, he and Chris Rennard have seen all the evidence. They and the women concerned should probably see the report.
What I'm going to say is as someone who has been broadly sympathetic to Chris Rennard in the almost 20 years I've known him and should be viewed in that context. I have no scores to settle and I've always had a cordial relationship with him.
This past year has been excruciating for me and for the party. There are people I care about on all sides of this. I may not be directly involved, but I feel like I've been emotionally boshed on the head with a sledgehammer. I shudder to think what it must be like for the people who have been at the centre of it all.
The party is in danger of pulling itself apart over this. On one hand, there are a growing number of people who feel that Chris Rennard should apologise as asked to do so by Alistair Webster QC before being admitted back into the Lords group. I was really surprised that the Scottish Liberal Democrats Executive agreed unanimously yesterday to back Nick Clegg's position
on this. Although we confined our motion to that, there was a call to also condemn Lord Carlile for his deeply offensive public statements.
On the other hand, there are those who genuinely believe Rennard to be innocent and to have been found so by the enquiry. They are fiercely protective of him and view the complainants, as our friend Lord Carlile does, as "bad losers" or possibly even worse.
Chris Rennard has not been found innocent
In order to try and find a way through this, I think we have to bear in mind that Chris Rennard has not been found innocent. At best, Alistair Webster's findngs are more akin to the Scottish "not proven" verdict and the reaction of people on both sides demonstrate very clearly why such a verdict is entirely unsatisfactory. Let's look at what the QC said:
Let me be clear from the outset that the evidence suggests that Lord Rennard’s behaviour has caused distress to a number of women, so much so that they came forward several years after the events in question.
His final conclusion:
My view, judging the evidence as a whole, is that there is a less than 50% chance that a charge against Lord Rennard could be proved to the requisite standard.
In my opinion, the evidence of behaviour which violated the personal space and autonomy of the complainants was broadly credible. However, it is my judgment, considering all of the evidence collected, that it is unlikely that it could be established beyond reasonable doubt that Lord Rennard had intended to act in an indecent or sexually inappropriate way. Without proof of such an intention, I do not consider that such a charge would be tenable.
I stress that I am not finding that the evidence of the complainants was unreliable. I have specifically discounted suggestions made during the investigation that the incidents had been invented as part of a political campaign against Lord Rennard.
It is my view that Lord Rennard ought to reflect upon the effect that his behaviour has had and the distress which it caused and that an apology would be appropriate, as would a commitment to change his behaviour in future.
Not innocence, but evidence that suggests that Rennard's behaviour caused distress, that he should reflect on this, apologise and give assurances about future behaviour.
I agree with Stephen Tall's main conclusion
- it's a mess. The party's processes have been found to be totally inadequate to deal with allegations of this nature and that must be remedied as soon as possible.
I think that the way in which Alex Carlile has interpreted this statement has been insensitive, inaccurate and utterly offensive. His manner is entirely dismissive of the women concerned and is especially inappropriate given that Rennard said yesterday via his speedily deleted Facebook account
that he considered making an apology 3 years ago. In today's Daily Mail, he compares the party's processes to North Korea and Henry VIII's torture. He says that Rennard has been made ill over the last year. Is he therefore suggesting that the party should not even have investigated these allegations? Being under investigation is stressful for anyone.
Had Rennard accepted Webster's conclusion and issued a genuine, credible apology rather than forget about the second part of the statement, he could have been back on the path to better health and less stress. Instead, he chooses to threaten further legal action and dig his heels in, presumably on the advice of Carlile and others. That could have been an end to the matter, he could have been re-admitted to the Lords group and everyone could have moved on. That same stubbornness and single focus which contributed to his fantastic election winning success for this party has an altogether more (self)-destructive side now. Simply, when someone is told that there is evidence that their behaviour has caused distress, their first reaction should be to apologise for that distress, whether it was intended or not. He may feel that his previous vehement denials have painted him into a corner. Actually, I think a genuine apology would be well received and the courage it takes to issue it respected. Even now.
Privileged few closing ranks - not a good look
The idea that the Lords could let Chris back in without an apology was always hugely worrying for me. I wrote to Jim Wallace saying that such a move would be very damaging for our party. We, the party who are supposed to challenge vested interests, would see a privileged few close ranks to protect one of their own. If they do that, all the fantastic work that they do will be, from then on, tarnished.
It may well be that the Lords will vote tomorrow to allow Chris Rennard back into the group, defying Nick Clegg's very clear statement that they should not without an apology. That would be really unfortunate. Even if they do bow to the leader's view and that expressed by the 120 party members (me included)
, they will be in mutinous mood which doesn't bode well for future relations.
The Lords have different motivations for the view they take. In fact, I think an analysis of them in a Venn diagram would be quite interesting. First of all, you have those who think they're living in a world of Benny Hill and Carry on films,where women's breasts and bottoms are fair game.This Facepalm Brigade simply don't get the concept of sexual harassment and think that it's all a load of fuss about nothing. It scares me that people with that sort of view make our laws, let alone that they're in our party. To be fair, these sorts of people exist in all parties and in wider society, but still.
Secondly, and this is a group of people I think we need to treat with some sympathy, Rennard's actual friends. Some of them have known him well for decades. Some of them owe their entire careers to him. For various reasons, they have a strong bond with him and a fierce loyalty to him. Before you condemn them, think how it would be if your friend or your dad or your brother was in Rennard's situation. Of course you would support them in almost all cases and you would feel very protective of them and angry at anyone who wasn't. These are very human reactions and emotions and I think we need to cut those people a bit of slack. That doesn't give them the right to be offensive in public, and to be honest, most of them have either said nothing or been respectful, but I can see why they would want to vote to readmit someone they care about. It doesn't make it right to do so, though, because, as Liberal Democrat parliamentarians they also have a duty to the party.
Thirdly, and this is where it's worth putting the effort in to build positive relationships with people, not all our Lordships have time for Nick Clegg and Tim Farron, not least for the way that they spoke about them during the doomed process of trying to get Lords reform through. Then, they suggested that Lords just turned up and got £300 a day tax free and wasn't this awful? Actually, our Lords work bloody hard, seriously improve legislation and do a huge amount of good. Nick has recognised that latterly, but he's still not flavour of the month in the Upper House.
Whatever their perspective, I really hope that they will see that they will harm the party if they allow Chris Rennard back without an apology.
So how do we get through?
There is an obvious path to peace.
It's not too late for Chris Rennard to apologise, and to do it well. I really think that he should call off Carlile, say no thanks to Chris Davies MEP's pledges of money to fund high court actions and just do it for his own sake as well as everybody else's.Those women should get the apology that they, according to the person who has seen all the evidence, deserve. Stephen Tall rightly pointed out that an apology extracted under duress wouldn't make any difference or satisfy anyone. What I'm suggesting is that he actually makes it sincerely. It takes a lot of courage to unpaint yourself from a corner, but it can be done.
There's a report in the Independent on Sunday
which states that Chris's supporters are saying that he can't apologise in case he gets sued. If you think about it, this is quite insulting to the women. This has never been about money. They were purely motivated by concerns about the safety of women in the party and its failure to treat allegations of sexual harassment seriously, pure and simple. Having said that, if that perception is a barrier to an apology, I wonder if it would help if they were able to say explicitly that they would not seek civil damages.
However, and I've changed my view on this in the last 24 hours, I don't think it's appropriate, even with an apology to allow him back into the Lords group just yet. Not after the way his legal adviser has been talking all over the media, misrepresenting what Alistair Webster said. And the comparisons he's made to Henry VIII's torturers and to North Korea are really ridiculous. I mean, he's saying that an oppressive legal system which gives people no freedom and where political rivals face the firing squad is better than the disciplinary processes of the Liberal Democrats. That Henry VIII's people torturing in search of evidence is better than the admittedly imperfect procedure that's just taken place. Such statements make me question the credibility of everything else that he says.
A time of contrition after all the bluster is now called for.
I think we also need to try and take the temperature down somehow. People need to try and be calm and temperate in their language. There are very strong emotions involved in this and we need to respect where others are coming from and frame our remarks accordingly. It is possible to have these differences without letting them overwhelm our ability to function and work together.
The four women have now filed an appeal against the process. I don't know the details of it, but we'll have to wait for due process on that. There may well be further evidence, further hearings and legal action in the public courts.
The European elections take place 4 months on Wednesday. We all need to work together to get a decent result in that and the many sets of local elections also taking place. We need to get our focus back off this and on to the doorstep. That'll be a lot easier if the Lords do the right thing tomorrow, whether they want to or not.