An Open Letter To HRH The Duchess Of Cambridge

Women are devoting increasing amounts of time to their "birth day" appearance. Please don't give in to the trend, ma'am.

Ma’am,

We have tried here, at the New Statesman, to afford you a certain amount of privacy as you incubate a future monarch. Not all news outlets have been so circumspect. There has been adulatory speculation about how the million-pound nursery at Apartment 1A, Kensington Palace might be furnished. We’ve seen reports about the Royal birthing playlist, featuring rather less whalesong than one might imagine, and a good deal more Bruno Mars, Calvin Harris and Of Monsters and Men.

The advent of a new Royal has even been used as the hook for stories about a growing trend for a delivery room beauty régime. How new mothers, who might reasonably be expected to be preoccupied with the non-trivial business of pushing an entire human being out of their bodies, are now devoting an increasing amount of time to their "birth day" appearance. Apparently this is so that pictures of the new baby in its mothers’ arms are fit for posterity.

I am dead, dead, against this. For a number of reasons.

1. I think we as a society should learn to accept that what women really look like is actual women. Not creatures who have created a tabula rasa on the front of their heads with foundation and then sketched an idealised portrait of the popular actress Megan Fox on it using makeup. I don’t want to oppress anyone. If someone wants to do that for fun, once in a while, perhaps on a night out, that’s fine by me. But making it the daily standard sounds like a bit of a faff. Asking people to do that when they’re already doing the least relaxing things any human being can conceivably do seems, at the very best, to be an unrealistic expectation.

2. Childbirth is a stressful and, still in the twenty-first century, often dangerous process. If there’s time available for eyebrow reshaping or artful photographic lighting, that is time that could be used into doing things that make the new Mother safer, more comfortable, and less likely to blow a mental gasket. I have never given birth. Nor, unless there are some substantial scientific discoveries in the next few decades, am I likely to. But I’ve seen it done. It looks difficult, painful and a touch frightening. The happiest births are ones with the minimum personnel in the room. Mum, obviously. Dad, ideally. Baby, eventually. It’s nice to have a Midwife or other experienced professional on hand just in case things turn a bit tricky. I would contend that adding Gok Wan to the mix for some labour-day beauty tips is exactly the kind of over manning that crippled Britain’s industrial base and not at all the best working practice for childbirth.

3. All men know that, no matter what kind of person their wife or partner was before the birth, they will suddenly morph into some kind of all-knowing parenting sage as soon as the placenta hits the tiles. While men and women are roughly equal in terms of knowledge and usefulness, Mums are ineffably wiser than Dads when it comes to child-rearing. As a Dad myself, I find that more than a bit annoying. That last picture of the woman we love, in extremis, at her lowest ebb, slicked with sweat and other miscellaneous unnameable fluids, is all fathers have to cling to as our status and influence ebbs away and we become that hapless Dad in every TV advert ever.

If the Duchess Of Cambridge were to give in to this regrettable trend, we’d know about it soon enough. And what the Royals do today, despite our pretensions to a meritocratic society, the rest of us will be doing tomorrow. Or, in the next nine months at least.

We’ve seen inflation of expectation in all sorts of areas; weddings, school proms, baby showers. Life events that we used to celebrate on a shoestring until a celebrity started the ball rolling in the direction of unsustainable expense.

Photos of a perfectly-groomed new mother on the front page of every newspaper will just lead to more unrealistic expectation. Expectation which will inevitably lead to shattered self-esteem for new parents across the realm.

Your Royal Highness, if you’re reading this — and I accept that you may be a trifle too busy at the moment — please don’t look your best today.

Yours,

Michael

Don't saddle us with unrealistic expectations. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Moran is the television columnist for the Lady magazine and the creator of the literary spoof “100 Books I'll Never Write".

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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.