Married to the cause

The first National Women’s Liberation Conference was a thunderous affair. Forty years on, Clancy Sig

When I made a decision to get married (or, to be more precise, find a wife), I had no one in particular in mind. I put the problem as analytically as possible to friends who I hoped knew me better than I knew myself. At last, the feminist scholar Catherine Hall suggested that, to avoid wasting more time, I should focus on a woman suitable to my political history, and it logically followed that the first stop should be the next weekend's debut National Women's Liberation Conference at Ruskin College in Oxford. So, on a cold and drizzly late February day in 1970, off I went.
“Women in labour keep capitalism in power. Down with penile servitude!" ran graffiti on the college walls.

I have never been so excited or scared as during that thunderous, exuberant, foot-stamping meeting at Ruskin - not even when I was caught in a New Orleans police shoot-out or swarmed by drunken Everton supporters while wearing Liverpool colours. Although some later observers claimed that a fair number of men were sprinkled among the 500 or so women, I doubt there were more than a few. Perhaps I miscounted because, like me, they were trying to make themselves invisible.

Many of the women at the conference, drawn from Marxist history workshops and local discussion groups, had that certain look I was scouting: middle-class, straight, a kind of academic intensity, long hair, ankle-length velvet coats, sometimes over crocheted miniskirts, faces flushed with exaltation and obstinate assurance. I listened to their demands from floor and platform - for equal pay, abortion on demand, community-controlled nurseries - with only half an ear, because I had to stay alert for my wife-to-be.

My mother, a flame-haired union organiser and single mother in the American Midwest, had habituated me to smart, militant women with a mouth on them, as had snarly, defiant movie queens of my youth such as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck. But the buzz at Ruskin - and then at the Oxford Union, where the conference was moved to accommodate a large crowd - was so awesome, it almost knocked me down. It was like being at the Finland Station in 1917 when Lenin's train chugged in to kick-start the October Revolution.

Trouble and strife

I'd had this feeling before, riding along with the brave young hearts of the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee in rural south-west Georgia on their dangerous midnight voter registration drives, and later while I worked for Malcolm X's Black Power movement in Detroit. In the most intense and transforming moments of the civil rights struggle, with the front-line fighters risking their lives to break the colour line, you felt yourself losing aspects of your whiteness - ironically, at the same time as angry members of the movement were demanding that "whitey" be banished.

So it sounded eerily familiar when women at the conference insisted that any males present, especially journalists, should be kicked out. My bacon was saved when Mary Holland, a former colleague of mine on the Observer, successfully argued to keep us few men.

Happily, in the face of scornful denunciations of the male patriarchy from the platform, and despite the palpable rage that ran like an electric current through the hall, I met very little personal hostility down on the floor. Some women even seemed to take pity on me: "You poor lad." They seemed to know instinctively what it was like to be shoved aside and made fun of at meetings.

Two things happened as a result of the Ruskin conference - many women who had considered themselves mad came away feeling sane, perhaps for the first time in their lives; and I found a wife-to-be. I was slouched in my chair, a nervous spy in not entirely friendly territory, guiltily examining my macho, male psyche so at odds with the atmosphere in the hall, when this stunning brunette smiled - actually smiled! - at me. "Don't take it personally," she said in a deep, rich voice. "I wish we were as tough as we talk." My heart swelled.

Thus, I became a camp follower of women's liberation, a reprobate drawing energy from other people freeing themselves from my bondage. Entering a serious relationship with a smart, fully committed feminist who had her sense of humour intact was an adventure in acclimatisation and self-censorship. Watch where your eyes stray, guard your mouth. Because my parents had had a passionate and turbulent relationship that ended badly, I was determined to make a better job of it. With this secret proviso to myself: under no circumstances would I, could I, make myself over into a "liberated man". Some of the post-Ruskin "new men" I would run into, lovers and husbands trying their best, struck me as enfeebled by guilt. And the one meeting of a men's support group I attended in a gloomy Camden Town Hall was so grimly depressed that it reminded me of a back ward in an asylum I'd once worked in. Being a "new man" did not come naturally to me.

Because I didn't possess XX chromosomes, by definition I couldn't be an equal partner in an all-women's movement. This was a loss - along with my unfortunate XY male chromosomes, I'd inherited an activist's instinct. But it was also a relief as, selfishly, I needed all my time to write. On the other hand, I could not not participate. So I did the next best thing: pry and peek in the best private-eye tradition. When Jill held male-excluded, consciousness-raising meetings at her place (where I'd moved in), I would place an empty water tumbler to my ear and press it against the wall to pick up gossip through the plaster.

Mixed in with the discussions of how to help the cleaning women's campaign for higher wages and plans to disrupt the oncoming Miss World contest was exuberant chat about orgasms and penises. My ears burned when, amid whoops of laughter, they exchanged Chaucerian tales of their men's sexual shortcomings in some anatomical detail. How I envied the women's free and easy sisterhood - most men in my experience didn't do this.

Eavesdropping on women can be devastating to a healthy male ego. Their sexual sniping hurt less (though it stung) than their blithe ignoring of men. Although there was much talk about the male patriarchy, they simply weren't all that interested in us as men.

I was lucky because Jill had a coolly ironic view of the women's movement while also being intensely committed to it. Even so, I had to tread cautiously. Some of her friends took such a hard line that one of them angrily slapped her face because she had chosen to live with a man. Self-defence karate tested my nerve to the max. One night at a north London gym, another guy and I watched from the sideline as "our" women, in sports bras and shorts, violently threw each other around, practising kung fu-style kicks and parries, part of their assertiveness training.

Jill, kicking high and punching the air, was glowing with exertion and exhilaration. The man and I grinned nervously at each other. Session over, the women streamed into the locker room to change, and my new friend and I started to leave. But his girlfriend, stripping naked, just laughed: "Don't be such fogeys, you two. Stay." We didn't know where to look . . .

Ugly beauty

A lot of the women I met through Jill and the women's movement were tough, difficult and, like my mum, sassy. But such is the moth's love of the flame that I was enchanted - in the original sense - by their uprising power and sheer joie de vivre. It was fun being around them, absorbing their positive vibes, borrowing their energy.

Best of all, Jill and her friends demanded nothing of me. I was nearly invisible, and at that early stage of the "second wave" there wasn't much of a party line. It took getting used to, this being ignored and looked through as if I wasn't there. But then came a surprise: if nobody cared what a man felt or thought, not really, I was free to concentrate on what they thought, and this turned out to be liberating.

I made plenty of missteps, of course. Jill hated it when I mentioned her attractiveness. "You still don't get it, Clancy. Being called 'beautiful' is just another put-down." The flour bombs and rotten fruit hurled at the stage during the Miss World contest at the Royal Albert Hall in London were only weeks away.

Today, I live in a different time on a different planet called Los Angeles. Most of the women I meet, and often those for whom I work, are skilled professionals who are the spiritual daughters and granddaughters of the Ruskin College revolution and its American counterparts - if only they knew it. They take coolly, forgetfully, for granted what the women in that draughty old hall in February 1970 spoke up for, some for the very first time in their lives. But I remember. Did my shallow immersion in the women's movement change me? No, not much. Did it change my outlook? Fundamentally.

Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist.

Picture: David Parkin
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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