Being told to say sorry for my wrongdoings was my introduction to the double bind. I got the hang of how it worked, but never figured any way out of it. ‘Don’t just stand there. Haven’t you got anything to say for yourself?’ It became clear pretty quickly that a rational discussion of the pros and cons of my misdemeanour was not what the parent had in mind. ‘Well? And you haven’t even got the decency to say sorry.’ Deep breath while I prepared myself for entering the mire. ‘I’m sorry.’ ‘No you’re not. You’re just saying that, because you think you should.’ This was almost always true. I was certainly sorry for the trouble I was in, but rarely sorry in a contrite way. It would go on like this. The demand for an apology, the apology, the rejection of the apology and further fury until some punishment was decided on and I was sent in disgrace to my room.
Sometimes there was a variation. ‘Sorry.’ ‘What good is that? Saying sorry won’t stop the cup being broken, the neighbours from complaining about your noise, bring back the cat you hanged.’ That last is an exaggeration. But I understood the logic of this. What was the point of saying sorry? It didn’t change anything. It certainly didn’t mean that I would never do anything again that got me in trouble, because most of the time I hadn’t intended whatever it was to happen the way it did, or my pleasure in doing it outweighed the distress it would cause my parent. Sorry seemed so pointless. Just a show. But it was insisted on. And then disbelieved. ‘Do you mean it? You don’t mean it.’
Sorry was the hardest word because no one believed it. Not the culprit nor the accuser. One thing young people hate is hypocrisy. Every time I said I was sorry, a fairy folded its wings and died. The grown-ups who demanded it were fairy-killers, and I hated them for it.
Lord Rennard had not the faintest idea that there was anything wrong with touching the body of a woman co-worker, especially, as one of his supporters pointed out, ‘through clothing’. He knows that he has nothing to say sorry for. He is prepared to do the marvellously meaningless public wriggle thing: ‘If ever I have hurt, embarrassed or upset anyone, then it would never have been my intention and, of course, I regret that they may have felt any hurt, embarrassment or upset.’ But then he went and made doubly sure it was clearly not an apology. ‘But for the reasons given, I will not offer an apology to the four women complainants. I do not believe that people should be forced to say what they know they should not say, or do not mean.’
Two of the women complaining have said that they wouldn’t take legal action if Rennard said he was sorry. Rennard has been advised against this since it would admit guilt and make him liable. I can’t understand why an apology, even if a sincere apology were possible at this point, would be acceptable. Or perhaps, just like my mother, they plan their next move: you don’t really mean it. In fact, one of them added that she didn’t want a ‘politician’s apology if it was not sincere’. And since he’s already said he wouldn’t mean it, we’re back to the old apology stand-off I know so well.
I never tried the Rennard tactic with my parents. ‘If I have hurt or embarrassed you…’ It would have occasioned a slapped face. Because in those days, people whacked their kids to improve them, just as they harmlessly put their hands up women’s skirts, tweaked their nipples and, a particular favourite of Italian men, apparently, pinched their bottoms. In the grand scheme of things, Michael White told us, the fuss about a wandering hand in the office is out of all proportion. And to give more weight to his weighty argument White suggested that the grand scheme of things included female genital mutilation and slavery, thus proving that he was as feminist as the next man. What was ‘the hysterical language’ over ‘a clammy hand on the knee’ compared to that?
Polly Toynbee tried to explain to White and others about sexual harassment of women in the workplace and the endless entitlement of men (not just six years ago) who think they can control women by treating them as things. One of the complainants was advised, when she started work, to be ‘friendly and flirty’ with Chris Rennard as it would ‘help me politically if he noticed me’. As far as I can see, it has been men (and Ann Leslie) who have defended Rennard on the grounds of his having made a minor infraction of good manners. ‘Hysterical,’ says White. ‘Shrill,’ says Clegg. You get the idea. The Telegraph suspects ‘Nick Clegg’s angry wife, Miriam’ (she’s foreign, and a woman, hot blooded, and a woman and a lawyer and foreign) of being behind Clegg’s harassment of his lordship.
Still, as I write, the Lib Dems are trying to find a form of words Rennard and his ‘victims’ can agree to that would make the frightfulness go away. But Rennard has now announced that he is himself the victim, suffering from the same symptoms – depression, a wish to self-harm – that people who have experienced sexual abuse are said to suffer from. I can’t really remember how all those conversations with my mother resolved themselves, after the slap and punishment. I suppose everyone sulked and then, being together in a very small flat, finally just had to get on with getting on with it. The analogy looks as if it might hold up for the Lib Dems, apart from the physical violence, obviously. Lessons have been learned.