Thursday 14 November 2019

Women feeling the heat of invective in British politics

UK Election Diary

Amber Rudd leaves her home in London, Britain September 8, 2019. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls
Amber Rudd leaves her home in London, Britain September 8, 2019. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Back in the days of the Suffragettes, some women were opposed to females voting - the novelist Mrs Henry Wood led an energetic ladies' anti-suffrage movement. They claimed that politics was too squalid, and women were too sensitive, to participate in such a lowering endeavour.

With the onset of the British general election of 2019, the ghost of Mrs Henry Wood might well be exclaiming: "I told you so!" Seasoned political women are stepping down from the fray specifically because they just can't take the verbal (and sometimes threats of physical) abuse any more.

Amber Rudd (Con), Nicky Morgan (Con) and Heidi Allen (Lib Dem) are among those who say political life has become unbearable for women MPs. Nicky Morgan, regarded as a fairly robust character, says the public insults are ruining her family life.

The question is now being asked in public discussions: "Is British politics becoming too dangerous for women to participate?"

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Diane Abbott - the black Labour MP and Jeremy Corbyn's close associate (they once had a relationship, on a motorbike trip to East Germany) - has probably had more verbal abuse than almost anyone else, both racist and sexist. Yet Diane is staying - no quitter she.

But she has suggested that, should there be a Labour government, controls could be placed on social media such as Twitter, where so much of the abuse arises, and from anonymous sources. There always have been insults and brickbats in the political game - Winston Churchill honed his speaking skills by responding to hecklers - but, as Diane says, social media has amplified it, and cowardly Tweeters feel entitled to hurl vile insults from behind their anonymous handles. 'Tis true, surely.

Hate language is odious, and violent threats are repulsive. And yet, women - and men - entering politics need to bear in mind the Fleet Street adage: "If you can't stand the heat, don't come into the kitchen."

Politics may well be too squalid and lowering for more sensitive souls, but the rewards can be immense: power, recognition and job offers for life, even after you've stepped down. The rough comes with the smooth.

The tragedy of Jo Cox, murdered by a mentally disturbed man who picked up on the volatile zeitgeist, now seems ever present for female MPs at Westminster. But be it remembered that Margaret Thatcher was constantly a target for the IRA, and was very nearly taken out by the 1984 Brighton bombing. She remained unfazed, even though Gerry Adams had subsequently remarked: "She has to be lucky all the time; we only have to be lucky once."

*******

Ah, Kensington! How I loved that London neighbourhood when I lived there. Aged 20, I shared a fabulously rackety flat in Ken Church Street with four - or was it five? - glamorous long-haul air stewardesses. What larks it was! Later, I lived in Holland Park when the children were young. When we left, I kept my Kensington library card for years afterwards, just as a memento.

But like everywhere, Kensington has changed. It was once the safest Tory seat in England; now it's a three-way marginal between Tories, Labour (who held it in 2017 by a mere 20 votes) and Lib Dems. I'm putting a tenner on the Lib Dem, Sam Gyimah, winning there on December 12. He's a Tory defector, an EU Remainer and of Ghanaian heritage.

Kensington has always had social divisions - North Kensington was always poorer and more working-class. Portobello Road was, within living memory, virtually a slum - a character in a famous Terence Rattigan play "sinks so low" as to have to dwell in a Ladbroke Grove bedsit, now so dead posh.

What's happened to Kensington, as elsewhere, is that the social inequalities of rich and poor have grown sharper, more dramatic. The horror of the Grenfell Tower fire, and the way it was handled, has focused ever more acutely on these social divisions. The only thing that unites the borough of Kensington, interestingly, is that both social extremes are Remain voters.

Gyimah is an accomplished chap who might well bridge that gap. And here's a thing: back in the 1930s, the would-be Conservative candidate for the Royal Borough was one William Joyce, who came from Galway and ended up as Lord Haw-Haw. Another nice irony of history, when a black Lib Dem candidate follows a notorious fascist.

*******

As Friday was expected to be Brexit Day, I had arranged to travel between Dover and Calais - with a UK car and an Irish passport - just to see if anything was different in the transit. The Brexiteers had promised a holiday atmosphere on the English side of the Channel.

It didn't turn out to be Brexit Day after all - now slated for January 31 - but so many businesses believed it could be that freight was exceptionally light on the ferries.

But if it wasn't a fiesta in England, it was, of course, in France (and elsewhere on the Continent) - being 'Le Toussaint' - All Saints' Day. If November 1 had become a Brexit Day holiday, paradoxically, it would have joined, rather than broken with, a European tradition.

Checks and security are, however, tighter on the British side of the Channel crossing. A young woman border guard, with full Kim Kardashian make-up, unsmilingly examined my car for anything suspicious.

The unfortunate migrants seeking to cross the Channel are now more frequently seen arriving on the beach at Deal, eight miles from Dover, than hiding in the private vehicles of grandmothers. Every single week, a frail vessel washes up - just about where Julius Caesar first landed in Albion - crammed with evidently desperate people who must still believe the streets of London are paved with gold.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the Channel ports areas are strongly Brexiteer. And yet, at the Dover docks roundabout, a large white banner has been hung at the base of Vera Lynn's White Cliffs, announcing "GOD KNOWS NO BORDERS", placed there by the Kent Catholic Worker Movement. Ah, bless!

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