Women on bank notes: I was wrong

What looked at first to me like a trivial issue opened up a vital debate about the importance of women's achievements in our society.

Here's the thing: I was wrong.

When Caroline Criado-Perez first started making noise about the fact that the Bank of England had dropped the only woman chosen to be on a banknote - Elizabeth Fry - and replaced her with Winston Churchill, I didn't think it was a big deal. Aren't there bigger things to worry about than who gets pictured on our money? What about rape, domestic violence, global hunger, income inequality, the fact I can't find a shoe that is comfortable and stylish? Why are bloody feminists always obsessing over the small stuff instead of solving the real problems?

Now, I've realised that this the line of reasoning that ends, inexorably, with you posting the comment "HOW IS THIS NEWS?!? F1!RST!" on Guardian stories about otters. 

First, the kind of people who complain that an activist isn't focusing on the Real Problem aren't usually focusing on it themselves, either. They're just looking for a cheap, armchair way to feel like they're better than someone else. (Also, on a general note, being a dick to people on Twitter is not activism.)

Second, faced with a huge array of injustices, it's better to do something than do nothing, always. (I don't think Criado-Perez would have cracked the Middle East peace process if only she hadn't been too busy with banknotes.) There's a power in small, symbolic actions; I mean, what was Gandhi thinking when he had a stroll to the sea to make salt? Who cares about salt, right, when there's independence to fight for? 

Third, and this is where my really big apology comes - actually, this campaign is really important. Because of it, we've had a conversation, as high up as George Osborne and Maria Miller, about the sidelining of women in British history. People have had the chance to talk about what women they admire in the story we tell about ourselves and our country. It prompted Ed Miliband to give a speech about the representation of women in public life, and it gave Osborne the chance to do a pun on Twitter. It allowed all the tweeters who knee-jerked to "yeah but there is a woman - the Queen" a moment to reflect why the Queen is there, compared with those who are there on merit, and why women might find that insulting. It helps education campaigners vocalise why they are unhappy with a national history curriculum focused on "posh white blokes".

And it allowed Tory MP Mary Macleod to indulge in the most shameless piece of glory-hunting since John Terry. 

Most of all, it gave a template for a successful, focused campaign. Asking women to protest outside the Bank of England dressed as their favourite historical characters was a stroke of genius, giving the media a fun story (and good pictures to use every time they then wrote about the campaign - making it more likely to be reported prominently).

Criado-Perez might not have "smashed patriarchy", but she has shown that you can make the world better, even if only by a fraction. And that is a damn sight better than nothing. 

 

Criado Perez protests outside the Bank of England. Photo: Getty

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories