In this week's New Statesman

Clegg the martyr: will the Lib Dems sacrifice their leader?

This week's New Statesman is now available on newsstands around the country. Single issue copies can also be ordered here

The Martyr Complex: Rafael Behr on Nick Clegg

In the New Statesman Cover Story, Rafael Behr travels up to Nick Clegg’s Sheffield constituency to investigate whether the Deputy Prime Minister is vulnerable to leadership decapitation by the Liberal Democrats. As Labour and Conservative MPs “gloat in private that Clegg cannot possibly fight the next general election as Lib Dem leader”, Behr finds members of Clegg’s own party increasingly speculating along the same lines:

“It is the topic that people talk about most in the party,” says a prominent activist. “But it’s a whispered conversation because people find the whole thing a bit difficult.”

Behr looks back on the weight of expectation that British voters attached to Clegg in the run-up to the 2010 general election to explain how he has become the emblem of weakness and false promises in politics:

[T]he act of compromise, without which two-party government is impossible, reinforces the Lib Dems’ reputation for weakness and cynicism. It is a terrible fix – the device that defines coalition has become, in Clegg’s hands, also the practice that debases it.

Richard J Evans: Europe on the verge of a nervous breakdown

In the NS Essay, Richard J Evans, Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge and author of The Third Reich in Power 1933-39, asks whether soaring youth unemployment and a resurgence of the far right signal that Europe is on the brink of repeating the catastrophe of the 1930s:

Where extremism flourishes, political violence is never far away, and the desire for a restoration of public order can often play into the hands of right-wing politicians who, as Hitler did, promise to end the chaos on the streets, even though, like Hitler, they were one of the main forces behind it in the first place. It is no surprise to learn that a large proportion of the police force in Athens – perhaps as much as 50 per cent – voted for Golden Dawn in the 6 May election.

Top independent school headmaster attacks Gove

In the Politics Interview, the Master of Magdalen College School in Oxford, Tim Hands, talks to Alan White and slams Michael Gove’s plans for education reform:

“I simply don’t understand what Michael Gove is doing. He seems to be stuck on a Scottish moor, shooting off rockets in different directions which look brilliant in the night sky but are actually beacons of distress.”

With which reforms does he have a problem? “Gove seems to be a reversionist . . . The idea we have to go to terminal exams is wrong. That’s not how you’ll be judged at work or at university. So, almost de facto, you should have continuous assessment in school.” He shakes his head sadly. “Idiotic.”

Tim Montgomerie: Cameron needs a new emblem

The editor of the ConservativeHome website, Tim Montgomerie, offers a view of David Cameron in this week’s NS Politics Column. Unlike Margaret Thatcher, who chose to brandish a shopping basket to show that she understood the needs of ordinary families, and John Major, with his little wooden soapbox, the current Tory Prime Minister, Montgomerie notes, chose a “very different defining moment”:

Climate change was just one of the metrosexual issues that Cameron chose to suggest that the Conservative Party had changed. More women candidates and the concept of the “big society” were two others. The [danger] for Cameron was always that he wouldn’t be as committed to these changes as he needed to be and that he would run the risk of Tory modernisation appearing shallow and inauthentic. And so it has come to pass. Cameron has in fact played fast and loose with each of his great change factors.

Montgomerie warns that, as the next general election approaches, Cameron needs a new defining image – something like that of his predecessors – which will “pull him closer to blue-collar Britain”.

Elsewhere in the New Statesman

  • In Observations, Laurie Penny warns that David Cameron risks incurring the wrath of Britain’s young people; Dan Hodges on the change in Ed Miliband’s fortunes, brought about by his “moody and acerbic spin doctor” Tom Baldwin; and, following last week’s New Statesman cover story, Mark Leonard argues that Germany, led by Angela Merkel, is Europe’s only possible saviour.
  • In the Diary, the Irish comedian Patrick Kielty offers some words of advice to his “mate” Jimmy Carr and considers the Queen’s handshake with Martin McGuinness (“For the jubilee girl, it’s just another backstage meet-and-greet on the ‘Sorry one’s ancestors came’ world tour”).
  • Grayson Perry talks rubbish art, cross-dressing and running around with guns in the NS Interview with Jemima Khan.
  • In Lines of Dissent, Mehdi Hasan asks if the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt should worry us.
  • In the Critics, poet Craig Raine writes about Tate Liverpool's exhibition of late work by J M W Turner, Monet and Cy Twombly; Helen Lewis is engrossed in Breasts: a Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams and Andrew Adonis reviews The Passage of Power, the fourth volume of Robert A Caro’s monumental biography of Lyndon B Johnson.

For all this and more pick up a copy of this week's New Statesman, available from today on newsstands around the country. Single issue copies can also be ordered online here

Original cover artwork by Chris Price

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.