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Jo Cox might be the best foreign secretary Britain never had

The Labour MP and humanitarian I came to know was the type of person who would restore one's faith in politics. 

I can't call Jo a close friend but I came to know her quite well over the last year. We went to the same college in Cambridge, though she had graduated by the time I arrived (and wasn't particularly sentimental about her time there). Jo was a New Statesman reader and she contacted me after an article I wrote about the failure of the UK and others to do more in Syria - failing to protect the civilian population from atrocities committed by both the regime and Daesh.

We talked on the phone and then met up at Portcullis House to discuss British foreign policy, and the current state of the Labour Party. As a newbie in parliament she was finding her feet but, from the outset, she was bold and brave - not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom or, when she thought it right, leadership. She was one of those rare people with a deep moral integrity but no interest in grandstanding or moralising herself. She was not a contrarian or a troublemaker and much preferred getting on with people - in fact, it was impossible not to like her. She was independent in spirit and mind, and full of energy and a sense of urgency.

This is perhaps no surprise given her distinguished past career, as a humanitarian and an activist. Very simply, she was passionate about helping people, and doing good. That's why she went into parliament. That's why she also wanted to be in government at some point (and appreciated that being in power really did matter). She believed that government could be a force for good in people's lives, at home and abroad. She also believed that Britain was nothing if it wasn't outward looking, and doing good in the world.

Two weeks ago I met Jo at Westminster and we walked up to a dinner in Covent Garden. She had agreed to address a group of American summer school students I was teaching. On the walk there, I offered to push Jo's bike as she was finishing an article for the Times on Syria, and simultaneously speaking to leaders of the Syrian opposition engaged in the UN-backed negotiations (the image of the multi-tasking mum). She was full of energy and warmth and admiration for her Syrian friends. They were hugely grateful to her, believing that they had a true friend in Jo, when so many others had forgotten about them.

Politicians have so many demands on their time, but Jo really enjoyed the evening, talking to young people, and hearing different perspectives. She talked about volunteering on the first Obama campaign but said she had become a little disappointed with aspects of his foreign policy since. The students were blown away by her passion. Inspirational is an overused word but that is exactly what Jo was. A few of the students have already contacted me to say how heartbroken they are. It's not an exaggeration to say that she was the type of person who would restore one's faith in politics - to make you see the point of the whole thing. She looked like a future foreign secretary, or a future leader of the Labour Party.

I last saw Jo on Tuesday of this week in committee room 6 of the Commons. We have been working on a report which we were planning to publish after the Chilcot Report. It was to be co-written with Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative MP and another of the new generation who came into parliament in 2015. The report was to argue that Britain should not retreat into its shell but should retain an active and outward looking world role (with humanitarianism being a central aspect of that). Jo had no hesitation in working with someone outside her party. She knew she would come in for criticism but she wasn't worried at all about that. She was encouraged at the growing interest in a cross-party effort of this kind. She had previously joined forces with Andrew Mitchell to argue that Britain should do more on the humanitarian front in Syria, so working across the aisle was something she regarded as really important.

When I saw her, Jo was in her running gear and had to dash home as one of her children had chicken pox. She said she was tired, having been sleep deprived looking after her kids, but she showed no signs of it. She was unfailingly charming and bubbly and extremely sweet and funny. Her mind was as sharp as ever. I never met her children or husband but one can just tell she was the perfect mother and wife. She had angelic qualities. She might well be the best foreign secretary Britain never had. The best tribute to Jo is to keep alive the things she stood for.

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

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The vitriol aimed at Hillary Clinton shows the fragility of women's half-won freedom

The more I understand about the way the world treats women, the more I feel the terror of it coming for me.

I’m worried about my age. I’m 36. There’s a line between my eyebrows that’s been making itself known for about the last six years. Every time I see a picture of myself, I automatically seek out the crease. One nick of Botox could probably get rid of it. Has my skin lost its smoothness and glow?

My bathroom shelf has gone from “busy” to “cluttered” lately with things designed to plump, purify and resurface. It’s all very pleasant, but there’s something desperate I know at the bottom of it: I don’t want to look my age.

You might think that being a feminist would help when it comes to doing battle with the beauty myth, but I don’t know if it has. The more I understand about the way the world treats women – and especially older women – the more I feel the terror of it coming for me. Look at the reaction to Hillary Clinton’s book. Too soon. Can’t she go quietly. Why won’t she own her mistakes.

Well Bernie Sanders put a book out the week after the presidential election – an election Clinton has said Sanders did not fully back her in –  and no one said “too soon” about that. (Side note: when it comes to not owning mistakes, Sanders’s Our Revolution deserves a category all to itself, being as how the entire thing was written under the erroneous impression that Clinton, not Trump, would be president.) Al Gore parlayed his loss into a ceaseless tour of activism with An Inconvenient Truth, and everyone seems fine with that. John McCain – Christ, everyone loves John McCain now.

But Hillary? Something about Hillary just makes people want to tell her to STFU. As Mrs Merton might have asked: “What is it that repulses you so much about the first female candidate for US president?” Too emotional, too robotic, too radical, too conservative, too feminist, too patriarchal – Hillary has been called all these things, and all it really means is she’s too female.

How many women can dance on the head of pin? None, that’s the point: give them a millimetre of space to stand in and shake your head sadly as one by one they fall off. Oh dear. Not this woman. Maybe the next one.

It’s in that last bit that that confidence racket being worked on women really tells: maybe the next one. And maybe the next one could be you! If you do everything right, condemn all the mistakes of the women before you (and condemn the women themselves too), then maybe you’ll be the one standing tippy-toe on the miniscule territory that women are permitted. I’m angry with the men who engage in Clinton-bashing. With the women, it’s something else. Sadness. Pity, maybe. You think they’ll let it be you. You think you’ve found the Right Kind of Feminism. But you haven’t and you never will, because it doesn’t exist.

Still, who wouldn’t want to be the Right Kind of Feminist when there are so many ready lessons on what happens to the Wrong Kind of Feminist. The wrong kind of feminist, now, is the kind of feminist who thinks men have no right to lease women by the fuck (the “sex worker exclusionary radical feminist”, or SWERF) or the kind of feminist who thinks gender is a repressive social construct (rechristened the “trans exclusionary radical feminist”, or TERF).

Hillary Clinton, who has said that prostitution is “demeaning to women” – because it absolutely is demeaning to treat sexual access to women as a tradeable commodity – got attacked from the left as a SWERF. Her pre-election promises suggest that she would probably have continued the Obama administration’s sloppy reinterpretation of sex discrimination protections as gender identity protections, so not a TERF. Even so, one of the charges against her from those who considered her not radical enough was that she was a “rich, white, cis lady.” Linger over that. Savour its absurdity. Because what it means is: I won’t be excited about a woman presidential candidate who was born female.

This year was the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, and of the Abortion Act. One of these was met with seasons of celebratory programming; one, barely mentioned at all. (I took part in a radio documentary about “men’s emotional experiences of abortion”, where I made the apparently radical point that abortion is actually something that principally affects women.) No surprise that the landmark benefiting women was the one that got ignored. Because women don’t get to have history.

That urge to shuffle women off the stage – troublesome women, complicated women, brilliant women – means that female achievements are wiped of all significance as soon as they’re made. The second wave was “problematic”, so better not to expose yourself to Dworkin, Raymond, Lorde, Millett, the Combahee River Collective, Firestone or de Beauvoir (except for that one line that everyone misquotes as if it means that sex is of no significance). Call them SWERFs and TERFs and leave the books unread. Hillary Clinton “wasn’t perfect”, so don’t listen to anything she has to say based on her vast and unique experience of government and politics: just deride, deride, deride.

Maybe, if you’re a woman, you’ll be able to deride her hard enough to show you deserve what she didn’t. But you’ll still have feminine obsolescence yawning in your future. Even if you can’t admit it – because, as Katrine Marçal has pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, our entire economy is predicated on discounting women’s work – you’ll need the politics of women who analysed and understood their situation as women. You’ll still be a woman, like the women who came before us, to whom we owe the impossible debt of our half-won freedom.

In the summer of 2016, a radio interviewer asked me whether women should be grateful to Clinton. At the time, I said no: we should be respectful, but what I wanted was a future where women could take their place in the world for granted. What nonsense. We should be laying down armfuls of flowers for our foremothers every day.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.