David Young
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The motherhood trap

It seems like a great time to be a woman in politics - but the fact that childless women are vilified as selfish, while so few mothers make it to the top, reveals an uncomfortable truth about how far we still have to go to achieve equality.

Look around the top of politics and it seems like a wonderful time to be a woman. Two of the four candidates for the Labour leadership are female – Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall – as are three of the five in the race for deputy: Stella Creasy, Caroline Flint and Angela Eagle. One of the three likely contenders for the next Tory leadership is a woman, Theresa May. The next leader of Scottish Labour is likely to be Kezia Dugdale, and she will find herself debating two other female leaders, Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP and the Tories’ Ruth Davidson. Half of the shadow cabinet is female, and there are seven women in the cabinet. The most powerful politician in the European Union and perhaps the world is Angela Merkel.

But these eye-catching facts conceal an uncomfortable truth: remarkably high proportions of the most successful women in politics are childless. (All the named politicians above are, except Cooper and Flint.)

For much of the last parliament, the only mother in the cabinet was Maria Miller, and New Statesman research shows that while the 14 men in the shadow cabinet have 31 children between them, the 13 women have only 16. Seven of the women are childless, against three of the men.

This disparity is evident throughout parliament, according to wider research carried out by the academics Sarah Childs and Rosie Campbell in 2013. They found that 45 per cent of female MPs were childless, compared to 28 per cent of men. “On average men MPs have 1.9 children compared to 1.2 for women MPs,” they wrote. “There is also a sex difference in the age of MPs’ children: the average age of MPs’ eldest child when they first entered parliament is 12 years old for men and 16 years old for women . . . All of this would suggest that mothers – and not just women – are significantly descriptively under-represented in British politics.”

Why does that matter? It matters not only because a parliamentary democracy should strive to reflect the populace it serves, but because the barriers stopping the ascent of MPs who are mothers reflect the structural discrimination throughout society.

The “motherhood trap” exposes one of capitalism’s most uncomfortable secrets – the way it relies on so much unpaid labour, often from women, to sustain itself. This labour comes at the expense of career opportunities, and their lifetime earning power: the pay gap between men and women in their twenties is all but eradicated, but a “maternity gap” still exists, and women’s wages never recover from the time devoted to childbearing.

Despite this, and despite the huge energy generated by the feminist movement in the past decade, questions of care have not gained as much attention as they did during the “Second Wave” in the 1970s. In 2014, the New Republic’s Judith Shulevitz suggested that the F-word itself should be replaced with “caregiverism”, to stress that challenging the exploitation of unpaid labour was critical to achieving equality. Without a structural analysis of the problem, Shulevitz argued, it was too easy to see these debates as “personal dilemmas – opting out, opting in – rather than as Hobson’s choices imposed on us”. She added: “Limiting work hours used to be one of the great causes of the labour movement.”

That brings us back to parliament. Over the past month, I have spoken to more than a dozen women and men, many of them involved in politics at the highest levels. There was universal agreement across the ideological spectrum that it is difficult to balance caring responsibilities with a political career. At the same time, selectors, voters and the media often expect a politician to have a family as a way of signalling that they are “normal”. So women face an impossible situation. If they have children, people disparage them as not dedicated enough to the job. If they don’t, people disparage them for having nothing else in their lives but the job.

Indeed, a 2014 study found that when it came to workers having children, there was a “fatherhood bonus” but a “motherhood penalty”. As the author of the study, the sociology professor Michelle Budig of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, told the New York Times: “Employers read fathers as more stable and committed to their work; they have a family to provide for, so they’re less likely to be flaky. That is the opposite of how parenthood by women is interpreted by employers. The conventional story is they work less and they’re more distractible when on the job.”

Rosie Campbell and Sarah Childs think the same is true of MPs. “It’s a no-win for women,” Campbell told me. “For men, having a wife and children is a political resource, whereas for women, not having children was the thing that gave them the time to do politics.”

The downside to this added time, however, is being open to accusations of selfishness, and the suggestion that the women have made a calculated career decision that somehow alienates them from “ordinary people”. (Roughly 20 per cent of women in the UK aged 45 do not have any children, according to the Office for National Statistics, up from one in nine of their mothers’ generation: not having children is far from rare.)

On 6 July in a column for the Huffington Post, the former Labour minister Helen Goodman wrote that she supported Yvette Cooper for leader because, “As a working mum, she understands the pressures on modern family life. We need a leader who knows what challenges ordinary people face day to day, and who is committed to helping them.” The implicit contrast here was with Liz Kendall, who is both childless and single, her last relationship having ended just before the general election.

But as Isabel Hardman wrote in a blog for the Spectator, “Being a parent does not automatically mean you will understand even other parents. You will still need empathy in order to put yourself in the shoes of a single mother living on benefits if you are married and running a house on two salaries.” In other words, Cooper and Kendall have more in common with each other, uterine usage aside, than either does with a constituent struggling on the minimum wage.

Yet speaking “as a mother” is presumed to be a short cut to authenticity and normality. When Maria Miller wanted to bring in controls on web access to hardcore pornography in 2013, she told the press: “As a mother, I am determined to protect my children from the depravity of internet porn.”

Male politicians, by contrast, get the best of both worlds. They have a family that can be marshalled as photogenic props or used as fodder for personal anecdotes in speeches, and their home life grounds them and makes them appear “normal”. (The coverage of the Cooper/Kendall spat largely failed to mention that Andy Burnham and Jeremy Corbyn have children. And most commentators presumed Miller’s comments to be a coded gibe at Theresa May, Theresa Villiers and Justine Greening but not Eric Pickles or William Hague.)

So, what can be done to make life easier for both sets of women – those caught in the motherhood trap, and their childless sisters, portrayed as selfish and single-minded? Just as importantly, what can be done to bridge the gap so that a woman’s family status is no longer seen to define her quite so acutely? Let’s look at each in turn.

 

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In May 1997 a record 101 female Labour MPs entered the Commons. It was parliament’s own version of the Big Bang, driving up the percentage of women in the House from less than 10 to more than 15 per cent. There was strength in numbers, allowing policy areas that had been marginalised – or dismissed as merely “women’s issues” – to be heard. The macho, public school-cum-gentleman’s club culture of Westminster also took a knock. But there was a problem. “Lots of us who were newly elected in 1997 came in assuming it was fine – we were ­going to sort out the hours of the House of Commons,” the former Labour minister Patricia Hewitt told me. “And we assumed that all female MPs would have the same view on this.”

They didn’t. Politicians who lived within commuting distance of London, or whose family home was in the capital, wanted parliament to operate to normal working hours so that they could get home in the evenings to see their children during the week. But Hewitt and her colleagues discovered that MPs in farther-flung seats were away from their family during the week anyway, and so didn’t mind the long sitting hours. They wanted a late start on Monday and an early finish on Thursday to maximise the time they could spend with their family.

They also discovered that many male MPs liked the late sittings and the “collegiality” of the Commons. Hewitt recalls: “Many of them would make the argument: ‘No, no, no, it’s absolutely vital that we’re voting in the evening, we’re having dinner together. That’s when back benches can talk to ministers.’ And there was a lot of truth in that; it was just you also pay a high price for it. So that was quite a rude awakening.”

The current standard sitting hours run from 2.30pm to 10pm on Monday, 7pm on Tuesday and Wednesday, and 5pm on a Thursday. At these times, MPs are expected to stay near Westminster in case they need to vote. This part of the job, coupled with the need for most MPs to maintain two homes, is the great barrier for those with caring responsibilities.

Many believe that discussions over sitting hours operate as a veiled rebuke to women who don’t seem to want to be part of the (male) clique. “It’s interesting that very often the criticism of women is that they’re not ‘clubbable’,” says Emily Thornberry, the Labour MP for Islington South. “Theresa May ‘doesn’t have a following’; Yvette Cooper is ‘too reserved’.” Another MP, who is also a mother, echoed this: “If we had an early finish, my priority would be to get back and spend time with my family. Even before I had a child – it’s just a question of personal choice – sometimes I’d just rather read for a couple of hours.”

Labour’s women’s minister, Gloria De Piero, says she does not believe it is possible to “tinker” with the hours any more to make them more family-friendly. But she added, “You’d have to say: ‘If you invented it now, is this what it would look like?’”

However, other aspects of Commons life are improving. There is now a crèche on Parliament Street, used by MPs, civil servants and staff, which takes children from three months upwards. It was created by Speaker John Bercow in 2010 amid a campaign of low-level resistance, because its establishment led to the closure of Bellamy’s, one of the many bars in the Commons.

Bercow has taken reform seriously as Speaker, and he told me by email: “A good number of the old, outdated assumptions about women’s ability to be effective Members of Parliament and hold high office have been consigned, rightly, to the dustbin. However, as with other highly mobile careers, it is a fact that an MP’s job, often splitting time between his or her constituency and Westminster, places a particular strain on family life.” Besides the crèche, he says, “the decision to introduce earlier sitting hours in the last parliament was undertaken partly as a result of colleagues arguing that a modern Commons should take a more family-friendly approach”.

The current sitting hours are, however, in danger, as they were introduced for a ­limited period and some MPs will want them back to their old length. “I don’t think reverting to those hours would send a good signal about modern working practices,” one female MP tells me.

Still, at least you can now take a baby through the division lobby, making it easier for those with small children to attend crucial votes. This milestone was first reached by the Liberal Democrat MP Duncan Hames in 2014 when his wife, Jo Swinson, was the party’s equalities minister. She told me that her family provided a perfect test case for people’s differing responses to mothers and fathers juggling work and childcare.

“Duncan and I had the same job as MPs, and I had ministerial responsibilities, but people still responded differently in terms of expectations of what childcare responsibilities we would have. People just took it for granted that with a small child, there would be times when I, as a woman, couldn’t do something. But they didn’t respond in that automatic way to Duncan at all.”

Swinson argued that childcare affects working fathers in a way that doesn’t get addressed “because they’re not physically going through that change”. She added: “I think fatherhood is much more invisible in politics. The media is part of it – the woman will be introduced with what age they are, ‘mother of X’; or, indeed, if they don’t have children, then it will be remarked upon in a way that it isn’t with men, generally.”

She also highlighted the difficulty of ­taking maternity leave as an MP: her office covered her constituency caseload while her Lib Dem colleague Jenny Willott took on the equalities brief in addition to her own. Swinson believes that Britain should move towards the Scandinavian model, under which a portion of paid parental leave is available only if taken by the father (or same-sex partner). “Because of maternity leave, and the cultural expectation that it’s mums that take the lion’s share of that time,” she said, “it ends up being the women who are taking more of the responsibility once they return to work.” Why is that? “Because they’ve developed the expertise. Parenting is about practice – you don’t innately know how to calm a crying baby.”

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One of the hazards of my job is being invited to summits on “powerful women”, which usually leave me feeling extremely unpowerful, and frankly a bit of a failure at being a woman. Recently at one such occasion, held in the ballroom of a London hotel, the star guest was the former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard. She talked frankly about what has become known as the “misogyny speech” – when she took her main opponent Tony Abbott to task in parliament for 15 searing minutes, opening with the declaration: “I will not be lectured on sexism and misogyny by this man; I will not.”

The denunciation, in October 2012, had been a long time coming. Even judging by the everyday tone in the notoriously brutal arena of Australian politics – its bluntness often makes Prime Minister’s Questions look like a Quaker meeting – the rhetoric used to describe Gillard was exceptionally vicious. “Ditch the witch”, read one set of election placards. After her speech, the sexist abuse did not abate: in 2013 a Liberal Party fundraising dinner promised “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail – Small Breasts, Huge Thighs & A Big Red Box”. (Abbott said the menu was “tacky and scatological” but he did not suspend the candidate involved.)

Through this river of low-grade sexism ran one very strong current: repeated criticism of Gillard for being childless. In 2007, the conservative senator Bill Heffernan called her “deliberately barren”. Another Liberal politician, George Brandis, now attorney general, once criticised her in parliament, asserting that she was a “one-dimensional” person who had “chosen not to be a parent”. Her own party has not spared her: the former Labor leader Mark Latham opined in 2011, “Anyone who chooses a life without children, as Gillard has, cannot have much love in them.” Her fierce rival Kevin Rudd, the former prime minister, is alleged to have described her pejoratively, also in 2011, as a “childless, atheist ex-communist”. In February the following year, the Sydney Morning Herald fretted in its leader column that voters had “largely closed their minds to Gillard. Her media persona does not fit the expectations of some voters: a single woman, childless, whose life is dedicated to her career.”

As often seems to be the case, it was implied that given Gillard’s childlessness, she could not have an opinion on family policy – as if defence ministers always have a military background, or all agriculture ministers can reliably tell one end of a haddock from the other before taking on the brief.

A fortnight after the misogyny speech, Tony Abbott made a pointed remark about Gillard’s government restricting the “baby bonus” for new parents on the assumption that a second child could reuse many items purchased for the first. “Often one child is still in the cot when the second one comes along. One child is still in the pram when the second one comes along,” said the father-of-three. “I think if the government was a bit more experienced in this area they wouldn’t come out with glib lines like that.”

The Conservative children’s minister Tim Loughton took a similar line when criticising his Lib Dem coalition colleague Sarah Teather at the Tory party conference in 2013, claiming that she “didn’t believe in family. She certainly didn’t produce one of her own.” This made the Education Department a “family-free zone”, which he found “disappointing”. (Loughton has three children, although it would be indelicate of me to note that his contribution to “producing” them involved less physical hardship than endured by his wife.)

Perhaps the most startling aspect of Julia Gillard’s experience is that the criticism of her was so explicit and came from such senior political figures. In less plain-spoken cultures, the fear of childless women is usually better camouflaged, disguised as concerns over “life experience” and whether a woman has a “well-rounded personality”. But not always: in June last year, a 35-year-old Tokyo City assembly member called Ayaka Shiomura was heckled during a debate on support for working mothers with cries of “Go and get married” and “Can’t you give birth?”. In 2005, when Angela Merkel first seemed to have a chance of leading Germany’s ruling coalition, the wife of her main rival, Gerhard Schröder, commented acidly that she “does not embody with her biography the experiences of most women”, going on to mention childbirth and school admissions. That Doris Schröder-Köpf’s own husband has no biological children – the couple have adopted two children, and she brought a daughter to the relationship – did not seem to trouble her.

The childless British politicians to whom I spoke confirmed that their status was often used against them by their opponents, by other women as much as men. One pointed me to the leaflet issued by Stella Creasy’s Tory rival for the Walthamstow seat in this year’s general election, Molly Samuel-Leport. Under the headline “The Contenders Head to Head”, it listed Samuel-Leport’s virtues: “Cleaner Mother Shop Assistant Wife Athlete Teacher Champion Understands YOU”. When it came to Creasy, the list was shorter: “Career Politician Understands Ed Miliband”. The implication was clear – Creasy’s childlessness showed that she was not an “ordinary” person, as did her a PhD in social psychology and her background in think tanks.

Similar criticisms were levelled against Theresa May by a Downing Street insider in the Daily Mirror in August 2014 just as she became the front-runner to succeed David Cameron. May has always been reluctant to talk about not having children; the most she has ever said is that it “just didn’t happen” for her and her husband, Philip.

The source said that May’s lack of a family would make her look abnormal and unappealing to the electorate. “Being interested in politics is not normal. It’s not something most people do,” the source told the paper. “There are lots of ways you can look like you are obsessed with politics and not having children is one of them.” (Let’s draw a veil over what her rival Boris Johnson’s ­fertility track record makes it look like he is obsessed with . . .)

Do male politicians feel such criticisms as strongly? Ben Bradshaw, who is also in the race for the Labour deputy leadership, told me he had never been aware of his childlessness being used as a political attack line.

“It’s never been raised with me – that idea that because you don’t have children you don’t understand people’s lives,” the 54-year-old MP said. “We all have families even if we don’t have children. Me and the man I’ve been with for 20 years have an extended family. We have scores of nephews and nieces.”

Nicola Sturgeon has said that she believes there is a double standard. Asked on ITV’s Tonight during the general election campaign about whether she had chosen not to have children, she said: “Alex Salmond doesn’t have children. He might tell you differently, but I’m not aware of reading an interview or seeing an interview with Alex Salmond asking that question.”

Gloria De Piero, who is married but does not have children, says this reflects her experience. “It is mentioned in a lot of interviews with me in a way that it just simply isn’t with my male colleagues who are similar ages,” the 42-year-old told me. “It’s an issue for women who are not mothers in a way that it’s not an issue for men who are not fathers.”

 

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The motherhood trap affects us all, and although some of these issues are specific to MPs, many are not, particularly the scourge of “presenteeism” – rewarding attendance, whether productive work is being done or not – and the valorisation of “unencumbered” workers, who are available to their employers at any time of day or night.

Yet the politicians I interviewed were keen to stress that there are still grounds for optimism. “I don’t want to be too miserable about this,” said De Piero, laughing. “I always worry that people say, ‘It’s so bloody awful in parliament,’ and women go, ‘Oh my God, I don’t want to do that job.’”

Several parliamentarians also had ideas for how working practices could be improved. Emily Thornberry questioned why there was a need for the House to return to sit before the autumn party conferences, even though at this time, little useful work is done on legislation. Instead, she advocates a longer summer recess, during which MPs can have time off with their family, followed by a “constituency month” to catch up on casework. “They talk about ‘MPs have packed their buckets and spades and are off and we won’t see them’. We don’t stand up for ourselves and say: ‘I get 1,000 letters and emails a week.’ I have a lot of work to do in my constituency.”

The president of the Liberal Democrats, Sal Brinton, thinks it is time to talk seriously about job shares for MPs. “[It] frightens parliamentarians, but we think it’s something that would bear looking at. It used to frighten big companies, the idea that you could have a senior manager job-sharing, but it does work. You just have to think out the difficult issues – how do you vote? – but everything else would work.”

Jo Swinson also believes that the lack of maternity cover could be resolved with electoral reform. “It’s difficult with first-past-the-post, but in countries with list systems, people can do cover for certain amounts of time.”

Perhaps as a first step it would be easier to let ministers job-share. Patricia Hewitt says she suggested this in 2001, when Tony Blair appointed her to the cabinet, in a push to get the junior minister she wanted.“The one I had my eye on was doing a fabulous job in a different department. It was very funny, because Tony said, ‘Er, what’s that?’ Jonathan Powell [Blair’s chief of staff] was standing there saying, ‘Two people sharing one job.’ Tony said: ‘Are we allowed to do that?’ and Jonathan said: ‘Well, I don’t know. I’d have to check.’”

Unfortunately, the minister involved got another job and the point was never settled. Hewitt acknowledges that the sharers would have to be compatible – “the nightmare would be . . . a woman with some children and an ambitious man” – but she points out that job-sharing is now common in the public sector and charities.

The final, and most contentious, point is money. During my conversations, the name “Caroline Spelman” frequently crept into the discussion: an example of someone whose childcare arrangements attracted criticism and unwelcome press attention.

In 2009 the former Conservative chair had to repay £9,600 in expenses after Commons authorities ruled that she had been paying her nanny from public funds by employing her as a secretary. Three years later, Spelman lost an attempt to stop the Daily Star Sunday reporting that her 17-year-old son, who played rugby for England under-16s, had taken banned substances after suffering a sports injury. “It’s hard to know you’re putting your children in the public eye like that,” one woman told me. “There’s something about a mother’s hormones.”

Although very few MPs are willing to go on the record, many believe that the reforms to expenses – necessitated by wide-scale fraud and the overclaiming endemic in parliament before 2009 – have made it much harder for those who are not already wealthy to juggle the demands of work with family. The current system makes it far easier for the rich and unencumbered. “You hear that MPs should be treated as ordinary people,” one told me. “That’s nonsense. It’s a unique set of challenges. Ninety per cent of us work in two places. There’s an extraordinary rate of failed marriages.”

The wife of another MPs talks about “eating crisps and crying at home” in the early days of her partner’s career because he was so rarely around to help with the children. Several mentioned that it was a huge advantage to have a seat in London, which allows the MP to get home every night.

By way of a solution, the Conservative backbencher Charles Walker has proposed that MPs’ expenses be abolished and a fixed annual stipend introduced. Their claims for tax-deductible items would then be regulated by HM Revenue & Customs, just like for any other self-employed worker. “You can change the hours but it’s not going to help someone get home to Cumberland,” he added. “And there’s a ridiculous belief that MPs only work when the House is sitting.”

On the other side of the fence, most agree that the big battle for childless MPs is perception – often in the media, rather than among voters. Ben Bradshaw says he believes his constituents “don’t give a hoot” about whether or not he has children. Some worry whether selection panels – which are not allowed to ask directly about candidates’ children – kibosh women for fear that voters won’t like them, or that they won’t have time to do the job properly. “I was asked in 1998 by a woman councillor when I went for selection how my children were going to cope, and could my husband cook the dinner when I was out canvassing?” says Sal Brinton. “Where do people get these ideas from? That’s the bigger problem: perception, rather than the reality.”

Childless women, on the other hand, face greater problems later on in their career when going for leadership roles, as they are deemed to lack the “complete package” that voters want. Several of the women I interviewed said they thought that starting a parliamentary career in your twenties or early thirties made having a family harder. “I think what happens is that women find it difficult to establish themselves in those careers. And to get promoted. So they put off marriage and children and whatever, and often end up running out of time,” says the Labour MEP Mary Honeyball. Another source told me that single women who entered parliament often found it hard to meet a partner prepared to join “the Denis club” – a reference to the sacrifices Denis Thatcher made to support his wife’s ambitions.

In the end, what both mothers and non-mothers need is broader social change. First, there must be an end to a culture that sees childlessness in women as selfish, and their lives as inevitably emotionally stunted and unfulfilling. We need to reset our relationship with work – to resist the pressure of presenteeism and expectations of unpaid overtime, and to fight for better labour rights, as well as employment protection for those with caring responsibilities. As Ben Bradshaw, who looked after his mother in his teens when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, puts it: “The more insecure people are in work, the more difficult it is for them to make choices around caring.”

Our parliamentarians’ job insecurity is rather different from that of someone on a zero-hours contract, but both would benefit from a reappraisal of what it is reasonable for employers to ask of their employees. Until then, men enjoy a double advantage, whether they have children or not. 

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.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap

© MARK PETERSON/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Goodbye to the Confederate flag

After the shootings in Charleston, the Republican right showed it was finally ready to reject the old symbols of the Confederacy.

On 27 June, an African-American activist named Bree Newsome woke up before dawn, put on her climbing equipment and scaled a 30-foot flagpole on the lawn of State House in Columbia, South Carolina. She then removed the Confederate battle flag that flew from it. “We can’t wait any longer,” she explained later in an online statement. “It’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy.”

After she was led away in handcuffs, the flag was raised again.

Newsome’s protest reflected a growing impatience within America’s black community and anger about liberal inaction. Political rallies by the Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have been disrupted by the Black Lives Matter campaign against violence committed on young African Americans and the cultural and legal biases that justify it. While promoting his book on race in the US, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates argued that, to African Americans, the battle flag represents a lingering attempt “to bury the fact that half this country thought it was a good idea to raise an empire rooted in slavery”.

Yet, on this matter, to everyone’s surprise, the black civil rights movement and many southern Republicans have proved to be of one mind. On 9 July the House of Representatives in South Carolina voted to lower the battle flag for good. It stood, representatives said, for racism. It had to go.

The context of this agreement was a painful one. Ten days before Newsome’s act, a 21-year-old white man named Dylann Roof shot and killed nine black worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. According to his room-mate, he wanted to start a race war. The TV screens showed a photo of him holding a gun in one hand and a Confederate battle flag in the other.

If the demands for redress made by civil rights groups didn’t come as a surprise, conservative acquiescence did. The Republican Party had built a solid base in the South by courting white voters who cherished the memory of the Confederacy. Yet the party’s presidential hopefuls from both the North and the South – including Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, Scott Walker and George Pataki – said that the battle flag ought to be lowered. The most striking intervention was made by the governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, who denounced the use of the Confederate flag and signed the bill removing it. Haley is now tipped to figure on the list of potential vice-presidential nominees.

The volte-face of the US right is in part a result of the horror of the Charleston shootings. Yet it also occurs in the context of major shifts within American society. There are still many conservatives who will defend Confederate heritage as a matter of southern pride but the culture wars are changing as the US becomes increasingly European in outlook. This is taking place across the country. It just happens to be more pronounced in the South because no other region has fought so violently and so long to resist the liberal tide.

The story of the battle flag is the story of the South. The first official Confederate flag used in the civil war of 1861-65 caused confusion during fighting – through the haze of gun smoke, its design of 13 stars and red and white bars was hard to distinguish from the Stars and Stripes. An alternative blue cross was rejected for being too sectarian; the racist Confederacy was anxious not to offend its Jewish citizens. So the cross became a diagonal X. This flag was never officially adopted by the Confederate army. In the years after the war its use was infrequent.

There was little need to visualise southern difference in a flag. It was self-evident in the physical signs of racial segregation: separate schools, pools and drinking fountains; black people confined to the back of the bus. Political displays of the battle flag of Dixie (the historical nickname for the states that seceded from the Union) only really resurfaced when that racial order was challenged by northern liberals. In 1948, the Democrats – then the party overwhelmingly in control of the South – split over modest calls for civil rights. The conservatives who refused to support that year’s presidential ticket, the “Dixiecrats”, triggered a rev­ival of flag-waving across the region.

The old battle flag suddenly appeared on private lawns, on cars and at political rallies. Supposedly ancient cultural traditions were invented overnight. For instance, the 1948 student handbook of the University of Mississippi confessed: “Many Ole Miss customs are fairly new; they lack only the savouring which time brings . . . Ole Miss has adopted the Confederate flag as a symbol of the Mississippi spirit. Each football game finds the scarlet flag frantically waving to the rhythm of the Rebel band.”

I can confirm that this “tradition” was still going as recently as in 2005. That year, I attended an American football game at Ole Miss and was surprised when the band played “Dixie” at the end. White boys and white girls stood up and belted out the folk song of the Confederacy, while black students filed out.

In 1958, South Carolina made it a crime to desecrate the battle flag. Three years later, on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the civil war, it was hoisted above its Capitol building in Columbia. That day, there was a struggle in the US Congress to keep federal funding going for segregated schools.

So clear is the link between the postwar white resistance to civil rights and the battle flag that many see it as the symbolic equivalent of the N-word. Jack Hunter, the editor of the conservative website Rare Politics, says: “Some people insist that it’s not about racism, not about slavery, not about segregation. But it’s about all those things.” Hunter grew up in Charleston and used to skateboard in the car park of the church that Dylann Roof attacked. When he was a young journalist, he appeared on local radio as a rabidly right-wing masked character called “the Southern Avenger”. His past was exposed in 2013 while he was working for Rand Paul, a Republican presidential candidate, and Hunter stepped down from his position. He publicly renounced his youthful association with racial conservatism. He now eschews any romanticism about the Confederate cause and its demand for states’ rights. “States’ rights to do what?” he asks: the right to discriminate against African Americans? He is glad that the State House flag is gone. He ascribes its longevity to ignorance, which was corrected by Roof’s rampage: “It was the first time that [southern Republicans] were able to see a different perspective on this symbol.”

Not everyone agrees. Richard Hines – a former South Carolina legislator, Reagan campaign state co-chair and senior activist with the Sons of Confederate Veterans – insists that the flag is “an enduring symbol of the southern fighting man”. Indeed, a poll in July found that 57 per cent of Americans think it stands for southern heritage, rather than racism. Yet that heritage has a political dimension. “Southern people are proud of who they are and there is a leftist assault to destroy the best part of America,” Hines says. “The Trotskyite elite in control of the establishment wants to root out the southern tradition” – a tradition of religious devotion, chivalry and military honour. It is possible to cast the battle flag as a pawn in a much larger cultural conflict.

In 2000, civil rights activists lobbied hard to get the battle flag removed from the top of the South Carolina Capitol and succeeded in having it shrunk in size and relocated to the grounds of State House. The issue came up in that year’s Republican presidential primaries – an unusually poisonous contest between George W Bush and John McCain. Supporters of Bush put out a false story that McCain had fathered an interracial child out of wedlock. McCain added to his woes by opining that the battle flag was “a symbol of racism and slavery”. An organisation called Keep It Flying flooded the state with 250,000 letters attacking him and he lost the crucial competition here to Bush.

The battle flag has retained a strong emotional power for a long time. This makes the Republican establishment’s abandonment of the flag all the more surprising. Then again, those who run the South are probably the people most likely to grasp how much the region has changed in just a decade.

***

In 2010 I took a trip through North Carolina. The landscape told a story. Dotted along the roadside were abandoned black buildings, the old tobacco sheds. The decline of the rural economy had rendered them obsolete. Over the fields that would once have been full of farmers were freshly tarmacked roads, stretching out to nowhere. My guide explained that these were supposed to be cul-de-sacs for new houses. North Carolina was going through a property boom. But who was going to buy all those homes, I asked? The answer: damn Yankees.

Demography is destiny. This once agri­cultural region developed fast from the 1960s onwards by keeping union membership, taxes and regulation as low as possible. Yet capitalism proved disastrous for southern conservatism. Northerners flooded in, seeking work or retirement and bringing their own values. The forecast is that North Carolina’s Research Triangle – the South’s Silicon Valley – will grow by 700,000 jobs and 1.2 million people in two decades.

White migration was accompanied by an influx of Spanish speakers as the service sector flourished. Between 2000 and 2010, the white share of the population of North Carolina fell from 70 to 65 per cent. The black proportion remained at roughly 21 per cent. The Latino proportion, however, jumped from 4.7 per cent to 8.4 per cent. Today, the proportion of people who are non-white and over 60 is about a third. But it’s approaching nearly half for those under 18. As a result, politics in the South is no longer biracial: a contest between white and black. It is increasingly multiracial and uncoupled from the region’s complex past.

The impact of these changes is reflected in voting patterns. In 2000, the South was still overwhelmingly Republican in presidential contests. Even the Democratic nominee, Al Gore, a southerner, lost his home state of Tennessee. But in 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama took those states with the fastest-changing demographics: Florida and Virginia. He won North Carolina in 2008 and lost it in 2012 – but by less than 100,000 votes. It is true that the Republicans won back control in the 2014 midterm elections, with the result that the Deep South now sends few Democrats to Congress; but the region’s political masters are not quite as traditional-minded as they once were.

The Republican relationship with the Confederate past is complex. As the party of Abraham Lincoln and the Union, the GOPs’ southern support was historically small. But in the 1960s the national Democratic Party embraced civil rights and alienated its once loyal southern following; the Republicans took the opportunity to steal some conservative white voters.

The growing southern Republican vote had a class component. Its success in local and congressional races was built more on winning over middle-class moderates than on appealing to the working-class racists who filled the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan. The southern Republican Party did enthusiastically embrace the Confederate battle flag in many quarters. But some office-holders did so only with ambiguity, while large sections of the party never identified with it at all. The period of Republican ascendancy in the South was, in reality, linked with a softening of the area’s racial politics.

Two of the Republicans’ current southern stars are Indian Americans: Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, and Nikki Haley, the anti-flag governor of South Carolina. There are just two black people in the US Senate and one of them is a Republican, the Tea Party-backed senator for South Carolina, Tim Scott. Marco Rubio, the Floridian senator and presidential candidate, is Cuban American, and the former Florida governor Jeb Bush is married to a Mexican-born woman and speaks fluent Spanish. Bush has tried to push a more moderate line on immigration, in deference to how the GOP will struggle to win the White House if it appeals only to angry white voters. The Kentucky libertarian senator Rand Paul, Jack Hunter’s former boss, has called for legal reforms to correct the trend of keeping far more black than white people in prison. And he is not the only Republican to have been moved by recent race riots sparked by police violence.

***

Violence on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, confirmed that there still is a culture war in the US. Yet its character has changed. In the past, civil disturbances were typically leapt upon by conservative politicians as evidence of social decline. The 1992 LA riots were blamed on single parenthood and rap lyrics. In contrast, conservative leaders today are far more likely to acknowledge the problems of white racism. There is no place in their ranks for the likes of Dylann Roof. White supremacists are tiny in number.

Jack Hunter claims: “The KKK is like 12 guys in a telephone booth. Liberal groups will use their threat for fundraising but it doesn’t exist. It hasn’t properly since the 1960s.” Roof’s actions say more about gun control, mental illness and the angst of the young than they do about popular, largely liberal views on race, as polling shows.

We can see a similar liberal shift in other areas of the historic culture war. In May 2015 Gallup released the results of a “moral acceptability” survey charting changes in national attitude across all age groups, from 2001 to 2015. Approval of gay relationships jumped from 40 to 63 per cent; having a baby out of wedlock from 45 to 61 per cent; sex between unmarried men and women from 53 to 68 per cent; doctor-assisted suicide from 49 to 56 per cent; even polygamy went from 7 to 16 per cent. Abortion remained narrowly disapproved of: support for access has only crept up from 42 to 45 per cent. This is probably a result of an unusual concentration of political and religious opposition and because it involves a potential life-or-death decision. But the general trend is that young people just don’t care as much about what consenting adults get up to.

Why? It might be because old forms of identity are dying. One way of measuring that is religious affiliation. From 2007 to 2014, according to Pew Research, the proportion of Americans describing themselves as Christian fell from 78 to 71 per cent. Today, only a quarter of the population is evangelical and 21 per cent Catholic, down despite high immigration. Then there is the decline in civic or communal activity. Since 2012, the organisers of Nascar, the stock-car races, have not published attendance figures at their tracks, probably because they have fallen so sharply. The decline of this most macho and working class of sports parallels the fall in conservative forms of collective identity such as southern traditionalism.

The old culture war was, like the racial politics of the old South, binary. In the 1950s, around the same time as the South invented its tradition of flying the battle flag in colleges, the US constructed an ideal of the “normal” nuclear family unit: straight, white, patriarchal, religious. On the other side was the “abnormal”: gay, black, feminist, atheist, and the rest. The surest way to get elected in the US between 1952 and 2004 was to associate yourself with the economic needs and cultural prejudices of the majority. The approach was once summed up by a Richard Nixon strategist thus: split the country in two and the Republicans will take the larger half. But that is changing. The old normal is no longer the cultural standard but just one of many identities to choose from. The races are mixing. Women want to work more and have children later in life, possibly without marriage. Many religious people are having to rethink their theology when a child comes out as gay. And the enforcers of the old ways – the unions, churches or political parties – are far less attractive than the atomising internet.

***

Politicians are scrabbling to keep up with the diffusion of American identity. Democrats got lucky when they nominated Barack Obama and chose a presidential candidate who reflected the fractured era well: interracial, non-denominational Christian, and so on. In the 2012 presidential race the Republicans got burned when they tried to play the old culture war card on abortion. They won’t repeat that mistake. After the Supreme Court legalised gay marriage across the country in June, the right’s response was not as uniformly loud and outraged as it would have been in the past. Some protested, but serious presidential contenders such as Jeb Bush grasped the implications of the defeat. There is a cultural and political realignment going on and no one is sure where it will lead. It’s encouraging caution among the Republican top brass. It is time, they think, to abandon lost causes.

The death of southern traditionalism is part of the ebb and flow of cultural history. Identities flourish and die. As political fashions change, you find the typically American mix of triumph on one side and jeremiad on the other. Richard Hines stood vigil as the battle flag was lowered in Columbia and noted with disgust the presence of what he described as “bussed-in” activists. “They pulled out all these gay pride flags and started shouting, ‘USA, USA, USA!’ It reminded me of the Bolshevik Revolution.”

Hines reckons that more southerners will now fly the flag than ever before and says he has attended overflow rallies of ordinary folks who love their region. He may well be correct. The faithful will keep the old Confederate standard fluttering on their lawns – an act of secession from the 21st century. But in the public domain, the battle flag is on its way down and in its place will be raised the standard of the new America. The rainbow flag flutters high. For now.

Tim Stanley is a historian and a columnist for the Telegraph

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars