Why the objection to the up-skirting bill wasn't a simple act of misogyny
Sir Christopher Chope is an unpopular man. Last month, he objected to a Private Member’s Bill being ‘nodded through’ its second reading in the House of Commons. He did not do so because he disagreed with its goals, nor because he did not appreciate its contents. Nor, for that matter, was it the first time that he had prevented such a bill from becoming law uncontested.
As far as he was concerned, it was a simple matter of principle: a bill must be debated in Parliament before becoming law; passing one without contest is, to him, at least symbolically, a criticism of our entire democratic system. An unpopular stance, certainly - but one which had hitherto caused him few problems either with his electors or with the public at large.
His downfall was that this bill was a fashionable one. It sought explicitly to render a criminal offence the practice of ‘up-skirting’ - i.e. of taking pictures, without the victim’s permission or knowledge, of a woman from under her skirt. Police incompetence had, in 2017, allowed a perpetrator of this crime - for a crime, namely outraging public decency, it was even before the bill - to escape punishment.
This injustice led to an outcry, which led to a campaign, which led to a Private Member’s Bill. Everyone sensible agreed: ‘up-skirters’ willfully traumatise and demean their victims to obtain a base sexual pleasure. They are criminals; the law ought to treat them, unambiguously, as criminals. It was this bill that would have become law had it not been for Chope’s cry of ‘object’.
What was principle to him was, for pundits up and down the country, reason to label him a heartless, cruel misogynist. The Guardian called him ‘backwards’ and ‘out-of-touch’, his line of reasoning ‘bullshit’, his action ‘asshattery’; the Daily Mirror labelled him ‘shameless’. From Twitter, ever the civil medium of discussion, cries of ‘dirty old man’, ‘pervert’, and ‘lunatic’ poured in aplenty. Protesters hung three pairs of knickers outside his Westminster office. For days, his wife was afraid to leave the house.
The staggering incivility of the response aside, the incident reflects poorly both on our media landscape and on the integrity of our democratic system. Parliament, as every school-child learns, exists to debate bills - not simply to put a rubber stamp on what is popular with the public. Despite suggestions to the contrary, debate over a Private Member’s Bill does not diminish its worth, nor indict the member who put it forward. On the contrary: a proposed law that survives a parliamentary debate is one that has proven itself to be not simply a temporary whim - but a necessary and worthwhile addition to our legal system.
This is especially true when a bill seeks to render something a criminal offence. Putting dozens, perhaps hundreds of people behind bars must not be taken lightly. Depriving a person of freedom is the most severe punishment that this country can inflict. It is the utmost possible exertion of the power of the state over its citizens. It also involves substantial costs, both to the state and to society as a whole.
In this case, it is quite right - as most, including Chope himself, would agree - that ‘up-skirters’ should generally receive a prison sentence. As with other crimes of this nature, the emotional damage inflicted on the victim can be very great. From a sense of having been violated to a perception of ‘nowhere being safe’, many ‘up-skirted’ women carry the emotional scars of the event with them for months, years - or a lifetime. For some, the constant feeling of unease - and sometimes, perversely, of shame - can become debilitating. ‘Up-skirting’ can ruin lives.
But regardless of how popular, and indeed just, a bill may be, Parliament has a duty to assess its merits, amend its provisions, and tweak its language. A debated bill is a precise bill, less likely to be misinterpreted by the judiciary or by future MPs. Chope may not have done himself any favours by expressing his beliefs in the way he did, perhaps he could have chosen another less controversial bill to prove his point; but nevertheless he was not wrong. Rational and sustained debate within Parliament is the basis of our legal system - and of our democracy. Having invented Parliamentarism, we would do well to reclaim this founding principle of it.