The real Mrs Pankhurst

Author Frances Pugh marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Emmeline Pankhurst, the suffragette

2008 marks the 90th anniversary of the grant of a parliamentary vote to women over thirty and the 80th anniversary of equal franchise in 1928 which made women 52-53 per cent of the electorate.

It is easy for us to take all this for granted. But for a measure of the mountain of prejudice suffragists faced consider the way the historian, A.J.P.Taylor, chose to mark the fortieth anniversary of the 1918 reforms in 1958.

In an article in the Sunday Mirror he said Britain would have been a better country if it had stuck to male voters and that it would not have lost the empire if women had not been given the vote!

In 1958 Taylor was still saying what many people had devoutly believed in the 1880s and 1890s. Up to 1914 anti-suffragists saw female enfranchisement as calculated to have destructive effects on society, notably in undermining marriage and motherhood and thereby weakening Britain as a great industrial and military power.

However, it is often forgotten that among politicians many of these prejudices had been overcome by 1903 when Emmeline Pankhurst formed the Women’s Social and Political Union. But while a majority of MPs were nominally suffragists they did not see it as a political priority, nor had they resolved the complicated question of how many women were to get the vote and on what terms; this was inevitably awkward since many men were still without a vote and the electoral fate of the parties hung on the details of the measure.

This was the log-jam that Emmeline and her daughters, Christabel, Sylvia and Adela, sought to break by adopting militant tactics. Emmeline and Christabel did this partly because they were furious with the Labour Party which they had expected to promote women’s suffrage after its breakthrough in the 1906 general election. But Labour was a party for male trade unionists and, apart from Keir Hardie and George Lansbury, remained alienated from the Pankhursts and their methods.

This antagonism is a reminder that the life and opinions of Emmeline Pankhurst are less well-known than one would suppose; she is commonly referred to as ‘Emily’ in the media. She and Christabel were brilliant orators in a period when unscripted public speaking was still a vital political weapon. They also engaged in a fascinating struggle with the politicians designed to deprive them of the moral high ground by drawing them into an embarrassing cycle of hunger strikes, forcible feeding, release and re-arrest under the Cat and Mouse Act.

But it is not usually appreciated that one of the Pankhursts’ greatest contributions to the cause was to transform it by attracting huge resources into the movement. This was not just a matter of recruiting wealthy Holland Park ladies who dropped rings and broaches into suffragette collecting boxes at Albert Hall rallies.

It involved a major commercial organisation to market suffragette china, jewellery, soap, handkerchiefs, board games and even Christmas cards. The Pankhursts also developed a remarkable relationship with the big West End stores – Debenham and Freebody, Derry and Toms, Marshall and Snellgrove, Peter Robinson, Swan and Edgar.

Many shops marketed coats, shoes and even underwear in suffragette colours – purple, white and green – and advertised generously in the suffragette journals. Even when their windows were being broken by suffragette bricks the West End shops continued to support them and, in return, the editors advised readers to patronise them.

This commercial activity enabled the W.S.P.U. to create a machine staffed by fulltime organisers in London and the provinces on a par with those of the political parties. At by-elections, which occurred frequently, they could swamp constituencies with propaganda in their efforts to rouse voters against the government of the day.

Their fraught relationship with politicians left feminists with an enduring lesson. With the enfranchisement of 8.4 million women in 1918 it was tempting to think that women should work through the parties to win further reforms. Some did so, but many concluded that they were being used by the parties who now wanted their votes but evaded major concessions to female equality. As a result many inter-war feminists followed Edwardian experience by maintaining independent pressure groups for women. Some still survive, notably the Fawcett Society.

However, despite becoming an iconic figure as a result of her suffering for the cause in the Edwardian period, Emmeline Pankhurst showed little interest in this independent women’s movement after 1918. She and Christabel drifted away to other issues and Emmeline actually declined an invitation to lead the next stage of the campaign to win equal franchise in the 1920s. Nor were militant tactics much taken up in the aftermath of 1918. Struggling against an anti-feminist reaction, many campaigners sought to distance themselves from the Edwardian suffragettes.

Despite this, the militant tradition has never entirely died. It lives, for example, among animal rights activists who are prepared to weather public and political condemnation as the suffragettes once did. Even a more mainstream pressure group such as Greenpeace can be seen as part of the militant tradition.

Ironically, the current men’s movement copies militancy. Those protesters who appear on the roof-top at Harriet Harman’s house are modern echoes of the Edwardian suffragettes who knocked on Mr Asquith’s door and chained themselves to the railings. And although these tactics rarely succeed, they do have knock-on effects in stimulating sympathisers to take up non-militant action and thereby advance the cause just as happened during the Edwardian period.

Martin Pugh’s book, The Pankhursts: The History of One Radical Family has been re-issued as a Vintage paperback. He was formerly Professor of Modern British History at Newcastle University. His latest book, ‘We Danced All Night’: A Social History of Britain between the Wars, is published by The Bodley Head.

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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