Conservative MP for The Wrekin Mark Pritchard.
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Can Cameron bring back powers from EU? "I'm cautiously pessimistic", says Mark Pritchard MP

The senior Conservative MP and Eurosceptic Mark Pritchard discusses the EU, secret societies, adoption and animal welfare.

“It would be nice to be invited into Government, but my social mobility ended the day David Cameron walked into Downing Street,” says senior Conservative MP and self-described "council house lad" Mark Pritchard with a waggish smile.

A leading Eurosceptic and architect of government rebellions on EU issues, for the moment he seems content with No 10’s promise of an in/out referendum.

In a state of anticipation about the future of Britain’s membership of the EU, he even believes that Cameron himself may campaign to leave if certain powers – Pritchard will not be pinned down on which – are not restored to the UK.

"Let’s wait and see. I’m confident of the Prime Minister’s negotiation skills”, he says diplomatically. He is less confident about the ability of others to "fully appreciate" those skills, adding: "I’m cautiously pessimistic about the European leaders’ willingness to repatriate powers."

Sitting on the House of Commons Terrace next to the Thames on a sunny afternoon, Pritchard – “Pritch” to his friends – wears gold-rimmed aviators and a nautical tie. He sips his eponymous cocktail: a refreshing, non-alcoholic mixture of cranberry juice, soda water, lime and ice known to the staff of the Strangers’ Bar as the Pritchard Special.

He has shown a canny knack for making his name known since his arrival in Parliament in 2005 as the MP for The Wrekin in Shropshire, his election itself a key mile post in his ascent from humble beginnings.

Pritchard spent the first five years of his life in an orphanage in Herefordshire. Far from a lonely, sterile institution, he describes “a grand Victorian home with a large, sweeping staircase”, happily recording “nothing but positive memories”.

He believes that, like those who looked after him, “99 per cent of carers doing a great job every hour of every day”, but he is passionate about further improving care for children under the protection of the state.

“There are too many who leave school with far too few qualifications, who end up in the criminal justice system, who end up on the streets homeless, committing antisocial behaviour, falling into prostitution.”

Adoption needs to be speeded up, and sweeping reforms of social work and training for it are needed, he declares.

As a young man, he toyed with the idea of the church. “In the end the bishop said I have too many vices and not enough virtues, so there was only one place to go: politics.”

So he did not become a minister of the church. Neither, it might be added, has he been appointed one in Parliament.

He was a chief player in the rebellion against the government, calling for a real-terms EU budget cut in 2012. He sums up the affair with an air of satisfaction: “The government whipped against it. The government lost. It’s now official government policy. So that’s good news.”

He is unrepentant about his former hard-line stance and remains unstinting on the issue on immigration: "We must get back to managing our borders better. We can make more improvements, but that will require treaty change."

He concedes, however: “I think when it comes to Europe, the more the backbenchers and No 10 work collaboratively, the better for everybody.”

Reflecting on his softer side, animal welfare is another of Pritchard’s great passions. A profound animal lover, although he is keen to point out he is a “carnivore”, he is still in mourning from his “annus horribilis” last year, during which his two beloved Schnauzers, aged 13 and 16, both died.

Earlier this year he hoped to bring a ban against animals appearing in British circuses into legislation. Although it did not make the Queen’s speech, as was rumoured, he is determined not to give up.

He has also crusaded against the sale of animals on the internet and campaigned for a ban on keeping primates as pets. He also wants greater protection for Britain’s bird populations. “This is all political low-hanging fruit.”

His love for animals is informed by a Christian-Judeo world view, he explains, adding: “I make no apology talking about God. I think most people out there are encouraged by anybody who believes in something greater than themselves. It’s good to remember we’re mortals as politicians.”

His faith also informs his views on abortion. As Vice-Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group, he wants to see the abortion termination term-limit reduced from 24 weeks by at least two weeks and reviewed each Parliament as scientific advances render foetuses viable at earlier stages of pregnancy.

Last year Pritchard was one of the few MPs to defend proposals by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to raise MPs salaries by £7,500 to £75,000.

He explains: “We don’t just want multimillionaires in the house, although good for them; and we don’t want the other extreme – political anoraks and hangers on. We need people who are from the middle, from the private and public sector, professional people, middle managers, business people from all size of business.

He adds: “I think people who have earnt wealth, rather than inherit wealth, know how to spend money a little bit – ”, he checks himself, “differently. Not necessarily better.”

On the subject of money, last autumn Pritchard was accused, following an investigation by The Daily Telegraph, of exploiting foreign contacts to set up business deals.

He says: “The Parliamentary Commissioner decided not even to investigate”, adding with slow annunciation: “I did not lobby”. There was no suggestion in the newspaper reports that he was willing to support business deals in the Commons.

He says he has now moved on, adding: “I’ve got very thick skin, the skin of a rhinoceros.”

A fan of observational humour, Pritchard is an amateur comedian, writing his own sketches. He is currently working on a secret project, which he will only describe as “mainstream”. “This is an appeal to the BBC to call me!” he declares.

An example of his impish sense of humour, Pritchard founded The Old Boys Comprehensive Lunch Club in Westminster – an antidote to the domination of public school parliamentarians. It raised eyebrows among the male public school elite dominating the top echelons of the Conservative party, but he denies intending to “wind up” Old Etonian David Cameron.

Despite its tongue-in-cheek name, Pritchard maintains that the "secret society" makes an important point about social mobility. “It was to show the Conservatives span the working class, the underclass in my case, through to more privileged backgrounds... We are a palace of varieties,” he says.

So does it have passwords, handshakes, rituals? “It’s so secret I can’t even tell you that,” he grins, before adding, “What I can say is that it’s more beef burgers and chips than Bilderburgers.”

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.

 

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.