It's time for women to be able to see themselves on the walls. Photo: Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Show Hide image

Westminster’s “white” and “male” art reflects its inhabitants

Time for female MPs to be able to see themselves on the walls: the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Women in Parliament condemns “off-putting” Westminster art.

In Westminster rows and rows of white men in suits clutch papers and survey their peers. Above them, lining the walls, are more. The parliamentary art collection is made up of more than 2,000 works and yet only a pitiful number depict women. The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Women in Parliament has released a report that states the art in Westminster is too “white and male” and therefore “off-putting” to female speakers and visitors. Although the intimidation caused by the very place – its name synonymous with oak panels, neo-gothic architecture and men shouting over each other – goes beyond the art and into the culture surrounding it, taking issue with the featured art for being overwhelmingly white and male is valid.

Of the ten-person Committee for Parliamentary Art only two are women. Of the works highlighted on their website (in case you get your kicks by scrolling through black and white sketches of Rt. Hons) only 16 per cent  feature a woman. Even this statistic is skewed by the number of statues of Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria, which gives me flashbacks to the hellish arguments made by trolls to activist Caroline Criado-Perez last year when she complained about the Royal Bank of England’s plans to replace the figure of Elizabeth Fry on its £5 note with Winston Churchill. When trolls across the land yelled “but the queen is a woman! And she’s on every note!” they conveniently ignored the fact that she didn’t have to be elected, and she would have been on her legal tender regardless of her gender or achievements. From last year’s public outcry at the Bank of England, to these statements about the intimidating environment of Westminster, the damning message is still clear: women are not considered to have done anything of enough importance to appear in the hallowed symbols of finance or politics.

It’s not just the paintings but the architecture which is designed to intimidate those who are not familiar with working in an environment of carved stone and freshly polished marble. Those who have not been to older universities who boast these same accolades – namely the Oxbridge colleges who continue to anger their Access Officers by maintaining their wine cellars, chandeliers and gowns – are inevitably going to feel out of place when speaking in the prestigious hall. One of the fundamental jobs of politicians is to stand for their constituents, not matter what their gender or social standing, and half of the population deserve to be able to see themselves and their interests represented in parliament. To further social mobility and to come anywhere closer to reaching an equal number of female and male MPs, Westminster needs to recognise that it does not exist in vacuum devoid of context (although an argument in favour of this writes itself) .

Diane Abbott, Margaret Thatcher and Emmeline Pankhurst are all so varied they shouldn’t be grouped together by their one unifying achievement of having a drawing of them hung up somewhere in the Houses of Parliament. Or, as outlined last week in the New Statesman, the fact that they are all far more likely than their male counterparts to be attacked in the press. The news today that the Tories are launching female only MP shortlists bringing to mind Yvette Cooper’s remark that in regards to the Prime Minister’s “real blind spot” over female candidates this is “too little, too late” (of the total of female seats from 1918-2013, 60.7 per cent of the female positions were with Labour, showing that this “blindspot” is not unfounded)  That quotas need to exist highlights the drastic nature of the steps that need to be made in parliament in order to ensure there are more female seats from the current 147 female out of 650 MPs (23 per cent of the total). The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Women in Parliament statement calling for a “gender audit” of art and sculpture is a call for the future instead of being stuck in the white, patriarchal dominated government past and present.

To people who ask “why are female MPs across parties complaining about the furnishings of Westminster, don’t they have better things to do with their time?”, here’s my response. Parliament is not a hallowed place which needs to preserve the outdated ideas of the past. We have museums and galleries aplenty which are filled with images of white men but parliament is a working building and as a symbol of UK politics as a whole it has a duty to reflect the attitudes and concerns of society as whole. Women are people, half of society moreover, and they need to be represented in parliament. To look at a wall in Westminster and not see a single painting of a woman is a clear message: you don’t belong here. If we change these faces on the walls then we’re one step from changing the faces in the seats too. 

Getty
Show Hide image

You may call me a monster – but I'm glad that girl's lemonade stall got shut down

What's wrong with hard-working public servants enforcing perfectly sensible regulations?

Who could fail to be moved by the widely shared tears of a five year old whose innocent lemonade stall was brutally shut down by evil bureaucrats? What sort of monster would not have their heartstrings tugged by the plaintive “I've done a bad thing” from a girl whose father tells us she “just wanted to put a smile on people's faces”?

Well me, actually.

There are half a million cases of food poisoning each year in the UK, and one of the reasons we have stringent controls on who can sell food and drink, especially in unsealed containers, is to try to cut those figures down. And street stalls in general are regulated because we have a system of taxation, rights and responsibilities in this country which underpins our functioning society. Regulation is a social and economic good.

It’s also pretty unfair to criticise the hard-working public servants who acted in this case for doing the job they are no doubt underpaid to do. For the council to say “we expect our enforcement officers to show common sense” as they cancelled the fine is all very well, but I’m willing to bet they are given precious little leeway in their training when it comes to who gets fined and who doesn’t. If the council is handing out apologies, it likely should be issuing one to its officers as well.

“But these are decent folk being persecuted by a nanny state,” I hear you cry. And I stand impervious, I’m afraid. Because I’ve heard that line a lot recently and it’s beginning to grate.

It’s the same argument used against speed cameras and parking fines. How often have you heard those caught out proclaim themselves as “law-abiding citizens” and bemoan the infringement of their freedom? I have news for you: if you break the speed limit, or park illegally, or indeed break health and safety or trading regulations, you are not a law-abiding citizen. You’re actually the one who’s in the wrong.

And rarely is ignorance an excuse. Speed limits and parking regulations are posted clearly. In the case of the now famous lemonade stand, the father in question is even quoted as saying “I thought that they would just tell us to pack up and go home.” So he knew he was breaking the rules. He just didn’t think the consequences should apply to him.

A culture of entitlement, and a belief that rules are for other people but not us, is a disease gripping middle Britain. It is demonstrated in many different ways, from the driver telling the cyclist that she has no right to be on the road because she doesn’t pay road tax (I know), to the father holding up his daughter’s tears to get out of a fine.

I know, I’m a monster. But hooray for the enforcers, I say.

Duncan Hothersall is the editor of Labour Hame