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Laurie Penny: William Hague’s decision to use his wife’s miscarriages to defend himself is unnecessary and offensive

No uterus is public property.

"Well, if you're not gay, why haven't you got that nice girl pregnant yet?" It's the sort of question one expects only from atrocious, senile grandparents and the British press in silly season.

Beset by trollish gossip about his relationship with his former aide Christopher Myers, the Foreign Secretary has felt obliged to make an extremely intimate public announcement about the state of his wife's uterus to satisfy the snarling attack-dogs of the sweltering summer media hiatus. Poor William Hague. Poor Chris Myers. And poor Ffion Hague, whose multiple miscarriages have now been offered to the world as evidence of her husband's integrity and virility.

If there is one lesson we've learned in the past week, amid the breathless coverage of David and Samantha Cameron's new arrival, it's that the reproductive organs of Tory wives are extremely important and deeply indicative of their husbands' capacity to exercise power responsibly and well. After all, if a man doesn't know and control what's going on in his lady's pants, how can he be expected to run a government department?

The link between Mrs Hague's repeated, tragic loss of pregnancy and Mr Hague's heterosexuality is not necessarily straightforward, but it's the closest one can come in a public forum to "I've definitely been sleeping with my wife".

Hague seems to have accepted the rather Orwellian narrative that regular, productive heterosexual intercourse within the confines of marriage is a man's duty to the Tory party, and the press has goaded him into an explicit statement that he's been doing his duty. Will that be enough uncomfortable personal revelation to satisfy the ravenous media machine?

Unfortunately, it's probably exactly what we wanted. The British press seems to nurse an interminable fascination with what Conservatives do in bed together, and the party is clearly anxious to avoid another series of sex scandals like those that beset the Back to Basics years. Only by diverting the media's attention with a highly personal story which nevertheless emphasises that the New Tories are moral, married, faithful and fertile -- not the kinky Conservatives of John Major's premiership -- could Hague and his handlers have hoped to defuse this scandal.

Would it matter if William Hague was a closeted homosexual or bisexual? Yes, it would, simply because it would raise serious questions about the hypocrisy of his previous defence of Section 28. In the light of his extremely revealing statement, however, and in the light of the rumours having originated from that paragon of mature, well-researched online commentary, Guido "Terribly Dangerous" Fawkes, I'd venture to suggest that Hague's claim never to have had a relationship with another man is probably grounded. Yet all this juicy chatter misses the point entirely.

Even if Hague is straighter than a die, it doesn't make his ugly defence of homophobic policies and policymakers one jot more justified. Furthermore, whatever the Foreign Secretary's sexual proclivities, Ffion Hague's miscarriages have no bearing on his ability to do his job responsibly -- the Hagues could be as fertile and faithful as a pair of Catholic rabbits and William Hague would still be a grim prospect in the Foreign Office. And -- most importantly -- no woman's uterus is public property. Not even if they've had the poor taste to marry a Tory minister.

Read Laurie Penny's weekly column in the New Statesman magazine.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt