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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.