First Thoughts: The throbbing machismo of Brexiteers, rise of the Woke Right – and farewell to the NS

When I first joined the staff eight years ago there were articles about how reassuringly boring it was to live in a country where voters were so apathetic. People agreed with Nick Clegg.

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So, farewell then. This is my final weekly column for the New Statesman, after eight (eight!) years as assistant, deputy and then associate editor. When I arrived in the office in December 2010, I was fresh from nearly five years at the Daily Mail, making me a kind of reverse Melanie Phillips. It was a strange time: 13 years of Labour rule had recently ended and new buzzwords such as “austerity” were entering our vocabulary. There were articles about how reassuringly boring it was to live in a country where voters were so apathetic. People agreed with Nick Clegg.

Joining the NS was a culture shock after the terrors of a daily tabloid newspaper. Suddenly, my hard-won knowledge about leylandii disputes was redundant. It didn’t take five highly paid men to agonise over every feature headline for hours, before writing “the great betrayal” yet again. And there were no obituaries where the gist of the story was “genius or pervert?”

Incidentally, I once told this magazine’s editor, Jason Cowley, that he was the best boss I’d ever had. I suspect he felt the compliment was diminished because the only other one was Paul Dacre.

Fade to grey

It’s always bothered me that prime ministers and presidents age so badly in office. A friend once tried to reassure me that it’s just because recent leaders have been elected in their late thirties and early forties, when the last vestiges of a youthful glow remained. Their time in charge simply coincides with the cruel years in which a hairline retracts, grey strands proliferate and eye bags form.

Having been deputy editor here through two general elections, two referendums and a Labour leadership election, I’m not sure I agree. Politics itself is ageing. Like Labour’s now unfeasibly sleek deputy leader, Tom Watson, I decided that enough was enough and lost a shedload of weight after the 2017 election. I now live in fear of another one, because of the late nights and sly Doritos it will inevitably involve. What’s my diet secret, you might ask. Well, don’t tell everyone, but… fewer Doritos. Book deal, please.

Wisdom of women

Talking of books, I’m just finishing the final round of corrections on Difficult Women, my (imperfect, personal, unfinished) history of feminism, due out in February 2020. The NS staff have all been incredibly kind, putting up with me going down to part time to write it over the past 18 months.

I can finally see why historians are so evangelical about what they do: studying history completely reframes how you see the present. A dozen times during the research, I found that a thought I believed was original had been expressed beautifully by a woman in the 1850s, or 1910s, or 1970s. It has made me feel more connected to feminism as a tradition, but also furious with myself for taking the long way round when other women had hacked a path through the weeds for me, if only I had known.

Not my icon

At all the talks I’ve done so far about Difficult Women, the same questions keep coming up. An old reliable: is Margaret Thatcher a feminist icon? (Answer: she’s not my feminist icon.) Reading Hansard debates from the mid-1970s, it’s bleakly hilarious to watch Conservatives preen about having a female leader, as if this one act relieved them of responsibility to support any feminist legislation coming through the Commons.

Debating the Balance of Sexes Bill, which would have enshrined a legal duty on all government bodies and quangos to have a 50/50 gender split, Carol Mather thanked its proposer, Maureen Colquhoun, for the “modest and sincere way in which she has put forward her bill”. However, he added, “one has only to look round the chamber to see that hon ladies have made a considerable impression and impact on the House”.

At the time, less than 5 per cent of MPs were women and there had only been half-a-dozen female cabinet ministers. Mather continued: “I do not know whether there is any jealousy on the part of the hon lady, but on our side of the House the leader of our party is a woman, a fact of which we are proud; it has nothing to do with sex but entirely to do with merit.”

Mather’s speech tells me two things. First, that the Woke Right – where people who claim to hate the concept of identity politics nonetheless love it when they’re winning at it – is not a new phenomenon. Second, that Thatcher’s own desire to disown feminism was entirely explicable.

Tory hardmen

There were five men (plus one man-sized absence) at the first Conservative leadership debate on 16 June. A source close to the departed candidate Andrea Leadsom told ITV’s Robert Peston that MPs thought “after Theresa May the new prime minister could not be another woman”. That feels like a variation on what used to happen to women on panel shows: if one flamed out, she was judged not as an individual, but as a representative of all women, who were clearly not funny. That reasoning has been defeated by the simple trick of having more women on panel shows. (On the News Quiz, Miles Jupp and the producers insist on two per episode. I can’t tell you how much of a difference it makes.)

The lack of women at the leadership debate was not just embarrassing for a political party in 2019; it made the men act in a strange way. As Rory Stewart observed, there was an odd “competition of machismo” about whose Brexit was hardest and whose desire to suspend democracy was biggest and whose CV was most throbbing with relevant experience. Gross.

That’s all, folks

That’s all from me. You’ll still be able to read me in the NS, reviewing theatre, and you are free – no, welcome – to buy between one and a hundred copies of Difficult Women. I’ve always found NS readers to be generous, wise and demanding. I’ll miss you.

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.

This article appears in the 19 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Bad news