Category: Politics

FGM: do the French know better?

It was good to see Frances Gibb writing in The Times this week – – about the woeful level of prosecutions for female genital mutilation “FGM” in the UK. Our record on dealing with this issue is shameful.

In France, where the number of prosecutions is much higher, they rely on reporting of the crime by health professionals whereas we have been relying on girls coming forward themselves to complain
Finally, it seems, the police are recognising that we need a more enlightened approach to this most traumatic assault on these girls’ safety, sexuality and health. Children are unlikely to come forward to give evidence against their parents (even though a parent often will have been present and complicit). That’s why the French reliance on reporting of the assault by health professionals has been key to their comparative success in this area.

I would go even further however: let’s have mandatory reporting by health professionals, teachers, or social services, who know an assault has taken or is likely to take place. That may even mean, if reporting did not increase after a trial period, that we should make it an offence to fail to do so.

We have come a long way since Germaine Greer opposed criminalising FGM as an “attack on cultural identity” but we need more courage in our convictions. We need to uphold British culture for everyone living here. FGM is an act of bloody assault which can deprive a girl of any future sexual pleasure. It is violent, invasive, permanent and a breach of her human rights.

As a Western democracy it is time we made sure we deliver protection to all of the children who live here, whatever their family of origin and its traditions.

Silver Lining Outlook

The behavior of the likes of Rennard and Hancock are symptoms of a broader and more intractable problem – the inherently unequal, male and sexist culture of politics. I believe so strongly that sexism is institutionalised in parliament and I do not make the accusation lightly (more on this in another piece soon).

We need to start thinking seriously about running parliament like serious businesses are run, with accountability, proper complaints procedures and managed performance. We need an independent all-party system to remove the invidious pressure on party leaders not to damage the public image of their party with voters. in other words, we need wholesale reform of our political system.

At the same time we need to effect cultural change – always hard – by questioning the kind of environment and attitudes we are asking women and other minorities to work with and implement the necessary training to drag parliament into the modern world. Too many people pay too great a price in terms of their family life to be MPs in a job from which vast numbers of voters feel alienated. I think those two things are related as is the offensively sexist culture.

The women who have spoken up about Rennard and Hancock have done us all a great service and there is the chance to bring about some good from their courage.

Don’t Forget Denis

A few years ago, while I was the parliamentary candidate for Westminster North my beloved and I were introduced to Baroness Thatcher at an event. “I’m a political husband” said Mr Cash, half in jest, “do you have any advice for me?” “Oh yes, “ she replied focusing her attention on him and stating very firmly, “you must carry on doing whatever it is you do.” And then, quite unprompted, she turned to me and added, “and your job is to look after him.” I was speechless. My spouse was beside himself with mirth for days.

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A few months later, still in shock, I told the tale to Peter Lilley in an attempt to find out whether she practiced what she preached. It depends how you define “looking after” he laughed as he told me that she did indeed often fuss about Denis. Sometimes during late cabinet meetings she would suddenly check her watch and leave the room. Leaving the door ajar, they once heard her calling: “Deeenis.. Denis darling, do make sure you eat. There are fish fingers in the freezer.”

At the conservative party conference in 1975, the same domestic goddess had produced on stage a giant turquoise feather duster and proceeded to dust down the lectern. It was fantastically clever parodying of the contemporary female stereotype and underlined her confidence in herself as a woman as well as a politician. She found her own way to “look after” Denis while pursuing her political career, again simultaneously acknowledging and breaking with tradition.

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30 years later the assumption remains that it is the man’s life/career/desires that will or should or must take precedence. The COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” has sold over 2 million copies addressing these very issues. A lot of us are still trying to work it out. A new era of pragmatic feminist books, blogs and art – the Vagenda, the F-word, Shattered, Half a Wife, Emin, Girls – show how far we still have to go.

Yes, we now have all the laws we need to prosecute for equality in the workplace but we remain short of senior women in business, professions and parliament. I agree with Sandberg that until we achieve true equality in the home and men are supporting their partners in a truly equal way – by sharing the childcare, making their own career sacrifices, lowering their domestic expectations or taking on their half of the load – this will remain the case. How we achieve equal and mutual support and care at home is where feminism now needs to focus its energy now. It is timely to remember what a role model Denis Thatcher was for us all.

Of her many achievements perhaps Margaret Thatcher’s choice of partner was her best. It takes a man of real confidence, quiet strength and great values to be a true partner to a woman. That man is too cool for swagger, too assured in his own life to begrudge the limelight, too much in love to mind the flak. I’d interrupt my meeting to tell him where to find the fish fingers any day.

RIP Maggie

Downing Street Flowers

At a dinner in Hampshire in 2002, Margaret Thatcher was asked to name her greatest achievement. She smiled and said “New Labour and Tony Blair”.

Depending on your perspective this may be funny, comforting or sad but it would be hard to deny its truth. When Tony Blair persuaded his party to tear up Clause 4 and its commitment to socialism, history recorded that the nature of British political debate had changed. Thatcher had made socialism electorally unpalatable by branding it morally evil (an ardent belief on her part which she expressed openly and often). The electorate rewarded new labour and Tony Blair for their acceptance of this.

Sadly, the political debate has been stuck in the same centrist sort of place ever since. There is a received wisdom that we are all capitalists of some sort or other now and none of the main parties drives a socialist agenda any more. Yet hugely important issues remain unanswered. In Burkean terms and as the historian Niail Ferguson believes: the contract between the generations has been broken. We have spent our children’s money and wasted their futures. In too many ways the condition of Britain is as desperate today as it was in 1979.

How do we renew that contract? What does that look like? How do we fund it? What should be the issues that frame the political debate for the next decade in the very different world we live in now? How do we promote equality? Safeguard human rights? Restructure society to accommodate a much older population? Protect individuals against huge corporate interests?

Thatcher was of her time. Her character and the circumstances allowed the changes greatly needed for the UK. Her achievements were many (well analysed by David Allen Green here ) but she was also a divisive and mostly unsympathetic human being. Reactions to her remain largely emotional rather than ideological (if you don’t agree consider why Tony Blair was so popular while adopting so much of her legacy) and have prevented political growth and maturity in the UK.

My hope is that when the deserved analysis and memorials are over, the Conservative party can finally enter a new era of political debate. We are so much more than this one leader, this one woman. The iconic status the party has attributed to her has held it back. With respect for her memory and achievements we need also to be honest about the failures and omissions. We have so much more to offer and now is our time.