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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.

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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.