How bullying casts a long shadow…a post updated with reflections on Priti Patel and Dominic Cummings

It is ten years since I first wrote this, and I share it every year during Anti-Bullying Week. I could write something else, but it took some emotional energy to write the first time and I’m not really up for putting myself through that again. 

Let’s not put up with anyone being treated like this, whether at school, in the workplace or within politics. It’s important that anyone in any sort of leadership role in any organisation has the skills to recognise and intervene to stop bullying and support those affected by it. It casts a very long shadow and destroys lives. Its costs are massive in terms of wellbeing. Also, if you are bothered about the money and the economy, happier people are more productive.  It’s entirely preventable and we should do all we can to eradicate it.

It is ironic that I share this during this year’s anti bullying week a day after a Prime Minister defends a Cabinet Minister who has been found to have broken the Ministerial Code in the way that she treated her civil servants:

My advice is that the home secretary has not consistently met the high standards required by the Ministerial Code of treating her civil servants with consideration and respect.

Her approach on occasions has amounted to behaviour that can be described as bullying in terms of the impact felt by individuals.

I think the report is quite lenient on her, almost justifying shouting and swearing at officials. There is no circumstance in which that is ever justifiable in a workplace. The idea that she gets off because nobody raised it with her in the Home Office is utterly ridiculous. It takes some courage to raise these issues with the person in charge who shouts and swears at you. 

By all accounts, the way the recently departed Dominic Cummings treated people was even worse than the allegations against Patel. This Government has so far been fuelled by bullying. A toxic culture in which people are working in an atmosphere of fear and loathing is never going to be conducive to getting stuff done well. And this is actually costing lives. You can’t perform well if you are constantly fearful and anxious about the behaviour of an individual. You can’t effectively challenge their thinking and ideas. When you are making decisions that are a matter of life and death for many people, you need to make sure that they are properly thought through. A wise person I know says that the most important person in the room is the person who disagrees with you, because their input helps make your performance better. 

If staff in any workplace wake up with that same nausea that I faced when I was bullied, it saps energy that they could be putting into their work. And that is entirely the fault of the bully. 

We have a Prime Minister who clearly doesn’t get the impact of bullying in the workplace, and who is prepared to overlook the most egregious instances of it. 

Priti Patel should have been sacked. Dominic Cummings’ behaviour as Michael Gove’s Special Adviser at Education should have  meant that he never got over the door of Downing Street. 

It is incredibly worrying that the person in charge is willing to let this sort of unforgivable behaviour pass. The example that sets to other employers is extremely unhelpful, to say the least. 

And now on to that 10 year old piece.

I’ve been procrastinating like anything to avoid writing this post because although I know the events I’m going to describe took place a long time ago, they cast a long shadow. Their stranglehold on my life is long gone, but the memories are not. I might have teased my sister for posting something inane on my Facebook wall a while ago when she has important work she needs to do, but how would I know if I hadn’t similarly been wasting time.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a very long time, but now is probably the right time. When Stephen wrote so movingly about how his experiences of homophobic bullying had almost led him to the brink of suicide, I thought about telling my story too. His account of standing on the breakwater as a 17 year old brought vividly to my mind those dark occasions I’d stood far above the sea and contemplated jumping as a young teenager myself. I wasn’t bullied for homophobic reasons. In fact, it was made very clear to me that no man, woman or even beast would ever find me attractive.

The bullying started in earnest when I went to secondary school. I was in a very dark place as a 12 year old. This isn’t the right place to explain why but when I experienced those feelings again in later life, the doctor called it Depression. To add to that, we’d moved so I was far away from the emotional bedrocks my wonderful grannies provided. I was vulnerable, alone and, let’s be honest, not very likeable. I certainly didn’t like myself much anyway.

During the first three years of high school, I was primarily known by two names, neither of which had been given to me by my parents. In English one day in first year, we were taking it in turns to read out a scene from a play. I couldn’t for the life of me tell you what it was but as fate would have it, the line I had to read was “I want a yak.” Quick as a flash, the boy in front of me yelled out “I always thought you were one……” Cue the entire class, including the teacher, to collapse in laughter. That spread like wildfire, and before long it became my name to the entire pupil body.

If we’d had Google images then, I might have discovered pretty quickly that yaks are really kind of cute, but I never really saw it that way at the time and I really don’t think that the name was an affectionate one.

The other name came from the fact that, yes, I do have weird eyes. For that reason, people would hiss like a cat when they saw me coming, and spit out “Cat’s Eyes” as I passed.

I’m sure that doesn’t sound like much, but when you hear one or other of those things round every corner every day, you do feel less than human.

I became adept at varying my route to and from school to try to avoid the bullies who were there to pull my hair, or steal my stuff or point, or laugh, or kick or trip me up. They liked to mix it up a bit so I never really knew what I was walking into. I know it’s all quite low level, but it wore me down. I lived in perpetual fear and carrying that around everywhere was exhausting.

And then there was the damage or loss to property. One day I’d hung a light blue jacket on the back of my seat. By the end of the lesson, it was covered in dark ink splodges. Despite the girl behind’s fingers being covered in ink, the school could do nothing because nobody had seen her do it.

It seemed at times like most of the teachers turned a blind eye to what was going on. Sometimes, it even felt like they were joining in. I remember lining up at the end of a class one day and one person called me a name. The teacher then repeated that name at me, legitimising what the bully had said, giving them a real boost and making me feel like there really was nobody who thought I was any good whatsoever.

I dealt with it by escaping into a bit of a dream world, from which some of my friends today would say I am yet to fully emerge, given my potential for being utterly scatty and unobservant. I had to wake up every morning though – and the first sensation was always fear induced nausea, before I even opened my eyes, as I wondered what new blow this day would bring. It was like a battle was going on inside me – most of me felt that I was completely worthless and deserved all I got, while there was a tiny seed of entirely irrational optimism which kept me going and ultimately held me back from a messy end on the rocks.

Things changed a bit in third year. I made some really good friends. If it hadn’t been for Karen, Diana, Angie and two Morags, I probably would have sunk into an irretrievable despair. Sure, people still did the Yak and Cat’s Eyes things round a fair few corners, but it became more bearable when I had people who affectionately thought I was a bit mad but put up with me anyway.

The long term effects, though , stayed with me for a good 15 years. I wonder if things would have been different if I’d had better support at school. If there had been intervention to both deal with the bullies and give me the therapy I needed to develop healthier coping strategies. As it is, I do feel that my confidence was affected to the extent that my future career prospects were adversely affected. I’m 43 years old, and, to be honest, although I’ve worked for a long time, I’ve not had a proper career.

As it turned out, it wasn’t until a severe bout of Depression in my late 20s that I was given the help and therapy I needed to come to terms with the effects of the bullying.

To anyone going through this today, I’d say that first of all, have hope. I couldn’t have predicted when I was 13 that 30 years later, I’d have a happy life, with the best son ever and a long  marriage to a good and loving man and a lot of longstanding, truly fabulous friends.  Seek out the help that’s available, that I never had. There’s a whole list available here on the Anti-Bullying Alliance website if you can’t get support from teachers or family.

I really want the Government to get to grips with this issue, to come up with a strategy which ensures that children don’t suffer from violence and harassment which robs them not just of their school days but their future wellbeing and potential too. That’s why things like Anti-Bullying Week are so important.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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10 Comments

  • They are good words Caron. I just hope the Lib Dems have got better at dealing with this. They probably have – but I think the nature of political parties means bullying behaviour is going to be pretty endemic. Not only was I on the receiving end, but looking back and with a different lens some of the behaviour we were encouraged to adopt in campaign organisation entirely fits the definition of bullying. I’m not TBH all that sorry I’m out.

  • Helen Dudden 21st Nov '20 - 12:51pm

    Carol, firstly, I have sympathy for anyone being bullied, for whatever the reason.
    If, someone is found guilty of being a bully, not to accept the findings, is not learning from the situation. I’m sorry, but if things are difficult in that department, is hardly the answer. If the situation is too difficult, then get out of of the kitchen.
    It is destroying people’s lives, the constant, if, but, and maybe. Depression, before long, is going to be a serious issue.

  • Reading this article made me very sad, Caron. What you report is a disgrace, andnow many years later I hope you feel able to check out with your old school what their current procedures and policies are.

    In England schools are required to have a policy on bullying, just as they are in Scotland.

    1. In England, the School Standards and Framework Act, 1994, require every school to have a written policy on bullying with set out definitions, policies and procedures – and to require an annual review.

    2. In November 2017, the Scottish Government published updated anti-bullying guidance. The focus of ‘ Respect for All: The National Approach to Anti-bullying for Scotland’s Children and Young People’.

    Having a policy is one thing, carrying it out is another. I hope any parents reading this will feel empowered to follow issues through with the school and its management given the statutory framework that is available to them.

  • Barry Lofty 21st Nov '20 - 3:38pm

    Bullying is one of the most reprehensible acts that we humans inflict on one another. When a government minister is allowed to carry on regardless of the findings against them,it sends out entirely the wrong message and continues this government’s appalling record since coming to power.

  • Sue Sutherland 21st Nov '20 - 4:46pm

    One practical thing that we Lib Dems can do is, if someone is a school governor, ask to see the anti bullying policy and find out what resources and training teachers are given to combat this.

  • Clare Delderfield 21st Nov '20 - 8:55pm

    Thank you for sharing this , which has many parallels with parts of my own teenage experiences of being bullied by those who were supposed to be my friends. I think there is no doubt the those experiences shaped me as a person, in good and not such good ways. I was lucky in many ways that I had a good support network, and an inner belief that managed to keep glowing even when things were pretty dark. One of the consequences of my own experiences, that I only really thought about today, was that I am not very tolerant of being treated badly as an adult. I can’t tell whether it’s self-preservation or just a lack of patience with unkindness, but probably the former. Anyway, this article and this particular anti-bullying week (with my MP Anthony Browne defending Patel and Johnson on C4 news) have made me think quite a lot about it.
    No one should have to put up with being bullied, especially by those in positions of influence and power.

  • @ Sue Sutherland The bullying policy has to be distributed to all parents and governors and reviewed every year.

  • John Marriott 22nd Nov '20 - 8:35am

    I do recall Caron referring to the ‘Yak’ incident a few years ago. Yes, bullying, both overt and covert, is a terrible human trait. I was picked on physically rather than verbally when quite young by a boy on our street for many years until I finally fought back literally. I was a big lad even back then. I had no more trouble from him after that.

    Over the years, as a teacher, I was always aware of certain youngsters, most of whom who stood out for various reasons, being the but of jokes by their more conformist and possibly jealous contemporaries, with, especially if they were boys, a bit of physical intimidation thrown in as well. I have to say, however, when it came to spitefullness, subtlety and persistency, the girls took some beating. Today, social media has just made things that much worse.

    Why do people bully? Sometimes it’s a desire for domination or a sense of their own perceived inferiority and quite often it’s because they had been victims of bullying themselves. In my own case, having ‘triumphed’ over my particular nemesis before my teens, I went to secondary school and started to have a go at a few weaker boys myself until I realised what a horrible person that made me and stopped.

    As for legislating against bullying, that’s fine if it can be enforced. My experience is that, until it comes to a head, it can be very hard to track down and eradicate. For me, that scene towards the end of the first ‘Back to the Future’ film where George McFly finally socks it to ‘Biff’ Tannon is probably deep down how to deal with a persistent bully – hardly ‘liberal’; but, so what? In that kind of overtly physical bullying, the old methods still often work best.

  • David Garlick 22nd Nov '20 - 6:02pm

    Thank you for the context and the resharing of this piece.
    Cannot be shared too often and cannot be read too often either.

  • I found that bullying (of the Patel kind) is often from their own weakness in their dealings with THEIR superiors…Accepting impossible targets and, when such targets are not met, blaming those under them for a ‘lack of support/commitment’..

    Johnson’s cabinet is not awash with talent and, using loyalty of others to oneself as the prime qualification for advancement, merely underlines that fact.

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