Category Archives: News

Margaret Thatcher is Dead

Barack Obama said that Margaret Thatcher was an iconic role model for our daughters.


Obama’s election as the first black president of the United States was a moment of vindication for black Americans.

His mantra during his election campaign, Yes We Can, could have been their maxim, too. Yes, black America, Yes WE Can!

But the election of Margaret Thatcher as Britain’s first woman Prime Minister offered no such promise. What she believed was Yes I Can.

Margaret Thatcher in Tank

She didn’t share power with women. She didn’t expand women’s democratic room for manoeuvre. On the contrary, she diminished democracy. She didn’t empower women.

Equality was a word purged from her vocabulary. And feminism, she believed, was ‘poison’. Without it, of course, she would never have become a Parliamentarian, a Prime Minister, or even a voter.

Margaret Thatcher in Tees Valley Crowd

Unemployment in the Tees Valley stood at almost 20 per cent. Jobless Eric Fletcher found his way through the crowd to the Prime Minister, with his file containing all his job applications: more than 1000.

For sure, Thatcher proved that she could perform power like no man: she could be more than any man — but she wrapped a feminine endorsement around a thoroughly patriarchal project.

Her mission was to re-structure the state and society, and she engineered this with surgical elan; Thatcherism tilted the axis of British politics, she made the lore of the market appear to be the language of life itself.

After her third election victory, in 1987, Margaret Thatcher paid a visit to Teesside, a region laid waste by Thatcherism.

After her third election victory, in 1987, Margaret Thatcher paid a visit to Teesside, a region laid waste by Thatcherism.

It was — as the great Jamaican scholar-activist Stuart Hall, the pioneering theorist of Thatcherism — described it a project of modernisation: REGRESSIVE MODERNISATION.

It spoke freewheeling free marketeering into one ear, he said, and ‘the voice of respectable, bourgeois, patriarchal man’ in our other ear.

Hear this fast, bracing debate between the lovely Tory MP Margot James and myself.

Thatcher, Bea Campbell and Margot James on Radio 4

Listen to Beatrix Campbell and Margot James on Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme…


LibDemLogoKick ‘em, brush ‘em off, ignore ‘em. But DON’T change ‘em. Men.

Since when have so many women have been urged to be so violent? Kick him in the cojones, shins, and knees! Elbow the thorax. Bite the bastard. All sackable offences, and, as it happens, the least likely and, most certainly, the least alluring response to a man sexually harassing a woman.

But we’ve been hearing these tactics being counseled here there and everywhere as the way to deal with a ‘groper’ – aka a man sexually harassing a woman – following a week of really brave women calling powerful men and party leaders to account for institutionalised sexual harassment. That’s among those who admit that sexual harassment is not on.

There are others who don’t think it matters much; its not like real sexual abuse, they say. Often these are people who have not risked their reputations by taking the side of people who have been sexually abused.

Laughing Lord Tony Greaves reckoned that if sexual harassment was a resigning matter then ‘around half the male members of the Lords over the age of 50 would probably not be seen again.’

Lady Shirley Williams, a noble parliamentarian, is not known as a champion of the victims of sexual crime. She told the BBC that her party’s former Chief Executive, Lord Rennard, now under investigation by the Metropolitan police, was ‘a very fine man.’

She ventured that Jimmy Savile’s abuse of children was ‘the bad stuff’ but she did not believe ‘anything that’s been said about our chap is in that category.’ Who said it was? But she then maligned the women who had, after many years of self-protective – and humiliated – silence, spoken out: the women’s allegations against Rennard had been ‘hopelessly exaggerated’.

That’s not what the police think – Scotland Yard is now investigating Rennard. Women have, however, confirmed that they felt emboldened to come forward after the Savile case had changed the nation’s consciousness.

Oxford scholar Allison Smith, who had once hoped to be a Lib Dem candidate, said she had been encouraged by the ‘change in culture’, to go public about Rennard’s alleged harassment.


Williams needs to explain what, exactly, is being exaggerated. Does she think the women who have brought their complaints to the Lib Dem leadership or to the police are themselves exaggerating, lying, or does she think that the problem of sexual harassment as such is an exaggeration? In either case she has some explaining to do.

Explain, Lady Williams, why so many women in your party are prepared to risk their own privacy and perhaps even their careers as Lib Dem politicians to expose serial harassment in the same party culture that also tolerated serious, serial sexual abuse.

The police have investigated the story — interred for decades — of serial sexual abuser Cyril Smith MP, and concluded that he was a serious offender who would, these days, be prosecuted. Smith and Rennard are not, of course, comparable. But they inhabited, and were protected by the same party culture. The behaviour of both was well known in the party.

There is no question about it: the Lib Dems stupidly, smugly, turned their back on feminism; didn’t confront sexism and, inevitably, therefore, accommodated sexually predatory behaviour by men.

What the Lib Dems did not understand is that defining harassment and abuse clarifies what is, and is not, appropriate behavior. Like laws and procedures on drink and driving, seat belts, smoking, hate speak, racist chanting at football matches, hitting children, cultures reach a consensus about public safety and public manners. They are connected.

Loss of confidence in cultural renovation, the mocking of so-called political correctness, which – lest we forget – sponsored the campaign to kick racism out of football, has stalled the recognition that sexism – like racism – sustains abuse, disrespect and bullying.

The response to the Lib Dem women, whose charges have been corroborated, has been, predictably polarized. The most remarkable feature of this debate has been the fortitude of women in politics and the media: Cathy Newman at Channel 4 and Nick Clegg’s former special adviser Bridget Harris explained helpfully that women are even supposed to feel that brushing off the predatory men is ‘the feminist response’. Au contraire, she insists, ‘our silence is not shame. It is self-preservation.’ The problem is ‘the power imbalance’ that makes protest futile and even self-destructive.

These women have been met by a chorus complaining that t’was ever thus; well, its not as bad as real abuse is it; they should not stand for it, brush it off, bash him in the balls.

This inducement to either silence or violence been compounded by some nasty body stuff which compounds the disrespect for women by the language of contempt for the man. In an otherwise creditable critique of sexism in parliament and the press, Allison Pearson lowers the tone by describing Rennard as a ‘slug’.

Rod Liddle – always reliable as a barometer of choleric white man’s intemperance – adds in The Spectator that Rennard is a ‘lardbucket.’

As if harassment by a svelte Fifty Shades of Grey Christian Grey or Brad Pitt would have been not offensive but charming.

All of this, of course, averts our gaze from the people who are the problem – the perpetrators and their cultural comfort zones. It brings pessimism and denial to the possibility that marauding masculinities can be reformed.

The Lib Dems’ disgrace, however, has been society’s gain: we all now know the open secret of sexism in the party and the mass media. And these institutions now know that they’ve got to sort it.

Mantel’s Right Royal Calumny

Oh what a mighty calumny Hilary Mantel has caused. Her ravishing, slightly odd, fastidious, eloquent, essay on suits, frocks, fabrics and royal bodies in the London Review of Books would have been a good read. Now that the Daily Mail has spiked her, it is a must read.

Kate Middleton PortraitSo, her remarks about the Duchess of Cambridge, aka Kate Middleton, having been designed by committee, and Mantel’s ruminations on royal gynaecology has gone viral. Marvellous.

Mantel doesn’t, of course, say anything horrid. She merely points out what we all know, that Kate Middleton has been finished: finessed, drilled, dressed. She will be perfect. She will be adroitly, vacantly, nice. The royal family’s scalding experience of earlier, unruly recruits into the firm – Fergie and Diana, mother of Middleton’s husband William – made any other option intolerable and to be avoided whatever the cost.

Mantel’s LRB piece is a rumination on what she knows so well – royal bodies: What they wear, how they rustle around space, how they are produced, how they are penetrated; and how they are seen – to repeat George III’s mantra they must be seen, above all be seen.

Mantel argues that the purpose of the royal body is to breed. Yes. But there is more. Being seen is not just about being visible – indeed it is hardly that – and I don’t really share Mantel’s observation that we stare at royalty to find antiquity, to find the special.

Queen Anne BoleynWhen we stare aren’t we searching for something else? Aren’t we struggling with that paradox of monarchism, the evidence that they are not so much immortal as merely mortal? Aren’t we searching for something about them that is human?

That, finally is the problem: our democracy warrants their sovereignty and yet we worry about the price THEY pay. Not the price we pay for their indulgences; not the price we pay for our compromised, unfinished democracy, for our abjection as subjects rather than citizens.

No, the price they pay for the seeming pointlessness of their privilege, what Mantel describes as the airy enclosure that is always a cage.

The paradox is that when they show their humanity they are in trouble. Being seen in the royal firmament is never to show their humanity, it is about the parade as propaganda: it is about being seen as superior, as sovereign.


Jimmy Savile funeral

No sooner does child abuse get aired than we are warned against witchhunts, obsession, and hysteria. Always. It is happening again; it is de rigueur.

Andrew O’Hagan’s ruminations in the London Review of Books on Jimmy Savile and the dark corners of light entertainment, offer a glimpse of the just how difficult it is for anyone to confront child abuse.

Andrew O'Hagan

Andrew O’Hagan

Check out Times columnist David Aaronovitch’s response to the Savile inquiry and the review of the North Wales children’s homes abuse scandal :

‘Don’t launch inquiries on the back of lurid claims’:

David Aaronovitch

David Aaronovitch

Gesturing towards new knowledge abuse, Aaronovitch then cautions:

But it seems we have had to pay an unnecessary price for our new understanding. In Cleveland in the late 1980s, alongside real abusers, completely innocent people were deprived of their children on the basis of the beliefs and a faulty diagnosis of a paediatrician and social worker. Not long afterwards there was panic on Orkney and in cities such as Rochdale and Nottingham, amid claims that there were networks of abusers using satanic rituals as a pretext for acts of abuse, including infanticide and cannibalism. Books were written, front pages were splashed, serious conferences convened, in which dark caverns and human sacrifice were earnestly discussed.The unattractive (because complicating) truth is that sometimes people do lie about being abused. When it all collapsed, as it had to…

It doesn’t matter that this stuff is punctuated by historical inaccuracies and a repetition of the mass hysteria/moral panic line. That never matters. What matters is what this kind of stuff is NOT interested in, and what it is NOT about.

Andrew O’Hagan threw no light on the questions thrown up by Jimmy Savile, perhaps because is not interested in child abuse, nor in how easy it is to get away with it. His rendition of Savile as a man ‘made to the public’s specifications, ’ ignores the other publics who have been challenging marauders like Savile.

British society is not homogenous, it is fissured by sexual abuse, how it happens, to whom, and how it comes to be known.Why did the BBC harbour Savile?

What was it about his horrible persona that the BBC wanted? Was his allure, precisely, misanthropy and misogyny? It was not the public, it was the BBC that made a public according to Savile’s specifications. The broadcasting media do not reflect public taste, they participate in the creation of it.

Crucially, his reputation and room for maneouvre were secured by both the BBC and the Big Society.

Savile traded on the NHS and schools’ dependence on charity. Without charity he would have been just another coarse, grotty DJ. Without the Big Society, he would not have been showered with virtue, blessed by popes and princes and politicians. Without the Big Society he would not have been given the keys to any hospital, school or prison.

Where would Savile have been without the counter-revolution from the late ’80s (apparently endorsed by Aaronivitch) against evidence of sexual crimes against children?

O’Hagan’s contempt for so-called political correctness, and the instant invocation of terms such as  ‘moral panic’ and obsession’ whenever child abuse is aired, has licensed grumpy old and young men to grope whoever they like, to proclaim the right to be right-off and swank about it on telly.

Savile’s savvy access to almost anywhere warehousing vulnerable people, from children to patients and prisoners, is a model of grooming and stealthy exploitation. His reputation and the unsteady exposure of his abusiveness, exemplify the condition of knowing and not knowing that describes Britain’s befuddled ‘common sense’ about abuse. Enough people knew for it to have been an open secret.

Ever since sexual abuse was added to the inventory of statutory concerns about children in the 1980s, child protection has been a war zone. Actually, it is defeated.

For three decades child welfare institutions have been unable to withstand the overwhelming and outraged resistance from accused adults to civil libertarians.

Yet, still, there is a determination to tell the story. The ‘choke and sting of experience’ – the Indian anthropologist Veena Das’s poignant phrase – finds its way, somehow, into public knowledge.

It is routinely met by the smug sort of piety that, sadly, was aired again in O’Hagan’s piece:

Child abuse is now a national obsession,’ it produces  ‘an unmistakable lack of proportion in the way we talk about the threat to children posed by adults ‘ and by  ‘the hysteria, the prurience, the general shrieking that surrounds discussions of discussions of sexual conduct…

What does he make of the somewhat muted, hesistant, ashamed voices of Savile’s victims? Does ‘general shrieking’ describe the hundreds of people who say they were abused by Savile – witnesses spanning 50 years – who finally felt able to quietly share their story with the police/NSPCC?

And what of the dull, defensive response of the institutions?Does  ‘shrieking’ and ‘obsession’ describe the dismal response of the criminal justice system to the majority of rapes and sexual assaults reported to the police – a scepticism, by the way, that is an embarrassment to the Metropolitan police, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and the Crown Prosecution Service.

Where, exactly, in the company O’Hagan keeps, is all this hysteria and shrieking?  Isn’t denial of child abuse the national obsession?

On 11 January 2013 the Metropolitan Police and the NSPCC published their report, Giving Victims a Voice, on the evidence of 450 people concerning Savile’s 50 year career as a prolific sexual predator.

(An earlier, shorter version of this appeared in a letter to the LRB).