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A Tory leadership race between two women is not a feminist revolution

I have spent the day being told I should be pleased that the future leader of my country will be female. This is the feminist revolution in the same way that the Charge of the Light Brigade was a military triumph.

The next prime minister of Britain will be a woman. She will not be elected by the people. She will be one of two candidates left over after all the men running for Tory leader backstabbed and blustered themselves out of the running. Neither Andrea Leadsom nor Theresa May are the figureheads anyone with a scrap of interest in women’s freedom would choose, presuming we got a say, which we don’t.  Nonetheless, I have spent the entire day being told that I should be pleased at the fact that the future leader of my country will be a female person. This is the feminist revolution in the same way that the Charge of the Light Brigade was a military triumph.

In times of upheaval, women are invariably called on to clear up the mess the men have made. As the greatest political crisis in recent memory continues to roll over Britain, and leader after craven wannabe leader abdicates responsibility for the fallout, I find myself recalling Mrs Lintott’s declaration in Alan Bennett’s History Boys. “History,” she says, “is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind – with the bucket.”

Following the ugly implosion of both major parties, it now seems that female politicians may be left to tidy up the wreckage – and they will need an awfully big bucket. We are now facing the very real prospect of a female prime minister facing down a female leader of the opposition. The Scottish National Party is already led by Nicola Sturgeon, the only apparent adult in top office across the entire United Kingdom. In four months, a female prime minister might be calling Hillary Clinton to congratulate her on her election as the first female president of the world’s only superpower.

Let’s not bring out the bunting just yet. Men still outnumber women in parliament by a ratio of more than two to one. Unless you truly believe that men are twice as capable as women, this seems insufficient. The fact that the leaders and deputy leaders of both major parties in the disintegrating sandcastle of British politics are men has not been deemed worthy of comment, of course. And nor has the fact that both the Leave and Remain campaigns were fronted by overgrown schoolboys prepared to rip up the fabric of civil society to beat their playground rivals.

One of the perks of being a man in politics – one of the perks of being a man in general – is never having to answer the “gender question”. Nobody is asking if there is something about men in politics that makes them unfit for power, as many of our current leaders clearly are.

Female politicians certainly appear to have more resilience than men. No woman goes into politics for an easy ride. Female MPs, ministers and lawmakers of all stripes face down harassment and threats. Women still have to answer for their entire sex in a way that men are never expected to. If women had been in charge of this EU fiasco, I guarantee you that we would now be recommending the removal of the female franchise and rehearsing jokes about how women can’t steer a car, much less a country.

Can female politicians do a better job of fixing this mess than men? The only reason we’re asking that is that they’ve never been given the chance. On the one hand, they could hardly do worse; on the other, the mess is monumental, and whoever is in charge of the long, uncertain slog back to stability will doubtless face precisely the public opprobrium that both David Cameron and Boris Johnson have proven too cowardly to contemplate, with some additional press commentary on their shoes, haircuts and outfit choices to distract us all from the collapse of civil society. I can hardly wait.

The truth is that women are not, in fact, magic. Women are, in fact, people, and people who happen to be female are no less complicated and unpredictable than those who happen to be male. Women have just as much capacity to be venal, petty and egomaniacal as men do, although they are less likely to be indulged in such behaviour. Women have just as much potential for crashing incompetence as men, although female mediocrity is far less frequently rewarded with jobs in government. The country has yet to recover from Margaret Thatcher’s manicured massacre of our social fabric and yet we have somehow already forgotten that The Man can be a woman.

The fact of being female does not mean a leader will deliver for women. Neither of the remaining Tory candidates seems poised to turn parliament into a knitting circle. Theresa May has a staggeringly right-wing record on immigration, has been involve in the deportation of refugee women fleeing rape and violence, and voted to cut abortion rights. Andrea Leadsom is a right-wing religious fanatic who did not vote for gay marriage. Both of them have stood up for welfare cuts that will hit women hardest. No woman, however powerful, can escape sexism, but Leadsom  in particular seems ready to use it to her advantage: in a typical newspaper interview, she described the delicious Sunday roasts she makes for her family, positioning herself as the sort of mother of the nation we might run to after having messed our pants in public. That sort of power play is many things, but it is not feminism.

In the midst of this panicked pound-shop Thatcher tribute band contest, one thing is clear. Whoever is running the world come November, it is women as a whole who will be left holding the bucket. As the economic and civil consequences of Brexit unfold, it is women who will be expected to do the emotional and practical work to keep families and communities functioning, just as they have done through six years of austerity. Women have filled the gap in public services with free and voluntary labour. Women have already been hardest hit by public-sector job cuts, just as they are already over-represented among the low-paid, precarious workers who suffered most in the last recession. Women will be expected to pay for the mistakes of men in power, and to do so thanklessly and for free, without making a fuss. (I could not help but notice that almost all of my acquaintances on the left who argued for Brexit on the basis that more pain now would lead to revolution later were male. The theory that social collapse is to be welcomed as a precursor to a people’s uprising is wearily typical of masculine leftist posturing, assuming as it does that women will be around to set the bones, sew up the wounds and sweep up the debris if the uprising fails to fall out as planned.)

It remains to be seen if the situation for women throughout the country will be made any better by women in Westminster. Poor and vulnerable men, after all, have not historically been guaranteed a good deal just because they shared a gender with their political leaders. Gender equality, like wealth, tends not to trickle down. It will be interesting to see what the world looks like with more women in top roles, but women aren’t enchanted beings who bring light and harmony to politics by wafting fragrantly through the corridors of power. Women are just people. Sometimes people beat each other down, and sometimes people sell each other out, particularly when a bit of power is on the table. Real equality will only be possible when we realise that. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 07 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit bunglers

Photo: Getty
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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.