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Jemima Khan meets Nick Clegg: “I’m not a punchbag – I have feelings”

The NS guest editor Jemima Khan talks to the Liberal Democrat leader about life on the far side of power and what it’s like to be a cut-out.

Nick Clegg and I smile genially at each other across the table of a standard-class train carriage. He is on his way to his constituency in Sheffield to talk about manufacturing. Pale-faced, pale-eyed and so tired he appears taxidermied, he looks like he could do with a holiday, except he's just had one – skiing in Davos with his children as the Libyan crisis escalated (for which he was lambasted).

Nick Clegg is the Tim Henman of politics: a decent man for whom Cleggmania represented the peak of his career, his Henman Hill moment. Then he became the Deputy Prime Minister and, shortly after, an effigy.

The carefree, cloud-cuckoo days of opposition, when he had a platform and little criticism, are long gone. At last year's Liberal Democrat spring conference, a fresh-looking and ebullient Clegg had gesticulated and boomed: "We see the same old broken promises. No wonder people feel let down." A year on, he was less combative, more ambivalent. His many critics pointed to his own broken promises and let-down voters.

Clegg concedes that it has been a "very sharp transition". "Of course it has had a dramatic effect on how I'm perceived, the kind of dilemmas I have to face," he says. "I don't even pretend we can occupy the Lib Dem holier-than-thou, hands-entirely-clean-and-entirely-empty-type stance. No, we are getting our hands dirty, and inevitably and totally understandably we are being accused of being just like any other politicians."

His point – and it seems a fair one – is that the British public voted, no one party won and that coalition government, by definition, is a compromise. "A whole lot of things are happening that would just never in a month of Sundays have happened without the Lib Dems there," he says. The morning of our meeting, he claims to have "squeezed out of [George] Osborne" a promise of a green investment bank, not simply a fund. "We've done more on liberty and privacy," he adds, "in the past ten months than Labour did in the past 13 years."

All this has done little to dilute the vitriol of his opponents. John Prescott has likened him to Jedward, the risible and tuneless twins from The X Factor. Ed Miliband has called him "a tragic figure", one too toxic to share a platform with ahead of the referendum on the Alternative Vote. Clegg insists that none of this bothers him. "I see it exactly for what it is. [Ed] is a perfectly nice guy but he has a problem, which is that he's not in control of his own party, so he constantly has to keep his troops happy and he thinks that ranting and raving at me is the way to do it."

Since joining the government, and in particular since his U-turn on university tuition fees, Clegg has had dog mess posted through his door and been spat at in the street. It must upset him. "No, well look, I'm a human being, I'm not a punchbag – I've of course got feelings."

He pauses. "Actually, the curious thing is that the more you become a subject of admiration or loathing, the more you're examined under a microscope, the distance seems to open up between who you really are and the portrayals that people impose on you . . . I increasingly see these images of me, cardboard cut-outs that get ever more outlandish . . . One thing I've very quickly learned is that if you wake up every morning worrying about what's in the press, you would go completely and utterly potty."

After ten months in government, he has a guardedness that did not exist in the days when he told Piers Morgan he'd had roughly 30 lovers. These days he is tightly managed. I have already had a pre-interview briefing with one adviser, and now Clegg's version of Andy Coulson, who is sitting to his right, is busy taking written notes of our interview, as well as recording it. When Clegg gets sidetracked, he prompts him, head down, pen poised over notebook, deadpan: "You were talking about what you've achieved . . ."

Everyone seems painfully aware that my task as interviewer is to catch him out, to get him to say the wrong thing. Clegg's task, like all politicians, is to rattle off rhetoric, to be evasive and as uncontroversial as possible, and to fill up the tape with unquotable patter.

All of which makes interviewing him excruciating. He continues: "What we've achieved so far . . . I think just having a government with two parties in it is already such a big new thing. I know it has been born in a blaze of controversy because of the difficult economic decisions we've had to take . . . but if we're lucky, people will look back on it in 20 or 30 years' time as quite a normal thing in British politics that politicians can actually agree with each other from time to time.

“That in itself is quite big and radical. In the week or two leading up to the general election, every single newspaper was screaming from the headlines: 'A hung parliament will be a disaster, coalition politics will be a disaster. Nothing will get done.' And the extraordinary thing is that now we're being accused of almost exactly the reverse – of doing too much."

Of doing too much? Or of being too Tory? Clegg's dilemma is that, on the one hand, he is in danger of being seen as too close to David Cameron and the Conservatives, and losing credibility with his party and voters. On the other hand, he can't be too distant, because that would be damaging for the coalition and a gift for the opposition and the press, which is constantly looking for rifts.

Before the election, Clegg let it be known that he had turned down an invitation to dine with the Camerons at their home in Notting Hill. He wanted to maintain a distance. Perhaps wary of looking like he fits too easily into the port-swilling, waistcoat-wearing Bullingdon Club set, he is still keen to present Cameron as more working partner than friend.

“We don't regard each other as mates and actually I don't think it would be a particularly healthy thing if we tried to become personal mates," he says. "I don't think a coalition works unless you have a very careful balance between mutual respect and civility and also a certain hardness, as at the end of the day you are representing different views."

I've heard that they play tennis together. "No, no – well, er, I think we've played one game of tennis. Of course we meet from time to time but it's always basically to talk about what we're doing in government."

Who won?

“Ah no, that's a state secret," he jokes. (Cameron won.)

Earlier, at my pre-interview briefing, Clegg's adviser Richard Reeves, the former head of Demos, characterised being in the coalition as like being in a marriage – you both get to know instinctively which are the no-go areas.

Clegg concedes that there are "some areas where we flatly disagree" with the Tories, such as on Europe ("I think you can't make sense of this world unless you work together with other folk in the European neighbourhood") and taxation ("Our reflexes as Lib Dems are to try to give tax breaks to people on middle or lower incomes, whereas traditionally they are more interested in trickle-down economics"), but denies that there are "no-go areas". "Look, we're on completely opposite sides of the fence on the AV referendum."

He refuses to concede that signing the pledge to vote against an increase in university tuition fees before the election was a mistake. "That would be a cop-out. I did it. And I have a rather old-fashioned belief that you've got to stand by what you've done and take the consequences, good or bad." He insists that it was not one of his main manifesto priorities anyway. "I didn't even spend that much time campaigning on tuition fees."

Instead, he says, he spent "every single day and every single interview talking about the four things that were on the front page of the manifesto – namely the pupil premium, two and a half million quid for disadvantaged kids; changing the tax system, so you don't pay tax on your first £10,000; political reform; and sorting out the banks and rebalancing the economy."

That's all very well, but given that the Lib Dems are only ever likely to be in government as part of a coalition, how will he deal with pledges made in future election campaigns? Will there be pledges with caveats, depending on which party he clambers into bed with next? "I think that we need to be clearer about what are the really big, big priorities."

After his capitulation on tuition fees, there are many who now fear that nothing is sacred for the Lib Dems. He denies this. "If the Conservatives wanted to become as authoritarian as Blair and New Labour, I wouldn't have it – but it wouldn't happen, as it couldn't happen with us in [the coalition]."

Clegg is emphatic that he will not allow the Tories to disempower the Lib Dems' much-loved European Court of Human Rights. The problem with being in a coalition government is that it acts as a gag. There are times in the interview when Clegg looks so pained as to remind me of Colin Firth in the opening scenes of The King's Speech, particularly when issues of Rupert Murdoch and phone-hacking come up. I know what he'd have said if he were in opposition. The Lib Dems were always very critical of the Cameron-Murdoch cabal. Some Lib Dem MPs were victims of phone-hacking by the News of the World.

“My thoughts are," he begins haltingly, "that it has all come out much more into the open since the police investigation . . . and I think, you know, since those days it is becoming much more out there, and quite rightly. I've always said that the police have got to investigate and the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] have got to take action. Look, I don't follow every twist and turn . . ." His press secretary looks up for the first time.

What of those, such as the Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Tom Watson, who believe that the Murdochs have too much power and influence over politicians? There's a long pause. "I think that the days when newspaper barons could basically click their fingers and governments would snap to attention have gone," he says.

Clegg is exceptionally loyal to David Cameron – I expect he is a loyal man by nature, not design – but there's a fine line between being loyal and sounding plain disingenuous. So, what does he think of the dinner party hosted over Christmas by News International's chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, at her Cotswolds home, attended by the Camerons and James Murdoch?

“I don't know anything about Oxfordshire dinner parties," he says. Of course he does. Everyone in politics knows about the get-together of Brooks, Cameron and Rupert Murdoch's son, and most agree that the timing of it was inappropriate, given that there was a criminal investigation under way over phone-hacking in the Murdoch empire, as well as ongoing negotiations with the regulatory authorities over the ownership of BSkyB.

“Well, I'm assuming that they weren't sitting there talking about News International issues," says Clegg. "Look, you're putting me in a very awkward spot. If you've got an issue with it, speak to Dave. I don't hang out in Oxfordshire at dinner parties. It's not my world. It's never going to be my world."

He looks pained. I feel sorry for him and I can't help telling him so. I was married to a politician and I remember the constant self-censorship and, in my case, the gaffes. I get the impression that Nick Clegg is an honest, straightforward man in a dishonest, unstraightforward world, in which nobody can say what they really think.

An interruption offers some blessed relief. A beaming middle-aged woman who has spotted Clegg on the train passes a note to his aide. It reads: "I couldn't resist such a unique opportunity to say, 'Stick With It!' The vast majority of us think the coalition are doing the right thing. We know it's tough but it's very necessary. All the best."

The press secretary looks triumphant. Clegg looks momentarily less beleaguered. He thanks the woman graciously and just as I am wondering if it was a set-up, Clegg jokes that it was. He often gets support from the public, he says, but the difference is that these days people whisper their congratulations, "as if it's a guilty secret saying anything nice about Nick Clegg". He should watch those slips into the third person – an early sign that a person is losing touch with reality.

Clegg was a strong opponent of the war in Iraq and for that he earned many supporters. His backing of the "surge" and British forces' continued presence in Afghan­istan is therefore surprising. There are rumours, which he denies, that he wanted to call for an immediate withdrawal of troops but that the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown, an ex-marine, persuaded him not to.

“In a sense," Clegg says, "we have brought our ambition to a much more realistic level. We've now got an exit date, which we didn't have before, and a much better set of weapons on the ground. And crucially you've got the British government saying to [President Hamid] Karzai – who I had dinner with recently – this cannot be won militarily. Once you're in that far and you've had that many people die and be maimed, I think it would be morally questionable to cut and run overnight."

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the real reason we continue to pour money into a war with no clear goals – and continue to line the roads of Wootton Bassett – is so that those in power will be able to keep on claiming that "they did not die in vain".

“Look, it's never perfect. It's not a neat world," says Clegg. He is above all a pragmatist for whom coalition, foreign policy and life are a balancing act. He accepts that there are moral problems with supporting Karzai's government, which has no authority outside the Afghan capital, Kabul, and which, according to the Transparency International corruption index, was last year the second most corrupt in the world. "Exactly – that's where it gets messy and imperfect."

Clegg is pleased to have "got more balance into the debate on Israel in the party". While he is "undimmed" in his criticism of Israel's illegal settlement activity and his "absolute horror of what is a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza", he stresses that "Israel has legitimate security issues in a region where there is a threat to its existence".

He denies that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the west's rhetoric about democracy and our need for oil. "Do we have vital economic self-interest to keep lights on? Yes. Do I think that should be won at the cost of always being on the side of people who want to express themselves and want democracy? No."

He refuses to be drawn on whether he thinks it was bad timing for Cameron to tour the Middle East on a "UK trade mission"- a euphemism for peddling arms to despots – at a time when there are widespread protests in favour of democracy in the region. He will say, though, that the business of selling arms represents "a horrendous dilemma".

That we have sold arms to repressive regimes – tear gas grenades to Bahrain, armoured personnel carriers to Saudi Arabia, crowd-control ammunition to Libya – is "of course wrong", he agrees. "That's why we've suspended scores and scores of export licences. What guarantee do you have when you export product X to country Y, who seem totally hunky-dory, totally peaceful, and what happens when the country goes belly up? What we're doing is pragmatic rather than pure."

Even the language Clegg uses is moderate and qualified, interspersed with phrases such as "kind of" and "on the other hand" as well as rhetorical questions and unfinished sentences. He's unhyperbolic and ambiguous in a way that must be alien to most Tories. Whereas Cameron strikes me as a man with almost no self-doubt, Clegg seems more self-questioning and less bombastic. I suspect that he is as accom­modating and good at compromise in his marriage as he has been politically.

He smiles for the first time when he tells me that his Spanish wife, Miriam, has "got wonderfully strong opinions". It's clear for a start who chose the names for their three children, Antonio, Alberto and Miguel Clegg. They are being brought up as Roman Catholics, even though Clegg has said he is an atheist. The children are bilingual, speaking both Spanish and English fluently.

At one point, it was assumed that Miriam would be the one with the big career and he would be the thinker and take care of their children. After his eldest son was born, Clegg says: "Miriam was in a particularly intense period of her career and I was in a particularly relaxed period of mine . . . coming to the end of my time as an MEP, so I was very, very involved. I wasn't the primary parent – Miriam would get very annoyed if she were to read that – but I was very involved and you carry that on with you."

He has successfully managed to keep his family out of the spotlight, "to create a firewall" between his world and theirs, although he worries constantly that "what I am doing in my work impacts on them emotionally, because my nine-year-old is starting to sense things and I'm having to explain things. Like he asks, 'Why are the students angry with you, Papa?'"

Clegg refuses "to play politics" with his children, or to say whether or not they will go to a private school. While he's not "ideologically opposed to fee-paying schools existing", he is offended by the notion that it would be his decision alone, rather than one he would reach with Miriam. "I go: hang on a minute – what century are we living in?"

The same applies to what he might do in the future. He certainly does not want to be in politics all his life. "I think that's deeply unhealthy. I look at those people that got into politics when they were 16 and are still at it in their late sixties and think, 'My heavens above!'" Judging by the most recent opinion polls, he may not have the luxury of choice. Either way, he says, Miriam has made "masses of sacrifices putting up with me and politics" and this will be something they decide on together. He'd like to think, though, that he would go into education.

He is besotted by his "three lovely boys" and is most proud "by a long shot" of the family life he has created with Miriam. They manage to lead a relatively normal life, "not in a bunker in Westminster", and he tries to pick his children up from school and put them to bed at night at least two or three times a week.

He regrets that sometimes he doesn't always get the balance right, which makes him "quite miserable" and unable to do his job properly.Sometimes he has to tell them white lies if he is stuck in a meeting. At home, in the evenings, he likes to read novels and says he "cries regularly to music."

I receive a snapshot of his family life when, after the interview is over, I am invited to dine with other journalists at Chevening, the grace- and-favour house in Kent that Clegg shares with William Hague. Clegg arrives two hours late – he's been in protracted discussions over Libya – and looks corpse-like with exhaustion. The contrast with his vibrant, pretty wife, with her big bawdy laugh, could not be more stark. His children seem delightful – and delightfully normal.

Clegg has been accused of selling out, of providing a yellow fig leaf for the Tories' less attractive bits. But I expect that he would see opting out of the coalition or leaving politics altogether as the biggest cop-out of all. He is not consumed by politics – he has a fulfilling life away from Westminster – but he seems to have an old-fashioned sense of duty and believes that, without him there in the cabinet, the Tories would be up to far more of their old tricks. He might well be right – but will he be so easily forgiven by the voters?

“I have a faintly romantic belief that if over five years I just keep steadily trying to do the best I can, with all the difficult dilemmas we face, with not very much money, all those kinds of things . . . we will kind of come through. I think if people see that someone is trying to do the right thing and maybe they're not entirely succeeding, they kind of will go with you. And that's all you can do."

He suddenly looks very, very sad. A week later I glimpse him on television, on the front bench on Budget Day. Cameron sits to his left, looking ruddy and shiny, straight off the playing fields, ready for an interminable life of "Yeah, yeah, yeah" in the Commons. Clegg, by contrast, looks like he's in black and white – lost and out of place.

Later that evening, I get a text from his press secretary, offering me "a full copy of the note that lady passed on the train". He thought I might like it for my piece, "in case it needs some colour".

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

JAVIER MAYORAL
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How to be a man

The quiet crisis of masculinity.

What does “being a man” mean any more? The story of Graham Deville is hardly atypical in modern Britain. He began his working life on the railways in Haywards Heath, West Sussex, two weeks before the great storm battered the country in 1987. He had basic responsibilities: sweeping platforms and emptying bins. After four years, he was made a railman – charged with looking after the tracks – then a release supervisor, then a duty manager.

His tasks varied greatly. He could be called on to deal with a suicide and then, if the points failed, to don an orange jacket to get the trains running under the supervision of the signalman. “I had huge pride in the job, very much so,” Deville tells me. Then came privatisation in the mid-1990s. He remembers walking into work and his manager stripping him of all his track supervisory roles. “Instead, we had to stand there and apologise for two-hour delays,” he said. “You went from being part of the railways to a cardboard cut-out for commuters to shout at.” He had spent eight years learning how to do his job well. “It was a very varied skill set and, basically, it didn’t matter any more.”

Deville was offered voluntary redundancy in 1998, not long after his first daughter was born, and took it – “purely because of what we’d been made into”. He was out of work for nearly a year and a half. With his expertise and management experience, he thought he would “just go out and get another job, but it just didn’t happen”. The skills he had were valued in the railways but weren’t really applicable elsewhere. His marriage collapsed; he was homeless for a while, with only a “few menial jobs here and there”. Now remarried, he earns his money fixing lawnmowers and chainsaws.

When he lost his job on the railways, Deville was left with the feeling that, somehow, his masculinity had been undermined. “It almost seems now like a prehistoric point of view that a man goes out and provides,” he says, “but you can’t help but feel like that. And, when that’s taken away, it does hurt. The role my parents were brought up with – my dad passed on that you provide. It’s very difficult to deal with.”

Deville is one example of how what it means to be a man is in a state of flux. Deindustrialisation, undoubtedly, is a fundamental reason. Britain’s economy has been increasingly emptied of skilled industrial jobs. Take manufacturing: while 5.6 million people worked in the sector in 1982, only 2.6 million did last year. In the past, many of these jobs were taken by men. In 1971, just 53 per cent of women were in employment; by 2013, that had risen to 67 per cent. For men, the trend has reversed: while 92 per cent were employed in 1971, 76 per cent were in 2013 (though the figure is still, it should be noted, higher than that of women).

The role of men has changed so much and so quickly that expectations and reality can be far apart. Men such as Deville who have been conditioned from birth to see themselves as the family breadwinner suddenly find that this is no longer the case. A central traditional component of male identity – of what a man is seen to be – has been steadily eroded. When I visited Longbridge in Birmingham a few years ago, I found that former skilled car workers were now employed as supermarket shelf-stackers and cashiers: an occupation that had been associated with women.

Simon, 44, worked for 17 years at a Southampton plant that manufactured rubber and latex for the tyre industry. For the last five years before he was made redundant, he was a supervisor and proud of his work. “There were quality standards that we had to adhere to, targets to meet,” he said. “We were supplying some prestigious companies and seeing tyres on Formula One, knowing that the rubber maybe came from the plant. It makes you want to do a good job.” All of the shop-floor workers were men. “We had such a scream. It was definitely a man’s world. There was lots of prank-playing and real bonds.”

When the workforce was told in November 2013 that it would be laid off, Simon was “shell-shocked”. He had a big mortgage and: “All of a sudden, the rug was pulled from underneath my feet.” He had to sell his house and rent it back from a housing association. He was married with six children. “You think about the masculinity aspect – being the breadwinner. And when you start not being the breadwinner, that’s quite a transition. It takes some getting used to, to be honest.” He was out of work for six months. “I found the whole process of signing on, going to job clubs, quite a demeaning process, really . . . It was very strange, not having a reason to get up in the morning, not having a reason to set the alarm.”

***

Elleke Boehmer, a professor of literature at Oxford University who specialises in gender, says that workforce changes in the UK have brought about an “incredible undermining of masculine self-confidence” and have “induced severe and troubling feelings of insecurity”. She gave the example of a close relative. As his work has become more insecure, he has become more “entrenched, more set in his masculine ways”. His behaviour at home hasn’t changed as his work has become insecure: he still expects his evening meal to be made promptly at 5.30pm, even though he is not returning home from a job.

Michael Kehler, a Canadian academic who researches the social role of masculinity, says: “The ‘breadwinner’ has such a long history and such currency to it because of traditional notions of what a man is. Because it’s so deeply ingrained, it can be really challenging for some young men to try and reconfigure themselves, to relocate themselves in a different economic time. The struggle becomes both economic [and] social and cultural.” Consciously or not, Kehler suggests, we fall back on our gendered identities on a daily basis. “That’s how we convince [ourselves] and understand our worth in so many ways.”

This is not to turn men into victims. We live in a world run by men, for men: 90 per cent of the world’s billionaires are men, while women account for only 9.6 per cent of executive directors at top British companies (depressingly, this compares favourably with the picture internationally) and 29 per cent of MPs. Across the world, violence is overwhelmingly inflicted by men. The global recession has disproportionately affected women’s incomes.

But the point is this. Being a man is not static: it can change and be redefined. “Masculinity is a performance that has a deep relationship to power,” says Gina Heathcote, a senior lecturer in gender studies at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). “There are a lot of rewards from it, even if you think of it as a continuum of experience.” Its expression may differ depending on place and time but power is a big component of it. “It is more often exerted through strength, a kind of public acumen rewarded – even aggressiveness,” Heathcote says.

From an early age, what it is to be a man is drilled into young boys. Being sporty and athletic; talking about women in an often degrading way; getting into fights – these can all be seen as “manly”. Those who don’t conform are at risk of being called “a woman” or “gay”. Heathcote thinks of this as the “casting of the feminine on to deviant men who don’t perform in the same way”. Keh­ler says: “When a man transgresses or doesn’t fulfil expectations, then they’re judged individually – as less than a man.” But this treatment isn’t inevitable. “The way I look at it is: that’s very plural and fluid. To think of it as a single conduct doesn’t capture how complex and layered it is.”

Keegan Hirst is a striking example of the way in which our sense of what it is to be a man is evolving. To many, he probably appears as masculinity incarnate: more than 6ft 3in, with a rugged appearance and a broad Yorkshire accent. But Hirst is the first openly gay British professional rugby league player. “When I was growing up, my dad wasn’t around, so my idea of being a man was from my mum and what I read in books,” he said. “Manners, being chivalrous, looking after someone when they were sick.”

But he could hardly have been unaware of what manliness meant for others: “shagging loads of girls and knocking someone’s head off, the ‘Lads! Lads! Lads!’ thing”. Hirst had a wife and two children and he was “petrified” of telling his teammates when he was ready to come out. He sums up his fears: “It’d undermine everything you’d done previously, years of playing, earning their respect. I suppose the idea is that being gay conflicts with ‘being a man’; it makes you less of a man. That’s the outside perception but it’s what I thought – that I’d be less in their eyes.” The response could hardly have been more different. When Hirst told one teammate, he burst into tears. “He felt bad about what I’d gone through, that I’d gone through it alone. The whole point of a team is you look after each other, you go through it together, you’re all pulling in the same direction.” Within a week of coming out, the fact that he was gay was integrated into casual banter. “It’s all in jest – I know if anyone did it with any malice from the outside, the group would be the first to jump in and say that’s not on and fight my corner.”

Sport is often regarded as a fortress of unreconstructed masculinity. And, as Hirst says, because being gay is seen as almost the ultimate form of unmanliness, it is not surprising that there are so few openly LGBT sports players. There is not a single openly gay professional footballer in Britain – even though there are certainly some in the closet. The exception remains notable by its tragedy: Justin Fashanu, who came out in 1990 and ended up taking his own life.

“I think it’s fear of the unknown,” the former England captain Gary Lineker suggests to me. “Fear of being the first, fear of fellow players’ and [the] crowd’s reaction. I think, actually, the reaction would be hugely supportive and would be received very positively if someone is brave enough.” Even in football, the old, unreconstructed masculinity is in retreat. “I’m not so sure football is as macho these days,” Lineker suggests. “Most players are pretty well groomed and care about their appearance, and so on. Also, the majority of footballers wouldn’t give two hoots as to someone’s sexuality.”

Professional football is a good barometer of how much masculinity is changing. If footballers are able to come out and not receive an adverse response, it will surely be symptomatic of a broader transformation.

***

The LGBT and feminist movements have certainly changed what it means to be a man, and not just in Britain. Nadje al-Ali, a gender studies specialist at SOAS, suggests that in the Middle East some young men understand that the struggle against gender-based oppression is part of the struggle against authoritarianism. “Militarised forms of masculinity are often seen as the ideal,” she says. Women used to be told: “We need to sort out the big issues first – let’s deal with colonisers, or class-based occupation, then we’ll look at women’s rights or gender-based violence.” But, increasingly, men understand that sexual equality isn’t a side issue but an essential part of all these broader struggles. The rise of LGBT movements, she suggests, have “played an important role in challenging binaries, gender binaries, prevailing notions of masculinity”.

The growing emancipation of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and trans people has eroded static ideas of gender and sexuality. In a YouGov study last year, just 7 per cent of Britons over the age of 60 said that they had “varying degrees of bisexuality” but the figure rose to 43 per cent among 18-to-24-year-olds. Curiously, men were less likely to say they were completely heterosexual than women. There is evidence of a surprising class division: in Ireland’s referendum on equal marriage last year, it was reported that working-class areas were generally more supportive. The male grooming industry is booming and is now estimated worldwide to be worth around £14.8bn annually. “Some stuff has been around – like beard oils and hair gels, just more to the forefront,” says Nathan Stowe, who blogs at Manporium. “But with face creams and cosmetics, that’s largely been more stigmatised till recently.” The use of moisturiser, he notes, has gradually become more socially acceptable among men.

“Gay and bisexual men have challenged conventional masculine ideals, expectations and traditions,” the veteran LGBT activist Peter Tatchell tells me. “Our gender and sexual nonconformity have redefined what it is to be a man, subverting machismo and allowing more straight men to escape the limitations of rigid, orthodox masculinity.” The nonconformity of gay men, Tatchell suggests, is a challenge to the entire gender system that sustains “the social hegemony of male heterosexuality and misogyny”.

Elleke Boehmer offers a note of caution. The rise of LGBT and feminist movements has “thrown masculinity on to the defence”, she says. Indeed, you can see a “male backlash” against the chipping away of traditional masculine power expressed in a number of ways, whether it be the men’s rights activists who obsess over feminists online, or ­Fathers4Justice, who once threw a condom filled with purple powder at Tony Blair when he was prime minister.

It seems undeniable that straight men are significantly more likely to have female and LGBT friends than they once were. Antony Cotton, who plays the “camp” factory worker Sean Tully in Coronation Street, says that while most of his friends were girls when he was a child, “The majority of my friends [today] are heterosexual men.” Being gay even has some advantages, he finds: straight men are more likely to be open with him than with each other. What hostility he does receive comes more from gay men who somehow feel that his campness undermines the greater cause of LGBT equality – because acceptance for them means embracing the norms of dominant masculinity. “On social media, there’s this phenomenon of gay men saying things like they’re ‘non-feminine’, ‘non-camp’ – this obsession with passing off as straight.”

It is true that men now find it easier – or less “unmanly” – to discuss emotions than they once did. “Men are far more open than 20 or 30 years ago,” says Lineker. “We’re much more relaxed in talking about feelings and worries. We’re more tolerant of differences than we used to be. Slow progress for us Neanderthals, but we’re getting there.” Yet men who suffer mental distress remain far less likely to seek help than women. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50 in the UK; a downward trend was reversed by the financial crash in 2008.

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Clive Lewis is unusual for a Labour MP – not least among Labour’s left flank – for being a former serviceman. He joined the Territorial Army in 2006 and served in Afghanistan in 2009, where he remembers soldiers’ boots melting because of the heat. There was a “bit of a macho camaraderie” and “Man up, cupcake” was an expression he heard a lot. The army encouraged what he calls “controlled aggression”. Lewis recalls a training exercise at Sandhurst: he was “pushed so hard” and was “so hot and so tired”; he stormed the nest of machine-gun positions “screaming pure rage”. He was “killed” in the exercise but was held up as an example for others to emulate.

After Afghanistan, Lewis found returning home difficult. “I knew when I got back something wasn’t right . . . I found it very difficult to interact with people.” While his sergeants and corporals would return to their base with soldiers who could understand what serving in a conflict zone was like, Lewis, as a reservist, was thrown back into ­civilian life. “It was like feeling crushed,” he says. Eventually, he was diagnosed with depression, but he found it difficult to talk about. “That mental health side is embarrassing. There’s a stigma. As a man, you fear it’s about your masculinity – you’re not strong enough, not tough enough. There’s a shame about it . . . As a man, you think you’ve failed and guilt comes from that.”

Then there is violence. An estimated 1.4 million women suffered domestic violence last year in England and Wales; 400,000 were sexually assaulted and as many as 90,000 were raped. Why do men commit these crimes? “Because they can,” says Elleke Boehmer. “It’s still in some senses socially sanctioned. Male violence against women is triggered by feelings of defensiveness, threat and insecurity.” She links some of the phenomenon to men losing their position as breadwinner, or their sense of power. “So you lash out in the way you know best, that has been socially sanctioned in the past.” Deindustrialisation, change of political regime, conflict – “In the end, it leads to women’s bodies bearing the brunt of male violence.”

What it means to be a man has changed in some sections of society but Gina Heathcote is troubled by how “hegemonic masculinities” have not been so influenced. She offers the political realm as an example, contrasting how the media suggest there is “something powerful about David Cameron that Jeremy Corbyn is somehow not permitted to have”. Unquestionably – with his sometimes red-faced bullying demeanour – Cameron is portrayed positively as a strong man in a way that Corbyn isn’t.

Where is masculinity headed? Boehmer hopes that she has brought up her two sons as feminists but she realises that there is countervailing pressure in the playground, at school, on the football pitch. This might “militate against the feminism which is, in any case, quite irritating coming from their mother”. Yet there is no static idea of being a man. Michael Keh­ler believes that the rise of feminism and the LGBT movement has given all men “a greater allowance to be unlike the rest of the boys. There’s more room created for difference among men than historically has been there. Men have been trapped, limited.”

There is nothing inevitable about men oppressing women, being full of aggression, or clamping down on other men who don’t conform to a rigid concept of masculinity. Being a man can mean being inclusive, open and accepting. Masculinity is fluid and its future is up for grabs.

Owen Jones’s most recent book is The Establishment: and How They Get Away With It (Penguin)

Owen Jones is a left-wing columnist, author and commentator. He is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He has published two books, Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment and How They Get Away With It.

This article first appeared in the 02 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, How men got left behind