What to do about the doing to-do?

Ian Davidson MP <em>Picture: www.parliament.uk</em>
Ian Davidson MP Picture: www.parliament.uk
“Doinggate” doesn’t look or sound right, so some other name will need to be concocted for the political-meets-personal spat between Eilidh Whiteford of the SNP and Ian Davidson of Labour, the respective MPs for Banff and Buchan and for Glasgow South West.

Quite what was said during a recent session of the Scottish affairs select committee remains unclear, and transparency isn’t helped by the session having been held behind closed doors and seemingly without formal note-taking – so much for open government. But there appears to be consensus that the words “a doing” left Mr Davidson’s lips with regard to Dr Whiteford, and that she interpreted this as a “threat” and as “intimidation”.

The view of Mr Davidson – the committee chair – is that he said “you’ve been given a doing – now let’s move on”, or “you’ve had a doing – now let’s move on”, in the context of Dr Whiteford failing to hold sway in part of the discussion. This interpretation appears to be supported by other colleagues who were in the room, but is strongly denied by Dr Whiteford who heard it as “you’ll be getting a doing”. Mr Davidson has since apologised “for any offence that might have been caused”.

“Threats and intimidation of this nature are unacceptable under any circumstances,” said Dr Whiteford in a statement. “It is never appropriate to threaten to give a woman ‘a doing’. If people in my position are not prepared to stand up against aggressive and threatening behaviour, then people who face this kind of conduct in their homes and workplaces will continue to think the perpetrators can get away with it.”

Much of this comes down to whether the phrase was used in the future tense (as Dr Whiteford suggests) or in the past tense (as per Mr Davidson’s explanation), and also whether it was said directly to Dr Whiteford rather than in a general playing-to-the-audience kind of way in a broader committee context.

Dr Whiteford was interviewed on Newsnight Scotland last night, and was if anything even more forthright in her claims. “There are no circumstances in which you can offer to give someone a doing where that is not a threat”, she said. “I don’t think the context matters. The issue is that it is never, ever acceptable to tell somebody that they’re getting a doing, under any circumstances.”

Asked by Gordon Brewer if she had been “scared that she was going to be subjected to physical violence”, Dr Whiteford said “I was certainly threatened, and I cannot think of any circumstances where I wouldn’t have taken that as an implicit or explicit threat. I think it’s an inherently threatening thing to say.”

Such phraseology, she added, “wouldn’t be acceptable in any workplace I’ve ever worked in”. But while this might indeed be the case for someone such as Dr Whiteford who has worked in academia and for the Scottish Carers’ Alliance, it is less likely to apply across a wider spectrum, from the military to the media and in all manner of more menial jobs. (Indeed, the idea backfired when Dr Whiteford asked Gordon Brewer: “When did somebody in your workplace last offer to give you a doing?”, to which he responded with a joky – but quite possibly genuine – “Probably about five minutes ago”.)

Dr Whiteford has said that “All this stuff about semantics and past tense is just another attempt to try to excuse and justify his [Mr Davidson’s] behaviour.” However, “given a doing” is in pretty common usage in a figurative sense, and if used in that way no more implies real physical menace than suggesting that a defeated parliamentary candidate has received “a bloody nose”, that their party has been given “a kick in the teeth”, or that there is “blood on the carpet”. People can be – and are – punched in the nose and kicked in the teeth, and carpets do sometimes need to be cleaned, but such phrases tend not to be meant literally when uttered or written.

“Given a doing” and its associated forms is a commonplace phrase in sport (which is perhaps why a traditional Labour male Glaswegian such as Mr Davidson has it in his vocabulary), and especially in football. Plenty of examples can be found – here are two:

“On the way from Heathrow Airport to his home in St Albans yesterday he [Celtic chairman Brian Quinn] was even candid enough to observe that Celtic had been given a ‘doing’ in Portugal the week before Rosenborg exposed more defensive frailty.” – Hugh Keevins, Daily Record, 25 October 2001.

“Birmingham, like most promoted teams running on adrenalin thus far, had been generally solid away from home, but on the admission of their manager Steve Bruce were given ‘a doing’.” – Steve Tongue’s match report of Chelsea 3 Birmingham City 0, the Independent, 10 November 2002.

Football is a robust world, for sure, but in neither of those instances was actual bodily harm inflicted. To say that Manchester City gave Manchester United a doing last weekend isn’t to suggest that any kind of on-field brawl took place – the phrase merely reflects the trouncing that took place in purely footballing terms.

This usage is equally clear in these two examples, taken from the fairly genteel worlds of chess and education:

“At the top, Glasgow Montrose continue their good run and will lead the table going into the last match. Shettleston have effectively been eliminated from the proceedings following a ‘bit of a doing’ from Polytechnic A, for whom something more like their real A team appeared on the park.” – the late Gerry Wilson’s report on Division 1 of the Glasgow Chess League, 1999–2000.

“Mr [Stirling] Mackie did not have the chance at that point to put [Richard] Elmore’s theories [on education reform] into practice, as his attention was focused on a school action plan following a ‘very challenging’ HMIE [Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education] report. ‘We were given a doing,’ he admits candidly. The report identified a number of areas which were ‘weak’, including discipline, which had a knock-on effect on the quality of teaching, and ‘unsatisfactory’ self-evaluation.” – Elizabeth Buie, Times Education Supplement Scotland, 20 November 2009.

Did either the Shettleston chess players or the staff at Irvine Royal Academy (where Mr Mackie is head teacher) feel physically threatened by the Polytechnic chess team or the government inspectors respectively? Highly unlikely.

Then, of course, there is politics – a big boys’ (and girls’) world where hardball is played but actual physical flare-ups are rare (apart, perhaps, from in the Italian parliament). Take these two fairly recent (5 June) examples, written by a blogger known as “The Burd” while analysing the treatment of presiding officer Tricia Marwick in the Holyrood chamber:

“Scotland’s political press pack has form here when it comes to its treatment of women politicians. I don’t recall David Steele [sic], George Reid or Alex Fergusson getting a doing after their initial performances convening Holyrood setpieces”; and “But worst of all, was the doing Susan Deacon got on the front page of the Daily Record at the height of the section 2a furore”.

Or this, by a bulletin-board commenter cheering the 2007 SNP victory: “As an ‘old’ Labour supporter I’m delighted to see the current bunch of slimeballs given a doing, maybe they can now have a rethink and get back to something like the original values of the party. For the moment I’m happy that in Alex Salmond we have a proper statesman as First Minister.”

Of course, the phrase can certainly be used in a literal, direct-threat, thuggish, hoodlumesque kind of way – in which case it is a different matter entirely, and certainly deserves censure. But as so often in politics, there are radically differing interpretations in play here, and it is quite possible that we will never know exactly what was said, even less what was meant.

Ultimately, there appear to be three basic interpretations:

● Mr Davidson did indeed issue a direct threat to Dr Whiteford, in which case he ought to be kicked out (but not literally) of the committee chair and subjected to party and parliamentary discipline.

● Dr Whiteford either misheard or misinterpreted what was said and has taken it all too personally, in which case she probably needs to listen more carefully and/or grow a thicker skin.

● An unfortunate (but not out of order) form of words used by Mr Davidson has been seized upon by Dr Whiteford and her party to create a kerfuffle which reflects badly on Scottish Labour and has wider political implications for the electoral and independence-referendum debates.

Is that third option – which Dr Whiteford dismisses as “absolutely ludicrous” – possible? Well, this is politics, after all – and whether the MP for Banff and Buchan or anyone else disapproves, politics always has been, and will remain, a verbally brutal business.

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