Monday 21 October 2019

The woman who 'mauled' Nick Clegg

Irish mother-of-three Laura Perrins took on the British Deputy PM during a radio call-in and won. Soon she would become the voice of social conservatism in Britain

Polemicist: Laura Perrins
Polemicist: Laura Perrins

Julia Molony

Laura Perrins didn't mean to become part of the British commentariat. Or one of the country's go-to polemicists. She was just furious. And the force of her fury was engine enough to catapult the Balbriggan woman from the comfort of her London living room onto the national radio and television broadcasts in her adopted country.

It all began one day in 2013, when she was at home listening to Nick Clegg doing a radio phone-in on the London radio station LBC. She had a bone to pick with Clegg. The coalition government had recently cut child benefit, while introducing childcare payments designed, in principle, to help facilitate women to return to work. According to Perrins, who had given up her job as criminal defence barrister a few years earlier to take care of her children, this was outrageous discrimination against stay-at-home mothers. So she rang the radio station and, in the words of one national newspaper who reported on the exchange, "tore into" the Deputy Prime Minister, "ambushed" him according to another, and left him "mauled". The consensus was that Perrins came out of the discussion on top. Even the disruption of one of her babies crying noisily in the background didn't put her off her game. "You probably think what I do is a worthless job," she said scornfully.

In the way that can happen when an unknown catches the attention of rolling news and social media, she enjoyed a flurry of instant celebrity. And it turned out that Perrins had things to say on more issues than family tax. A lot more. The Clegg scrap opened the floodgates, but there was a torrent behind. Already active in the lobby group Mothers at Home Matter, her experience of becoming headline news led her to become acquainted with Kathy Gyngell, an academic and regular contributor to the British right-wing press. They joined forces to launch their blog, 'The Conservative Woman', which they describe as "a platform for post-feminist culture war fighters".

Despite being a full-time carer of the three children (Annabell, Matthew and Emma) she shares with her husband Phillip, Perrins is a prolific blogger, regularly contributing caustic and dryly witty posts, in which she takes a dim view of everything from whiny feminists, liberalised abortion, the contraceptive pill and the "morally bankrupt" Boris Johnson. She is a vociferous critic of "leftism", The Conservative Party in its current incarnation. She is pro-Brexit and she is a die-hard fan of Margaret Thatcher.

All this makes her rather an exotic creature in East Dulwich, a gentrified, family-friendly corner of the British capital where we meet in her local Caffe Nero, which is packed to the rafters on a Friday morning with mums and tots. We are deep in Guardian-reading territory here - left-wing/liberal thinking is as ubiquitous in these parts as vegan brownies and almond-milk lattes. Not only that, but Perrins must be a bit of an outlier amongst her peers. A reactionary, even. At 36, she only misses being a millennial by a couple of years, but she adheres to traditional values that would seem to most millennials to belong to another era entirely. She came of age in a generation in Ireland that peeled away from the Church in one, almost unanimous, move. Yet she remains a staunch Catholic. Perrins grew up in a small village near Balbriggan, where her father ran a local photography business, commemorating family events, weddings, school portraits and Holy Communions.

"It was no more Catholic than your average family growing up then," she says. "Obviously Ireland has changed quite a bit." She explains the endurance of her faith simply, "as you get older, to me it made sense under examination, whereas for a lot of other people of my generation, it started not to make sense and they've gone a different way. That's how things work, which is fine. I think you always come to examine your core beliefs, don't you? And you think, right, either they make sense or they don't make sense and to me most of them still make sense. And so that's probably where a lot of the social conservatism comes from. And in terms of political conservatism, it's difficult to explain. There was no light-bulb moment, but I've just always broadly been like that."

She had, she says a "great childhood. It was incredibly affectionate. I couldn't have asked for better." Though she wasn't born with a sliver spoon in her mouth by any means. Her parents "had the typical struggles that a lot of people had in the 1980s". Her mother stayed at home with Laura (whose maiden name is McGowan) and her older brother when they were young, but later worked alongside her father, keeping the family business afloat. "She probably doesn't identify herself as a working mum," Perrins says. "But that's what she was when we were teenagers. I think a lot of them of that generation must look at the fuss made now and just think, well we just got on with it."

Perrins pulls no punches in her writing, positioning herself consciously as the attack dog of conservative thought. So in person, it comes almost as a shock when talking about her family, a considerably softer side emerges.

I ask her about the values instilled in her by her parents when she was a little girl and, apparently out of nowhere, tears spill from her eyes. "They're just very honest, genuinely honest," she says, her voice cracking a little. "And family is incredibly important to them." Her parents are of a generation made of sterner stuff, she explains, which is an inspiration for her, and at the root of her impatience with contemporary sensitivities. "Things would have been tough, especially on my mom's side," she says. Despite knowing struggle, or perhaps because of it, their values were strong. "Just integrity, simple things like always telling the truth were really important. And kindness as well, when you're involved in the public sphere, sometimes you feel guilty if you're being really critical about someone. But I always try and be critical on a policy issue, and not a personal issue. Some people might say, 'no you are personal', but I always try to not make it personal because you don't really known what's (going on) behind that person."

From her family, she says, she learned "not to be too self-obsessed. And to be self-sufficient. Which I think a lot of people must have had growing up in Ireland (at that time.) It was tough in places. I don't think there was much snowflakery around for our parents' generation."

One of her biggest beefs as a commentator is with contemporary feminism. "On the one hand," she says, "we are to believe that women are really, really strong and they can rule the world, and on the other hand we're to believe that they are so weak they can't handle a hand on the knee. It's riddled with conflict and inconsistency. The sort of media feminism we see now. The old school stuff I could kind of get on board with."It's the simple, pragmatic endurance that she witnessed, as modelled by her mother, that she admires. "In a way... if you were to be a feminist, she's the kind of feminist I'd want to be. You just got on with it, there wasn't any moaning. You didn't take any nonsense from anyone, it was just a quiet kind of, march on."

Growing up, hers wasn't necessarily an extremely intellectually rigorous household, but both her parents are keen followers of current affairs. "You're not talking Ed Miliband, professors sitting there at dinner. That's not what it was, but my dad is really into current affairs. He's still on the phone going, 'I saw this story here...' And he'd still be reading stuff out to me on the phone. I probably don't take as much interest as I should," she says. "But it wasn't Kennedy-clan around the table, let's have this huge debate. The news was on… It wasn't debate club." If anything, it sounds like it was always Laura who was the scrappy one. Her family, she thinks, are unlikely to be surprised by what their daughter has ended up doing. "I think I was very opinionated from an early age... Sometimes I feel like I wish I wasn't so opinionated. But it's almost an involuntary need to say your piece. That's what I do. And social media gives you that platform now. (She is extremely active on Twitter.) It's just as well I have the kids, because otherwise it would be ridiculous." She does, however, "try to put the phone and the computer in a different room when I'm with them and things like that.

"Through the media I'm very happy to state my view, but I don't get on my soapbox over dinner. I try to keep them separate. You don't want to bore for Britain. So, if I'm asked my views, I'll say it, and obviously close friends are aware anyway."

Perrins studied law at UCD and then went to Cambridge to study for the LLM. Originally, she'd intended to move back home but work, and marriage, kept her in London. She met her husband Philip through mutual friends. He was getting confirmed a Catholic, having converted as an adult and she went along for drinks afterwards, having been tipped off beforehand that he might be a good match for her. A friend told her, "he's a really nice guy, you should meet him. And I kind of said, 'OK, yeah. I'm going to make that happen. So that's how we met. And I think we got on very well very early. He's a lawyer, as well, and we have a lot in common. The kids go to a Catholic school and we always go to Mass. I definitely want to pass the faith on to them and hopefully they'll keep it."

When Perrins decided to give up her job after her first child was born, it was, by her own admission, a bit of a wrench. "I was at the criminal defence bar, enjoying that. Then I had the kids and felt I couldn't go back for various reasons. I wanted to be with them and also just logistically it's difficult. Lots of people do it. I think they're amazing but I decided against it. And then, that issue with childcare - how the State gives you childcare expenses and penalises mums who stay at home," became her unlikely catapult into a new career. But despite her successful foray into writing and commentary, law remains her first love. "Absolutely. It's still the dream job, over and above even this. But it just didn't make sense for us as a family. The children are only young once. And if you can do it, I think there's a huge value in being there with them if you can."

So she juggles writing blogs and making TV appearances around her children's schedule, but turns down anything that clashes with parenting time. "It's not supermom stuff by any means. It's just something I felt it's a duty to do. And, of course, some days are great and some days are harder and that's what you do." Meanwhile Philip, who is also a lawyer, is "incredibly supportive. But it's still a pretty traditional set up." She does most of the domestic work. She insists, that despite her high level education, it doesn't rankle that she's the one at home. "I guess I do most of (the housework). With the machines," she adds. "I don't get a lot of the whining. There are dishwashers and washing machines and tumble driers!" And technology helps her stay in touch too. "Chores on my own are fine, if I'm there on my own I'll be listening to a podcast or keeping up-to-date that way. It's the hands-on childcare, that's when I try to give 100pc."

Ultimately, she insists, she's keen not to be too prescriptive. "It's a decision each person has to make themselves. It depends what kind of support you have around. I'm very glad I was able to stay with them." She gets her fair share of flak for her views but shrugs it off saying, "I think you have to be thick-skinned. Sometimes it kind of plays on your mind. You try and ignore, and try not to search your name. But if you're putting yourself out there, you cannot expect to get an easy ride." And, in a small way, she concedes that standing up for her views sets an example to her children. "They're really young. And I actually do try to shield them from it. They do see me on TV and stuff, and the eldest knows the name of the website. You don't want to drag them into it. But sure, I think that everybody should stand by their position and defend their point of view. I think instilling resilience in children is important, no matter what your belief is."

Laura on the burning issues...

Gay Marriage: Perrins opposes the "radical" redefining of the institution of marriage that came into effect when gay marriage was legitimised under law. "Redefining marriage to include same-sex couples declared that biological sex and the profound differences between men and women were irrelevant," she writes. She is a staunch defender of defined gender difference and opponent of the "trans-agenda".

Feminism: "My daughters won't be poisoned by feminist piffle," vows Perrins. "If it takes my last drop of blood, I will prevent their minds being warped by this destructive nonsense that tells them they will face a lifetime of discrimination in the workplace and personal attacks on campus," she writes in The Conservative Woman. "I will protect them from the victimhood that is the sisterhood - so help me God."

Casual Sex: Perrins disapproves of hook-up culture, which she sees as the cause of "some major emotional problems in our society". She blames the sexual revolution for the state we are in, and "decades of feminist claptrap that was supposed to emancipate women sexually".

Career women: Women who channel all their energy into their career during their 20s and overlook "husband-hunting" do so at their peril, warns Perrins. "It is bonkers, really. Of course devoting significant effort to one's career is sensible at this stage, but to do it to the detriment of ever finding a mate will put you on the road to misery," she writes.

The Childcare Controversy: Perrins links the fragile "snowflake" sensibilities of millennials with increasing hours in childcare. "This generation of students were probably the first to be put in heavy-duty long hours in nursery care. And this, dear reader is what we produce. Not robust adults thirsting for challenge and rigour, but tender toddler-adults making obscene demands and throwing tantrums when denied it."

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