Stella Creasy: One Billion Rising and boldy going were no woman has gone before

Dancing in the streets, a despondent David Cameron and the final frontier for women.

Paris is burning

A politician in a nightclub is usually a Private Eye anecdote-in-waiting rather than a wise move. Yet on 4 February at Café de Paris in Soho, London, I find myself onstage, following the sitar player Anoushka Shankar and a woman who can suspend herself from a wooden ring in the air.

The “London Rising” concert is the culmination of months of working with activists across the UK for One Billion Rising (OBR), a campaign started by Eve Ensler, the writer of The Vagina Monologues, which aims to make ending violence against women a priority for all governments. A billion women will be raped or beaten in their lifetime; Ensler wants the same number of people involved in raising awareness by dancing in public on 14 February.

OBR is a volunteer-led movement with minimal organisation, yet millions are signing up around the world. Videos are popping up daily on YouTube of activists practising their dancing in places as far apart as Peru, Bangladesh, San Francisco and Lebanon. You know something special is going on when people in hotbeds of radical activism as different and distinctive as Bute, Wat-ford, Peterborough and Kirklees are joining the revolution.

That evening at Café de Paris, Ensler addressed the crowd along with the actress Thandie Newton (who is impossibly beautiful, kind and clever). I’d always promised not to dance in public, knowing that the sight of a parliamentarian shuffling awkwardly can be the biggest turn-off for anyone, but by the end of the evening we were all part of one slightly sweaty and excited mass on the dance floor, determined to change the world.

Head over heels

Following the euphoria of that night, I am struck by vanity and horror the morning after. What do you wear to meet with the great and the good – the playwrights, actors, campaigners or baronesses – of the OBR campaign? Flustered from running in unsuitable shoes around Trafalgar Square, I spend ten minutes trying to break into the back of a building, only to realise I’m at the wrong address – I am two doors down from where I need to be. At the event, Eve speaks of visiting the City of Joy refuge for survivors of sexual abuse and violence in conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which her campaigning helped to build.

Suddenly, the ungainliness of wearing stupid heels is immaterial. In a beautiful, sun-strewn room along the Mall, we all stand proud, united by Eve’s enthusiasm.

Down in the lobby

Ahead of the same-sex marriage bill, the ugly underbelly of homophobia in British society comes spilling out of my in-box, complete with graphic descriptions and threats of retribution. I’m relieved that, on the whole, emails from actual constituents about the bill, whether for or against it, are polite and temperate, although one expresses equal fury about my support for gay marriage and how the writer’s recycling bin has not been collected and demands a response to both within three days. Later that night, as I walk through the lobby to vote, I pass a familiar face skulking in the corner looking despondent. I’m about to go over to ask what is wrong, when I suddenly realise it is David Cameron and know it needs no further explanation.

Divide and rule

Parliament is full of excitement and it has nothing to do with that photo of David Mili­band dozing on the Tube. Something that hasn’t happened in 20 years is apparently afoot. The whips shuffle us into the chamber where the topic is the thrills and spills of the Canterbury City Council Bill, which regulates trading on the street. It has been rumbling around parliament since 2008. Word goes round that to stop the four MPs intent on dragging out the matter further, we will have a division in the chamber where everyone stands up to vote. On days like this, the sense that parliament is Hogwarts gone wrong gets stronger with every point of order or intervention. It seems clear to me that the deputy speaker would quite like to be able to cast the Avada Kedavra spell on several MPs.

Timing is everything

With a week to go until One Billion Rising, we are delighted when Thandie Newton confirms that she will lead the London flash mob outside parliament. Delicate negotiations between dance troupes and campaigners about timings ensue. In the end, 11am wins, though the vexed question of the playlist and provision of the sound system remains. Resolution of such matters is well above my pay grade.

Strange new worlds

Although we are making progress with One Billion Rising, misogyny still seeks to ground us all. Following a television interview about the initiative, a Tory student activist tweets that I am “quite bummable for a Labour MP”. On Twitter, stories of segregation in British life – with boys getting to play football while girls are taught about their contraceptive choices – pour in through the Everyday Sexism Project.

Such views are the reason why our OBR-themed debate in parliament will demand that sex and relationship lessons are made mandatory for everyone. When 80 per cent of 11-year-olds in one study by Edinburgh University say it is OK to hit a woman if she’s late with the dinner, we know we have to ensure that every young person wants a partnership based on mutual respect.

Meanwhile, a local resident and space fanatic alerts me that Unilever is running a competition to send people into space – but it is being marketed at men only. It seems we have a new final frontier for feminism. After all, if One Billion Rising accomplishes anything, I hope it is to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civili­sations and to boldly go where no woman has gone before . . .

Stella Creasy is the MP for Walthamstow (Labour and Co-Operative). For more details on One Billion Rising visit: onebillionrising.org

Activists as far apart as Peru, Bangladesh, San Francisco and Lebanon have been practising their dancing. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt