Domestic Affairs


Shona Robison MSP, Minister with Responsibility for Equalities, recently stressed the Scottish Government’s continued commitment to preventing domestic abuse and to challenging public attitudes. She was clear that, ‘There is never an excuse for abuse’ and firmly blamed the perpetrators not women and children. Her party’s vision is for a Scotland where women have ‘genuine equality, free from violence and abuse’, that now was a ‘time for reflection’ and that ‘Ministers will listen’.

Listen up!

Sheriff Mackie’s recent judgement in the case of Bill Walker, a former SNP MSP, reveals how far Scotland has come in dealing with domestic abuse but also how much more careful listening is needed by everyone. Mackie’s written judgement provides a timely opportunity for reflection.

Walker was convicted of 24 criminal charges – of physical acts of violence and threats. 24! Mackie acknowledged, ‘There was evidence showing the accused to be controlling, domineering, demeaning and belittling towards the three complainers, his former wives.’ However she went on, ‘Whether I accepted that evidence and however abhorrent, unacceptable and abusive such behaviour might be it does not amount to a criminal offence.’ So what then can be done about such men?

With Scottish domestic abuse prevalence rates of around one in three women, almost 60,000 incidents reported annually, and Glasgow’s domestic abuse courts stretched to their limit, it is very likely that we personally know of an abusive intimate relationship. What do we do? Do we do what the SNP did at candidate selection time? Nothing? Walker had not then been charged with or convicted of any offence, allegations of his abusive behaviour presented no apparent barrier to his ambitions for public office…end of. His ex-wives begged to differ.

If you learned that a friend was abusing his partner, what would you do? As a society we have traditionally been passive bystanders with non-intervention justified by statements like ‘what goes on between couples is their business…she made her bed…’. The long reach of the Victorian oversimplification of men and women inhabiting public and private spheres respectively may still be partly to blame. Intimate relationships remains a key site of 21st century Scottish women’s subordination due to the attitudes of perpetrators and to a society still largely standing back. Doing nothing or minimizing abuse is tantamount to collusion as the Catholic Church, the Benedictine Order and the BBC are discovering. Listening to those experiencing abuse is best.

Observe also Sherriff Mackie’s puzzlement, ‘…why a woman stays in or returns to an abusive relationship is a complex issue not easily understood by the rational observer.’ Complex? Yes. Hard to understand? No. Such victim blaming is common. Again, years of empirical research show that women, quite simply, are too frightened to leave. Staying put is often the safest option when living with such a ‘controlling, domineering, demeaning and belittling’ person who is given to regularly assaulting his family – remember those 24 assault convictions? Women live like hostages in such relationships. Many women in Scotland are killed by a current or former partner around the time of separation – staying put is therefore a perfectly rational choice. In spite of finding the complainers’ choices hard to understand however, the ever rational Mackie did find the women’s evidence credible, they were believed. Thank goodness.

Domestic abuse is a public matter. Walker’s ‘non-criminal behaviour’ controlled his wives by frightening them. Many women live with such fear 24/7, it follows them when they go out to work or education, into personal and social relationships; it restricts their freedom to socialize or pursue their creative interests. Men like Walker are thirled to an outmoded view of women’s role in relationships and in society and have an exaggerated, narcissistic sense of their own entitlement. Dominated as they are by oppressive domestic regimes, many Scottish women are not free citizens. Such liberty restrictions also deny women full equality in a democratic society. The personal is political, the private is public.

So here’s to you Ms. Robison, to your party, to your Government’s vision for women’s equality in Scotland and to changing public attitudes. Domestic abuse is not happening way over there, to those people, in those communities. It is happening in plain sight, supported by outmoded attitudes and expectations which restrict women’s freedom. Scotland should be proud of her internationally recognised approach to tackling domestic abuse. However, we could all, SNP workers and members included, usefully reflect on our personal attitudes and values. As we race towards the independence referendum, domestic abuse should be recognised as an important political issue for democracy. Such abuse is both a cause and a consequence of women’s inequality. If asked, any rational person would likely agree that domestic abuse is a terrible thing and ask what can be done. When it is suggested that we might begin by taking a close look at how we, as men and women, treat each other in daily life, chances are they may fall silent and walk away muttering, ‘that’s none of your business.’

©Anni Donaldson

[email protected]

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  1. Such a good article, and such a shame you even have to write it. The answer you give to What we do? (‘nothing’) is painfully true, but worth pointing out. Nothing, we do nothing, which is why we are here. Doing nothing about Walker.

  2. Excellent article Anni. Unfortunately it resonates around the world.

  3. Great article Anni. Unfortunately it resonates around the world.

  4. wanvote says:

    The silence is deafening!
    It may be that the usually vocal people who visit bella are busy checking out sites like Violence Against Women Prevention Network, Women’s Aid, Victim Support and a whole host of others before responding to this article. I really hope this is so.

  5. Dave Coull says:

    When I was a young laddie my dad told me a story about my Auntie Jemima. Aye, I did have an Auntie Jemima. I’m not making this up. Dad had five brothers, but only one sister. A while after Jemima got married, stories started to come out that her husband Wullie was beating her up.

    So, all five of Jemima’s brothers went round to see Wullie, and to explain to him, in very forceful terms, that it really wasn’t in his interests to treat their sister like that. Their explanation of this must have been very clear, because, apparently, he never again did treat her like that. Mind you, they did tell Jemima about their warning to Wullie, and they did advise her that all she had to do was say the word, and they would deal with Wullie.

    This was in Clydebank, in the 1930s.

    Jemima and Wullie never separated. They stayed together, until death did them part. How happy, or otherwise, the marriage was, I cannot say. I can only say they stayed together.

    Not everybody has five brothers with her interests at heart. And nowadays that way of dealing with such a problem would be frowned on anyway.

    My dad did tell me about what had happened, but that was many years later. I wonder who, apart from the immediate family, got to hear about the problem, and how it was dealt with, at the time? I wonder, apart from the five brothers, did any women know about what was happening to Jemima? Did she tell another woman, and that other woman told the brothers, because she thought that was the way to deal with it? Nowadays folk might be a bit more inclined to talk about such things, and that is surely better.

    Anyway, I’m not quite sure what all this proves. But it’s a bit of family history, and it’s a bit of working class history. I found Anni Donaldson’s article on “Domestic Affairs” interesting, and I noticed that comment about “The silence is deafening!”, and I thought, well, I’m not staying silent.

  6. Dave Coull says:

    Six! My dad had five brothers, so I should have said all SIX of them went round to see Wullie!

  7. Jen says:

    ” However she went on, ‘Whether I accepted that evidence and however abhorrent, unacceptable and abusive such behaviour might be it does not amount to a criminal offence.’ So what then can be done about such men?”

    Does this mean that Bill Walker despite a trial and being found guilty is not a criminal? I think that’s problem. I would like mandatory 5 five sentences for perpetrators of domestic violence, regardless of sex. Loss of driving licence for 10 years and a register similar to the sex offenders one. I am aware that this may seem harsh but unless punishment is meted out by the justice system how can anyone recover and no wonder women and men stay in such relationships because they know even if they complain to the authorities nothing much happens.

    I wonder what affect harsher sanctions would bring within society. I understand their is complex reasons behind domestic violence but there is no excuse and perhaps swift and the threat of harsher sentences would cause people to think twice.

    Dave – I have similar story from my own family and thank you for sharing.

  8. wanvote says:

    Jen, I disagree that there are complex reasons behind domestic violence. It’s plain and simple bullying and thuggery. If the same bully tried to get away with violence and intimidation against a woman and a child (or several children) out in the open, in the street, criminal charges would be brought. Violence against women and children thrives in a culture where people make excuses for the perpetrator and blame the woman for not leaving the home (with children in tow, where there are any.

  9. Dave Coull says:

    As I understand it, Bill Walker has been found guilty, but he has not yet been sentenced. The maximum sentence that particular court could give him would be twelve months. Which could mean 7 months with good behavior. In any case, no Member of Parliament can be barred from parliament if their sentence is 12 months or less. He can go on drawing his parliamentary slary and expenses. Even if a way can be found to suspend his salary, it would only be for a short time. The next Scottish Parliament election is in May 2016, and the greedy Mr Walker shows every sign of wanting to go on drawing his parliamentary salary for the next three year. The Scottish government has condemned this, other MSPs have condemned this, but they can’t stop him from doing so. In these circumstances, there is surely a case for some sort of extra-parliamentary action. Not getting six brothers of his ex-wives to go and visit him, oh dear me no we have moved on from such old-fashioned ways of dealing with such problems. But there might be a case for six sisters taking some sort of action.

  10. This terrible case highlights a democratic deficit- there must be the means to recall an MSP if the electorate demand that.

  11. bellacaledonia says:

    Today at 1 at Scottish Parliament:

    NUS Scotland, Scottish Women’s Aid and Zero Tolerance call for action by Scottish Parliament to remove Bill Walker from Parliament.

    NUS Scotland Women’s Campaign, Scottish Women’s Aid and Zero Tolerance will call on Bill Walker MSP to resign at a demonstration outside the Scottish Parliament at 1pm on Tuesday, September 3. Organisers of the rally will also call on the Scottish Parliament to take action to remove Walker should he not immediately step down.

    This joint call by Scotland’s leading campaigning organisations against domestic abuse comes as the Parliament returns from its summer recess and just days after Walker, who was convicted by a Scottish Court of 23 domestic abuse charges against three former wives and a step daughter, was quoted in press reports as stating he would not vacate his seat.

    1. Good luck with this very important demonstration. Wish I could be there.

  12. mrbfaethedee says:

    As to the silence, domestic violence is a very widespread problem and as you say, for many women, staying put seems the safest option. Children experience live through it too with no option to stay or go, so many more people that just the abused partners have lived witnessing or experiencing it too.
    It is a powerful subject, and to be honest I can’t if tell if some of the comments weren’t half-hoping for a bit of dissent in the comments, but I think most people would find this to be an excellent article requiring little comment – and sadly I think they will be far to many people who don’t need to go visit some of the sites mentioned for second-hand knowledge.

    Also, have to second Tam’s point about the need for recall mechanisms.

    Not quite sure why there isn’t a cross party mobilisation of MSP’s looking to change the mechanisms of parliament.

    1. Dave Coull says:

      Things like the dismissal of Members of Parliament are a reserved matter. MSPs simply do not have the power, in a devolved parliament, to change the mechanisms of that parliament. Only Westminster can do that. So, legally speaking, the only thing you can do, if you want to change the mechanisms of the Scottish Parliament, is to vote YES to independence next year, and then push for things like mechanisms for the recall or dismissal of MPs in the new constitution which will be developed for an independent Scotland. And yes, that could take a 2 to 3 years. In the meantime, Bill Walker is planning to remain a Member of the Scottish Parliament until May 2016, collecting many thousands of pounds in salary, and collecting thousands more in a golden goodbye package on his “retiral” from parliament then. It is outrageous that he can do this, but, legally speaking, there doesn’t seem to be anything preventing him from doing so. Therefore, any steps to deal with the Bill Walker situation could not be legal steps, and they could not be parliamentary steps. But that doesn’t mean no steps could be taken. It just means people need to think in terms of pursuing the matter not through the courts and not through parliament.

      1. mrbfaethedee says:

        Thanks Dave, appreciate the info, I didn’t realize that the Scottish Parliament was entirely impotent with regard to itself.
        As you say – another reason for Yes (in case i needed one).

        Also explains the lack of cross party work to do something about parlaiment mechanisms, although it doesn’t preclude strong and joint lobbying at Westminster for change, with a sporting agreement that neither of the Yes/No camps will seek to make capital out of it.

        Perhaps the courts are the immediate solution, but I’d still like to see all parties at holyrood work together to be seen to be doing what *can* be done at a parliamentary level, so that the parliament is representative of our expectations.

  13. Emily says:

    Great well written article, well said!

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