Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Sex-Pest Westminster

Royal weddings, Budgets, they come and they go, but the sex-pest culture never goes away, or so it seems. Here is my take on it, as one who is rather distant from Westminster these days but who knew it well at one time. Depressingly, very little seems to have changed. It may be that behaviour which was viewed as normal 20 years ago is less tolerated now, and if so that is a good thing, but no parsnips are currently being buttered by any of the fine words being spoken (and careers ended, often with spiteful glee) on this matter at present.

«It’s about power». Someone said this to me once, when I was fairly new to Labour activism. And of course, it’s true. I had come into active politics in the 1980s, late in the period when the Trots, aka Militant, were being driven out of positions, and membership too, of the party. Something of a Stalinist and tankie in my youth, when I studied Soviet history (“you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs” was my take on Uncle Joe’s excesses in my student days), I would have worn those near-mythical ice-pick earrings if I could.

I’ve been a Blairite, and a keen disciple of the Chicago Doctrine (liberal interventionism, since you ask), since the late 1990s,  Euston Manifesto and a Gerasite, since. But that is another story.  I was a Labour MP for eight years, from 1997 to 2005, and that is part of this story.

As I write this at least two male Labour MPs are under investigation for alleged inappropriate behaviour towards younger women. Another, a member of the Welsh Assembly, is dead by his own hand, following similar, but non-specified, allegations. At least two male Tory MPs are similarly under investigation, and at least one of them has claimed he has no idea what the allegations against him are all about. Michael Fallon has resigned as Defence Secretary because of instances of alleged inappropriate behaviour towards women in the past.

That’s just in politics. I say nothing of the men with high-flying and celebrity status in other walks of life (not of course the late Jimmy Saville, who was a special case in more ways than one) who have been variously dumped from their careers, driven out of public life, and in some cases are doing or have done prison time, for behaviour that was normal and unexceptionable, if deplorable, at the time they engaged in it, although not usually popular with the mainly young women at whom it was directed. The late John Peel got away with the same behaviour, self-confessed, and it is not clear why; perhaps he died before the mood changed, when only women and children were victims. He remains a secular saint. His widow is called Sheila, and that is how he referred to her in his later years; earlier in his career (though after he was famous) he always called her “The Pig”. That’s how it was, and that’s how it remains, despite fine words to the contrary.

It’s about power. Not about sex. If men with power truly acknowledged the women they associate with in professional life, they would not behave in these “inappropriate” ways – the hand on the knee under the table, the hand up the skirt where no one can see. We’ve all been there, girls. And most of us didn’t complain, because we knew exactly how seriously we’d be taken – and we also knew that it wasn’t about sex. Those men weren’t besotted with us. They didn’t want to have affairs with us. We were objects, to them. Young flesh, to be squeezed and then discarded. A clear message, in case we ever got the idea, once we were working in junior roles as researchers and assistants and so on, that we might one day play an equal part in professional life with the men. Oh no. Not you, girl. And we were the ones who persisted, who insisted that we too could be journalists and technicians and business executives, and, yes, MPs. How many more went away forever discouraged?

It’s about power. And so it is in today’s Westminster. I saw a government minister fall off a bar stool, having just made a grab for the rear of a passing female colleague. Who got into trouble with the Whips? You guessed it: the female colleague. In the 21st century.

I notice that former Labour Government Chief Whip Hilary Armstrong, a person who got her parliamentary seat through nepotism and who has no discernible personal, political or intellectual acumen or  merit, said recently that the appointment of female senior Whips by Labour in government was intended to protect female colleagues from the kind of behaviour mentioned above. Was it, Hilary? Was it really? Didn’t work then, did it? Tell it to the family of the late Fiona Jones MP, hounded into oblivion and early death by her own Labour Party. For goodness’ sake, I was subjected to sexual assault by a fellow Labour MP myself. I knew better than to complain. It was done, not because said MP was bowled over by my charms, but because I wouldn’t be under his thumb. That’s how it is. Not about sex, but about power.

So don’t give me your pious bleating about inappropriate behaviour, girls and boys. Women in politics are routinely subjected to savage bullying and psychological torture, at least as much by women in power (yes, you, Hilary Armstrong) as by men. Read Harriet Harman’s excellent memoir, ‘A Woman’s Work’, if you don’t believe me. It’s not about sex, but about power.

An illustration: several MPs attended a lunch hosted by a defence minister in the then Labour Government. That minister let slip that he believed there “was no such thing as Gulf War syndrome” (post-traumatic stress disorder, as it would now be called, suffered by military personnel who had served in the Gulf – this was before the 2003 action in Iraq). This statement by the defence minister reached the attention of the media. Before it had become public, the other (female, Labour) MP present on the occasion, and I, had received letters from the Chief Whip instructing us to inform the media that the minister had said no such thing. Lie for us, girls. Lie down.

When I was the unwilling witness to sexual shenanigans involving a (female, Labour) MP and a military officer while on a parliamentary visit, my recounting of which tale on my return prompted a story in the News of the World headlined ‘Woman On Top’, I was contacted by a party apparatchik and instructed to tell the media the story was untrue. I declined. Because it was true. This was and is normal.

It’s not about sex. It’s about power. Why do victorious troops in war rape their victims, men as well as women?

Men are being made victims now, too. I take no pleasure in that. I thought, decades ago when I was a young feminist, that these battles would have been fought and won by the time I was the age I am now. I was wrong about that. But power can be fought for, and won, while treating opponents with decency and respect – can’t it? I’m not seeking a Milly-Molly-Mandy world of impossible saccharine niceness. I know that a measure of ruthlessness is necessary in politics. If I have a criticism of Tony Blair it is that he lacked it, rather.

Decency and respect. It would be nice to see it tried.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Sarah Gainham, 'Night Falls On The City'

A long read, and a powerful and intelligent one. Of course, we know the story, and we know the ending "this man Hitler, they say he is dangerous". But the milieu (an actors' troupe in Vienna in WWII) is interesting, and the characters subtly and compellingly drawn. I found it quite mesmerising, and am not sure why Gainham is not read any more. (She lived most of her life in Austria, and died there in 1999. This book was published in 1967, to great acclaim at the time, and is a love song to Vienna as perhaps a native Viennese could never write it). She is wonderful on place and atmosphere - the claustrophobic Vienna apartment; a village church in the Tyrol as war is declared and the sound of the boots of the "young men at the back of the church ... it was for them the prayers were meant, the young who would be sacrificed". One character says, in what could be the book's slogan, "There is nothing we can do, except survive."

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Ken Clarke, 'Kind of Blue'

An accomplished, and at times very interesting, political memoir from a politician who said he would never write a memoir. No surprises here, but why would there be, from one of the few politicians of any party who is instantly recognisable by the public, and whose views are well known by everyone – or so we the public think. There is a bit too much I Was Right All Along, but you always get that with political memoirs. Ken Clarke seems, it emerges from this book, to have been oddly distant from most of his family for most of his life. His marriage, he says, was a long and happy one. He mentions outings with his son during the latter’s boyhood, and says family holidays were always enjoyed, but nothing more. This is contrary to the public image Ken Clarke has always had, but then this is true for almost all politicians.

He is not perhaps a very complex political thinker, but complexity is not a virtue in a politician. He is not dull, and dullness is most certainly a vice in one. He is an admirer of Iain Macleod, who was Foreign Secretary at the end of Empire, and who was criticised, Clarke says, for giving the British Empire away, which he says had to be done “if we were to avoid the post-colonial wars in which the French had been immersed”. Well, I guess. But we did have them, in Malaya and Cyprus, and Burma wasn’t exactly a bed of roses, and there was that little matter of Partition in India, and – oh, please yourselves.

On Europe, of course, Ken’s position is clear and well known, and he has never wavered from it. (Not always a good sign in a potential political leader: ladies and gentlemen, I give you Jeremy Corbyn). Ken Clarke is the go-to pro-European Tory, and that being so it is perhaps surprising that he has been in Tory governments as much as he has. Here at least he has the benefit of clarity, and it is welcome: “People had been told that the Community was intended to be a free-trade area only, without any political commitments. This is wholly without foundation; a total fiction.” Thanks, Ken. That’s how I remember it too.

He can be patronising, especially to women: the In Place of Strife debate “did succeed in bringing the best out of Mrs Castle as a parliamentary performer”, which seems at best unfair to Barbara.

The title, ‘Kind of Blue’, is a splendid one for the memoir of a jazz-loving Tory who has often seemed semi-detached from the party. But of course he never was so. He was, and remains, a true Tory. Another reviewer has remarked that his memoir shows Clarke, surprisingly to the reviewer, to “lack empathy for the poor”. Well, of course he does. He’s a Tory, innit.

“The Thatcher government never cut public spending on any mainstream public service such as health, education or welfare”, he proudly asserts. If he says so, and in monetary terms I am quite sure that this is true. But it is not how it felt at the time.

He can be waspish. He appears to have got on rather well personally with Margaret Thatcher, despite their sometime differences and their avowed occasional stand-up rows. He says his losses of temper on those occasions were acting, as his temperament is too equable for them to have been real. And also that “Margaret Thatcher was always very lucky in her political opponents.”

On the NHS (after all he was Health Secretary for quite a long time), he says “there would be riots if we were plunged back now into an NHS that looked as it did in the 1980s”. Probably true. But that would also arguably be true of a lot of other aspects of society in the 1980s – when there were quite a lot of actual riots. But for myself, having lived outside the UK now for over 10 years and experienced a health service which is probably the best in the world (the French), I’m quite surprised nobody riots now at the abominable care they receive.

He points out, perhaps rather irritatedly, that his shoes are not Hush Puppies, but are hand made by Crockett  and Jones in Northamptonshire. Shoes are often an issue in politics (leaving aside the current prime minister) – I had some yellow Clarks suede desert boots I was rather fond of at one time when I was an MP, and used to wear them when out knocking doors as they were comfortable and took me many miles with never an itch or a rub or a blister, and was roundly castigated by the local LibDems for wearing them. I was never quite sure why. I always liked them. I wish I still had them now.

A word on Ken Clarke the politician – we were colleagues in the House, and although we never had anything much to do with each other he always knew my name when we passed in the corridor – and why should he know the name of a humble and obscure Labour (then in government) back-bencher? Well, because politics. Fibromyalgia is a health issue which is a very severe and debilitating one for those who suffer, and there are many local support groups for sufferers, usually membered by the sufferers themselves and their immediate families. I was often surprised by the energy and fortitude displayed by the fibromyalgia lobby, this being the case. The two strongest local fibromyalgia support groups in England were in Reading (which I represented) and in Nottingham (which Ken did). I therefore found myself chairing the group, and most of its meetings. True to form, the other Reading MP, Martin Salter, trumpeted in the Reading media that he was “spearheading” the lobby for fibromyalgia sufferers. However, Salter was so rarely in the House, choosing to spend most of his time in the Reading constituency that I and not he represented (the reasons for that are a matter for mental health practitioners rather than for politicians I fancy) that he did not actually attend any of the meetings. Ken Clarke also rarely attended, but he had better excuses, with front-bench and other responsibilities Mr Salter has never had. Whenever he could not attend he would put “on the board” (an actual pinboard at the time that MPs could use to send each other direct written communications) for me any communications from his constituents he thought relevant for the meeting, always with a handwritten compliment slip from Ken. Good politics, man. The other Nottingham MPs were similarly assiduous, but it was only from Ken that I got the “on-the-board” letters – and these are delivered personally to the Member addressed, by the House badge messengers, rather than going through the internal mail system office to office.

Of his time at the Ministry of Justice, which seems not to have been a very happy one, he notes that all three of his challengers on law and order matters, namely David Cameron’s erstwhile director of communications Andy Coulson, Michael Howard’s former special adviser at the Home Office Patrick Rock, and former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks, have faced criminal charges: Of the three, only Brooks was acquitted: Coulson did time and Rock has been convicted on child pornography charges. I suspect a very sweet moment or moments for Ken.

He doesn’t have that much to say about the Brexit referendum, perhaps wisely. His position is well known, and has always been clear. Always an advantage for a politician. He does describe David Cameron’s decision to hold the referendum, which he says he discovered by reading about it in the newspapers in January 2013, as “reckless and irresponsible”. Which, of course, it was.

Ken Clarke doesn’t have much to say about the illness and death from cancer (lymphoma) of his wife Gillian. Perhaps rightly. He does say that when she died, in July 2015, a few hours after a bedside gathering of himself, his son and daughter, and his granddaughter, “We were devastated by the loss but I think that I was made closer to my children and grandchild by our bereavement.” Not much of a loving tribute to Gillian, I churlishly surmise. And is it my nasty suspicious mind, but WHAT does he mean by this: “I had lost my lifelong companion and beloved wife who had been so important to me in her more active days.” Is there more to come? Does Ken suspect there is?

He ends, self-importantly, with the Hansard of his speech in the Brexit debate. But then again, why shouldn’t he?

Ken Clarke is a kind of National Treasure. He knows this, and has built himself up to it over the decades. I’m not sure if he meant to shore up that image with this memoir. Perhaps he doesn’t care. It’s an interesting read, and sometimes a very entertaining one. I am sure it will be cited, in years to come. I am not sure it will ever be a political science text or a sourcebook. But then, why should it?