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Reviews

Sam Macrory reviews "The Winslow Boy" Old Vic Theatre, London

 

Towards the end of his career, playwright Terence Rattigan might have wondered what he’d done wrong. With his work deemed out of time as a nation threw itself into the 1960s, Rattigan fell out of fashion and out of sight.

Half a century on, however, the Old Vic’s production of Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy thrives on old-fashioned virtues which make great theatre: a strong script, a collection of powerful performances, and a simple but perfectly constructed set.

And with a story which takes in media intrusion, as the Winslow family try to deal with 13 year-old Ronnie’s ejection from his naval college after being accused of stealing a five shilling postal cheque, the play even manages to makes itself relevant for 2013. “Whatever you say will have little bearing on what they write” is the script’s damning assessment of the fourth estate, a line which had a post-Leveson era audience laughing all too knowingly.
Henry Goodman, fresh from his turn as Sir Humphrey Appleby, captures the obstinacy and pride of Mr Winslow but still portrays a sympathetic character who clearly loves his children. He is a father prepared to drop everything to fund the fight for Ronnie’s reputation: his daughter’s prospective marriage and his elder son’s Oxford education both fall by the wayside as Ronnie takes precedence, with Arthur Winslow’s own health deteriorating throughout the play.

The part of Ronnie is played by 16 year old Charlie Rowe, with the Old Vic’s youngest ever lead deserving of many other central turns to come. Rowe takes part in the play’s most enjoyable moment, when he goes head to head with Sir Robert Morton, an emotionally repressed and struttingly self-confident barrister.

Played superbly by a sneering Peter Sullivan, the role of Sir Robert might have a few Tory MPs harking back to the glory days of late night sittings and part-time careers as he effortlessly juggles his Commons duties with his legal pursuits. In his day job as a lawyer, Morton is employed by the Winslows to defend Ronnie, with his relentlessly brutal interrogation of the boy undoubtedly the play’s most dramatic and entertaining moment.

Unfortunately it came just before the interval, leaving the second half somewhat struggling to scale the heights of the final scenes of the first.

And as the play winds its way towards conclusion, the drama seems to wither away with the audience – at least on the night I attended – more likely to laugh at the exchanges between the Winslows and their friends and neighbours than gasp as the family pay the price for their determination to prove Ronnie’s innocence. Perhaps the upper middle class angst of post-Edwardian Londoners has lost a little poignancy, but at times it felt as though the reaction was not the one Rattigan had intended.

Indeed, with the real Winslow Boy, George Archer-Shee, upon whom the story is based, ending up in an unknown grave after being killed at Ypres, a tragic undercurrent runs through the story. Somehow that seems to vanish as Ronnie finds himself happily in a new school, his older brother Dickie (Nick Hendrick) embraces an easy life in a Reading bank, and his suffragette sister Catherine (Naomi Frederick) fails to crack the steely shell of the family’s legal saviour.

Perhaps, as in the 1960s, something of Rattigan’s script found itself lost in translation. But director Lindsay Posner should otherwise be congratulated for this impressive, entertaining, and well-crafted adaption. Like the boy at the centre of the story, this is a play that very much deserves its second chance.

This place doesn't like change...

As Education Secretary in Harold Wilson’s Government, Shirley Williams was one of the leading women politicians of the 1970s. She was ...


WORDS: SAM MACRORY
Shirley, you have been in Parliament, on and off, for nearly 50 years. How has Parliament changed in terms of the way women MPs are treated?
Shirley Williams: I got elected in ’64. We had 23 women MPs – about three-and-half per cent of Parliament. Quite solid with one another, tended to cluster together – we did rather go out of our way to protect one and other. It was very rare to get a woman attacking another woman in a different party at that time because there were so few of us. You felt rather beleaguered if you did. We had some quite fierce women, including of course Mrs Thatcher, at the time. There was something called the Lady Members’ room. Maybe there still is?
Jo Swinson: There still is.
SW: It had an ironing board in it, much used by Mrs Thatcher who was very keen on ironing. The funny thing was, that was about all it had. It had a sofa in case you felt faint and it had an ironing board. Has that changed?
JS: There’s two lady members’ rooms that I know of, and somebody told me that there’s a third somewhere.  There’s an ironing board, there’s a bed, which I’ve never seen anyone lie down on, and there’s a couple of sofas. There’s a phone line. Mainly I think people just nip in and out. Sometimes you see people in there doing a bit of work because they’re quite close to the chamber itself and the lobbies. It can be quite a convenient place.
SW: We had unreformed hours. I freely confess to being an old lag on this. I think the Commons has lost a bit of power that way, but has gained some in other ways. If you had the guts to sit up night after night after night you could get somewhere against the government of the day, but it was a tremendous test of just straight physical endurance. Quite a few women were widows or single women. There weren’t many with children in particular. I think a small handful had kids but not many and it was really difficult. The second thing to say is that men were very patronising. There was one poor lady who had a very uncontrolled voice when she got nervous and MPs mimicked her voice. It was devastating really, it was terribly hard for the woman, who was quite shy, to keep going in those circumstances. People were really quite cruel. I think Mr [Edward] Heath in particular was very patronising. He used to say things to Mrs Thatcher like “that’s quite enough Margaret” which was a pretty hard line to take. There was a lot of sense of patronage amongst men. The third thing was we were rather sort of seen as being an extraordinary new species on the scene. We’d had the suffrage for 40 years but you wouldn’t have known it. It was tough, the hours were very long, no concessions were ever made to women as such or women with children, which was much more pressing. But nobody talked of us as Wilson’s Babes. I’d have hit the roof if anyone had. I think that one of the most damaging things that ever happened to women in Parliament was the attempt to have them [the so-called Blair’s Babes] all together, wearing the red suits. Ghastly mistake. 
JS: Some things have changed for the better. Obviously we now have 146 women MPs – still nowhere near enough by the way, but we have significantly more.  Women don’t feel they can’t attack other women in the chamber on a political basis. I don’t think that there are as many personal attacks and I often find that if you look at the environment at Women and Equalities questions, and debates on international development, you tend to get more women in the chamber. The committee I’ve just finished sitting on, the Children and Families Bill, was a majority of women which is the first time I’ve ever seen that. And it’s not that you always agree, but women disagree in a slightly different way. It is less aggressive and confrontational. I think that can be quite positive. Obviously the hours have changed so that, I think, is quite positive. And there has been the crèche. At the end of the day you cannot easily make being an MP a family friendly job because you’re still requiring people, unless they represent a London constituency, to be in two different parts of the county, which in itself is not particularly friendly for having a family. But look at the last two or three years: Alison McGovern and Bridget Phillipson have had babies, Jenny Willott, a Government Whip, has had her second child. Rachel Reeves has just given birth, and in fact Lucy Powell has just gone off on her maternity leave. So I think that it is still very difficult but it is more possible to combine having a family life with being an MP. Which is essential if you’re going to have anything like equality. Otherwise you’re going to have this big gap on the green benches, which is a shocking waste of the talent of the people we could have as MPs in this country.
 
SW: I should add that the House of Lords is a much easier place to be a woman in. There’s a very fixed ethos of politeness. There’s a gentle hiss if people are rude to one another. They don’t like at all people that personally attack other people. That encourages women in particular and it may be why there are quite a few women from ethnic minorities in the Lords. That measures what is still wrong with some of the attitudes and approaches in the Commons.
JS: I just wanted to pick up what you said about people being patronising, which I think is much less the case now in the House of Commons. As an election junkie I sometimes have the election re-runs on in the background. It was the 1979 election, and the interviewer was interviewing you Shirley and they just prefaced their comments with things like “you are looking very lovely today in that dress”. I was just like, “oh my God, did he just say that!” It just shows how that kind of really blatant, but trying to be complimentary…
SW: Trying to soften the blow…
JS: It stuck in my mind.
SW: I remember when I stood for my first Parliamentary constituency, which was in Hertfordshire – totally hopeless. I got engaged at the time, and I remember afterwards all the newspapers said: “Well she may not have got her seat, but at least she’s got her husband”. The whole thing was like Jane Austen! The Parliamentary seat was second best…
I wanted to go back to the rudeness in the Chamber. Has that completely gone? Are there still some dinosaur-like comments or is it entirely extinct?
JS: It’s still rude, but it is not particularly sexistly rude. Though that’s not entirely gone. And if you think about the sketchwriters for example, there was that example a few months ago when Anne Marie Morris had her arm in a sling. It was a very passionate question, and she just got ridiculed for that in terms of the way she looked, again in terms of her voice being more high pitched. Occasionally there is an element where a woman will slightly get a rougher ride. Actually that voice thing is quite important. I would always be careful to get a seat in front of a microphone. If you’re actually in between microphones and it’s very, very loud, you struggle to be heard, and just because women’s voices are a bit quieter, the pitch is at a different level, that can actually work against a woman in the chamber. Not in a sexist way, but if it’s harder to be heard it’s harder to be taken seriously.
SW: I’ve got an unusually low voice – which wasn’t learnt. But Mrs Thatcher, who decided to drop her voice an octave, was very aware of the fact that if you had a high, traditionally female voice you wouldn’t be taken as seriously. It’s a terrible thing to say but it’s true. You’re sort of seen as being a dolly bird really. If you had a lower voice people take you more seriously, and it also means you can speak when you’re not near a microphone and it’s a big help. And I think the people round Mrs T, and she was very much monitored and governed in terms of how she appeared, told her that she had to drop her voice when she was still a junior minister. And it was good advice, but it tells you rather a lot about attitudes and sexism.
Talking about appearances, Jo, you have campaigned on body image, but how much of an issue – especially in the TV and Twitter age – is it for women politicians?
JS: Well, I suspect…
SW: You get away with it quite lightly, actually!
JS: Well, as Shirley says, women were always regarded as a bit of a particular breed so you always stand out a bit more. Just the fact that you’re not wearing a uniform as it were. Men wear a dark suit, a shirt and a tie. They wear the same thing all week and no one bats an eyelid.
SW: They might notice after a month…
JS: Quite... Whereas just because there isn’t the same kind of uniform – technically there is a dress code for men in the House of Commons, it just doesn’t exist for women, because when they designed the dress code there wasn’t such a thing as a woman MP. Society generally tends to critique women more than men on the their appearances – that’s one of the things I have campaigned against. It’s not so much within the House though. Not to read the bottom of the internet is one of the best bits of advice I have ever had. The bile that is doled out to women politicians, around not just their politics, but about their looks, it’s really quite nasty, sexualised comments, and it’s pretty standard in a way that men don’t get in the same way. You just have to develop ways to deal with it. And not reading it is a good way to start.
SW: I spent my life endlessly having to defend my hair. The problem is I have three crowns. Some people have one, some have two. But I have three, so it’s almost impossible to get my hair to behave. That has followed me everywhere. I even got journalists watching to see if I went to a hairdresser when I was in the Cabinet. You feel slightly bullied. I remember asking some journalist why he never complained about Peter Shore’s un-pressed suits, because he was always complaining about mine. And he said well, nobody is interested in Peter Shore’s suits. There was a persistent, tedious subtext in everything you did, and I think that was one of the real problems. If you dressed a lot people thought you were frivolous, and if you underdressed they thought you were a blue stocking and therefore deeply unattractive. It was really quite hard to get the balance right. I think it’s a bit better, but they’re still pretty obsessed. They don’t write about men in the same way.
Like with Theresa May’s shoes…
SW: Yes.
JS: There’s Theresa May’s shoes, or when Jacqui Smith was at the Despatch Box making a statement as Home Secretary and the focus was on her cleavage. And it’s not a particularly helpful camera angle… But the thing is, what she was wearing was actually acceptable in a business environment and yet that was the focus. I’ve seen it in this Parliament, when a Labour MP was introducing an important ten minute rule bill that she very clearly cared about, and this paper did a spread about her cleavage. It wasn’t even a particularly low cut top. It was unnecessary, but an opportunity to talk about a woman’s breasts… just blatant. I wouldn’t overstate it, but there is that element that is there that gets used to undermine women. So rather than write about the statement Jacqui Smith was making or the issue this woman was raising, let’s write about her breasts instead.
SW: Jacqui Smith had a really hard time. She was the first woman Home Secretary so they were bound to be targeting her, but they did target her in a pretty… she’s a very nice woman… in a pretty ruthless way, as this hopeless character that had somehow ended up there. I completely agree with what Jo is saying: you do also get this attempt to escape from being measured on exactly the same intellectual level as men are. The evidence is absolutely clear: men and women are more or less on exactly the same level. But once you’re thought to be a thinking woman then you quite rapidly become a sort of sub character. Take someone like Mary Warnock, who is obviously an extremely intelligent, donnish lady. She doesn’t just get treated as extremely intelligent, she gets treated as mildly eccentric. The idea is still a bit alien. It’s changing. But it takes a long time to get there.
You mentioned Jacqui Smith, the first woman Home Secretary, and there’s been a female Foreign Secretary too. But only last week Anna Soubry, the public health minister, complained that women were still handed ‘women’s’ jobs…
SW: I think that has changed a lot. When I first came to the Commons the only jobs women ever held were pensions, education, social services and health. End. And it was actually Harold Wilson who broke every one of those glass ceilings, something I think he’s never had a proper credit for. He only had about three women to push: Barbara Castle, Judith Hart and me. And between us we got into every department that there had never been a woman in before. Barbara was in most of them: she went into six departments that had never had a woman. I had prisons, which was not thought to be a female department. It was very unusual. That’s changed.
JS: I think that has changed a lot. Look round the Cabinet table. You’ve got Theresa Villiers at Northern Ireland. Maria Miller at DCMS. Obviously Theresa May as Home Secretary. Justine [Greening] and Sayeeda [Warsi] on the international front. And at different levels you’ve got women in the Treasury. I think a lot of those [barriers] are slightly being broken down. But there are some issues where it’s not that women can’t do things that men are doing, but where things are seen as, ‘well, a woman will do that’. It’s helpful if there isn’t that stereotyping, so I can understand Anna’s point that we should not have a role that always needs to be seen as either a man or always a woman doing this role.

But there’s yet to be a woman chancellor…
JS: I think that’s partly the fact that chancellors get to be in post for a significant amount of time. We’ve had a lot more turnover in other departments.
SW: Absolutely.
JS: But when you started your career, if you’d said what was the last role you thought wouldn’t be held by a woman, you probably might not have gone for Chancellor?
SW: Foreign Secretary. Or Defence.
JS: Or even Prime Minister might be more difficult to get. I’m sure it will happen. Part of that is we need to get many more women into the Commons. 
SW: There’s another thing as well. If you look at the professions, the ones that feed into Parliament and the ones that women have to deal with, the huge area of almost total no movement is banking and finance. You get people like Stephanie Flanders who become substantial figures in the media world, and you get one or two women who write for the Financial Times for example, but when you look at the profession it’s pathetic. It’s about five or six per cent. International organisations have far more room for very senior women, but somehow national organisations seem to have got stuck in a time loop, not least the City. The City is massively masculine and it’s about time it stopped. It would be much better if it stopped being so ludicrously clubby. I’m in one of my Vince Cable moods...
But the House of Commons isn’t anywhere close to 50/50, and the Lib Dems have just seven women MPs – 12.5%. What more can be done to attract women into Parliament?
JS: We have our leadership programme: 40 excellent candidates from various under-represented groups who are having really intensive support. It is being resourced in the party in a very serious way. Until just a few years ago that was not happening. We’re already seeing the fruits of that. Of the 14 selections that have taken place, six have chosen female candidates. 
SW: Jo should take a lot of credit for that. I remember feeling mildly frustrated about six years ago: I tried to get an agreement about women and ran into a pretty difficult block because one of our women organisers organised a counter attack on the grounds that you didn’t need to take any steps to give special advantages in selection to women. I remember she got together about six extremely attractive very young women, all wearing t-shirts saying ‘I am not a token woman’. But what they all were, and maybe didn’t realise they were, were women aged between 16 and 21, which means they simply hadn’t hit the real difficulty that if you’re a woman you have family responsibilities, not just to your kids but often to elder relatives. That’s when you really start getting into the awful issue of the balance between men and women. And you hit it at about the age when you’re becoming an MP. I was flatly rejected… regarded as being a token woman was pretty unacceptable, and that’s why Jo and people like Jo have worked really hard on it. But we [the Lib Dems] have a real problem. We are a much more decentralised party than most of the ones we have to live with and if you get Nick Clegg ringing up a constituency and saying ‘I would very much like you to choose Mrs X, Y, or Z’, the local party feels it should be its own boss. And that’s quite difficult, because sometimes it means the local young man who is really bright, not the local young woman who is really bright, can offer more time. It’s a real issue.
JS: It does really create a challenge. We ask so much of our candidates because we have so few safe seats. Loads of our MPs get elected at some point in their 30s, which as Shirley says is when loads of women say they will sit out the election because they are starting a family. That can be a real way that we lose talent. The other thing is that we don’t have 100s of women candidates up and down the country. In some of the seats in the last election no women even applied. So we need to address this issue. We need to try and make this place a bit more modern as a work place, whether that’s in terms of the hours, the crèche and so on.
What about the MP job-share idea. Is it practical or even likely?
SW: It’s difficult….
JS: It’s not without difficulties. I could list you a whole list of difficulties that there would be in MP job-sharing and I’m sure there would be. But if people are really committed to make it work, and people are standing on a job-share ticket for a constituency and the constituents choose that, then I don’t see why that shouldn’t be able to happen. Is it likely? This place doesn’t like change and that’s an understatement. So I can imagine that getting any movement on this would be difficult and take a lot of time. Perhaps whether something could be piloted or looked at… I do think this is an idea that is worth exploring, because in so many walks of life, job-shares work very well and it’s very helpful in being able to retain really talented women at senior levels in senior organisations.
SW: We had huge opposition when I was Education Secretary to job sharing but because the shortage of teachers was so acute we had no choice, and actually it worked extremely well. They key thing, in teaching, is having an area of overlap which has to be paid for, so that the children’s progress is mapped closely. But it does work very well. I think Jo is right. It’s a case of getting used to it, and once you have, it can actually be rather good.
Specifically in terms of attracting women into your party, I know we can’t go into the details of the allegations surrounding Lord Rennard, but how much reputational damage have they caused?
SW: It’s easier for me to say this than Jo. First of all we owe an awful lot to Chris in terms of the work he has done for the party. He has been absolutely selfless. And I’m sorry, but I’m of the age group that has to say while I wholly share the view that groping and all the rest of it – and I don’t know the truth of the allegations, one way or another – that kind of thing is demeaning and unpleasant, but boy if you compare it with what it used to be like, it’s a different ball game. I mean, we ought to be deeply, deeply seriously worried about things like child abuse and the levels of domestic violence which is now worryingly high, but compared to that, although it’s something that should be warned against and the person concerned should apologise and stop misbehaving, but I have to say groping when I was little – by that I mean the same age Jo is now – it wasn’t groping, it was avoiding being assaulted. On the whole, the general view taken was that if you were a young woman in politics, well what did you expect if you were trying to get to somewhere near the top? People would take advantage of you. One famous cabinet minister used to chase you round the filing cabinets which was a lot worse than a hand on your knee. It’s changed slowly, but we have got somewhat obsessed about getting very exaggerated reactions to what is silly and impolite and discourteous behaviour. But it’s not the same as violent or intimidating behaviour. It’s a different world.
JS: I think it’s really important that we have a culture that we do feel people can raise these issues, and to me it’s something that is so much wider than just the Liberal Democrats. Listening to what Shirley said, it’s great that politics has moved on and we have a different set of standards, but it’s there still – if you look at what happens on university campuses up and down the country – an undercurrent across lots of different parts of society which actually feeds into that domestic violence issue where men view women in a particular way without respect, and that won’t always lead to violence and abuse but in some cases it will. There’s a lot more change that needs to happen and the debate that is happening around that is actually a very positive debate to highlight some of those issues.
Moving on, you were both very different ages when Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister. What was her influence on you both and what do you think her legacy is for women who might want to enter politics?
JS: I was born the year after Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, and in Scotland, where the poll tax was massive. It was seared into everyone’s minds because it was so controversial. But I suppose at the same time for the first 11 years of my life I did grow up with a woman Prime Minister. I don’t think she was someone that particularly furthered the cause of women, but in the aftermath of her death the piece that really hit home with me was a piece by Deborah Orr in The Guardian which summed up a lot of what I was thinking and was basically saying ‘I didn’t agree with what she was doing but just the achievement, in the Conservative Party of all parties, as a grocer’s daughter to persevere and become an MP and then become leader of your party and then become Prime Minster, to show that a woman could do that… She wasn’t particularly helpful to women in lots of ways, and people say she was quite male in the way she did things, but if you watch back the footage she was quite feminine as well in her dress and in her approach and the way she interacted with the public at least, not necessarily members of her Cabinet. As a woman that achievement was very, very significant, and, as a feminist, it was the amazing part of her legacy.
SW: The first thing I would add to that is that even if for a man, to come from being a grocer’s daughter in Grantham, which was a very remote small town 50 years ago, with almost no connections with London, no money to speak of, no standing to speak of... she didn’t just beat the women thing, to some extent she beat the class thing, which was very strong when she was born. So she leaps two hedges, and that is a very remarkable accomplishment. And the other thing I would add to what Jo said, partly because I thought I knew her on a parallel level, was, and I am completely certain of this, that she regarded most men as playing at politics. And she regarded politics as far too serious to be played with. She was always serious, perhaps too serious, about politics, but simply regarded a lot of the men round the table with her as being people that played games with the clubs, and the advances and all the rest of it, and she never thought that way. She always was sort of dedicated to an almost clerical extent to politics. Final point, one which is very important but is changing to a degree, is that most Conservative men of her era were brought up by nannies. And then went to a public school when they were seven or eight and were disciplined by matrons. So the idea in their heads of a woman in power, with unquestioned power, you didn’t question nannies or matrons, is not a Labour or Lib Dem thing at all, but is a very Conservative Party thing. The relationship to the women in your life, as a child, is different in our party or the Labour Party where your mother is what mattered, or your grandmother a bit. But you didn’t usually have a nanny as the central figure in your first seven years, so if you accept what the Jesuits say, that the first seven years determine the outcome of one’s life, you could see why the Conservatives could accept a woman where it’s still quite difficult for a Labour woman PM to be elected...
Finally, you have talked about role models. Who was yours?
JS: Politically, I have to say Shirley. As a politics geek I used to watch things like Question Time and loved it whenever I saw Shirley on. I thought she just talked total sense. That was very influential for me. Outside of politics one of the women I really looked up to was [Body Shop founder] Anita Roddick. Women who have broken the mould and shown there is a different way of doing things, I always find inspiring. 
SW: I’m delighted about Jo, and I’m also delighted about Tessa Munt, because winning Wells is not easy if you’re anything other than a Conservative. But if I wanted to talk about role models, funnily enough I would choose Barbara Castle. I was never left wing Labour, and she always was, but she had an amazing spirit and she got it absolutely right on industrial relations in In Place of Strife. You saw her taking it to the Cabinet and gradually you saw every male colleague peeling off. It was an amazingly gutsy thing to do. Women are often bolder and braver than men, partly because the club thing is so much less important and the individual stand is so much more important.

That seems like a good line to finish on. Thank you. 

Change for the better

Mariane Pearl talks to Jess Bowie about the work of Chime for Change, and her mission to empower women to make a difference


Words: Jess Bowie

Mariane Pearl came to the world’s attention under the worst possible circumstances. In 2002, when Pearl was five months pregnant, her husband, the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel, was abducted and beheaded by Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan. This horrifying moment was filmed by Daniel’s captors and subsequently appeared online for the world to see.

Within a year of Daniel’s death, Pearl – also a journalist – had published a memoir of these harrowing events from her perspective, including the vital role she herself had played in the efforts to investigate her husband’s disappearance. In 2007, her book, A Mighty Heart, was made into a film starring Angelina Jolie.
By then, Pearl was travelling the world to record inspirational stories of other women who have overcome injustice to make a difference. Her interviews, published in Glamour magazine and later in a book, In Search of Hope, ranged from a child sex slave in Cambodia who went on to help rescue girls from forced prostitution, to Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female head of state.
Now, more than 10 years after her husband’s murder, Pearl, 45, is continuing the work that has become her life’s mission: to give a platform to ordinary women who display extraordinary courage. She is managing editor at Chime for Change – a charity which aims to improve the lives of girls and women worldwide by raising money through the crowd-funding tool Catapult. Some very well-known faces are involved: the campaign’s advocates include Beyoncé, Salma Hayek and Arianna Huffington, while Gordon Brown and Desmond Tutu sit on its advisory board. 
Mercy is a 23-year-old Malawian woman who in February this year decided to come out publicly as a lesbian. Malawi is a country which sees homosexuality as almost on a par with satanism, so, Pearl tells the House, it was “a huge story there. She was brought to church to be exorcised, she was kicked out of her home, I mean huge.” Mercy’s declaration made front page news in Malawi and since then she has had to go into hiding for her own safety. Now, however, her story has been told on chimeforchange.org, and shared through Twitter and Facebook. These days Mercy is not only receiving support from the global community, but the media spotlight on her plight may mean she is less likely to be further persecuted in her own country. 
Coming from a more traditional journalism background, Pearl admits that “this whole global arena [of blogs and social networks] where we find ourselves is confusing in some ways”, but she is also quick to point out the role new media can play in empowering women: “Because of all these different elements of social networking, that courage of women that has always been there and been ignored, is now finally getting some recognition.” 
And just as stories about everyday heroes have the power to change society, so politics itself should “come from the ground”, Pearl says – admitting that her own relationship with formal political structures is complicated. Much of her skepticism stems from her upbringing: Pearl’s mother is Cuban and her father, who was Dutch, “was someone who tried to believe very much in politics”. “He came from a generation in Europe that wanted to believe, in this case in the Cuban revolution. That whole movement at the time, especially after the war, was a true avenue for hope”. 
Pearl says her father’s disillusionment after the collapse of communism meant that for her, “it was a survival tool not to believe in politics in some ways”. “When that was so hard on him, very early on, I determined that if I was going to believe in something, as hard as it was, it was going have to be people.”
It’s an outlook which means Pearl is uncomfortable discussing which female politicians she admires, as she “sees the person before the politician”. She also is concerned about the idea of the ego in politics, and when asked whether Margaret Thatcher was a role model she expresses unease about what she calls Thatcher’s “raw power”. 
“She definitely awoke a lot of very strong feelings. When you see how much influence one woman had on so many people, you also can see [the effect] someone who has the human quality to be a great leader could have on her people. Regardless of what she did or didn’t do, I see the influence of one person, one politician on her people.
“If we think of great leaders today… we are still hanging to Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, because they were people who were able to overcome their own ego, I guess, or their own relationship with power.”
Pearl’s role models are, then, politicians who are humbled by real people. They can be men or women, although she does think women have “more potential for that kind of quality”.
The election of a black President in 2008 was a political first for the US. Does Pearl think America is now ready for a woman President?
“What about the Pope!” she exclaims, saying she found it interesting that everybody was discussing whether we could have a black pope before we could have a woman pope. As for America, Pearl says it was probably “a big, big, big thing for them to have a black or brown president” and that times are changing for women too – not just in the States but the world over. 
“Women have gathered so much strength because they have been alone for so long. The thing is, when you have so many difficulties in your life you become strong and you become independent and I think women have achieved that status – they are just going to go on, they are just going to grow regardless. I think there is going to be no choice but to except that eventually, and that [time] is basically now, or in the next 20 years.” 
With the global women’s movement looking healthier than ever and Hillary Clinton topping a recent poll as the most popular politician in the US, Pearl is indeed optimistic that the leader of the free world could be soon be female. “Yes, I think that is around the corner,” she says. 

Gone but not forgotten

Eight months ago Louise Mensch stunned MPs when she decided to quit Parliament, but if anyone thought she found it challenging to be a...

WORDS: SAM MACRORY

Louise Mensch is about to interview Arnold Schwarzenegger. Who is in Los Angeles. Such are the perks of being The Sun’s US-based political commentator – Mensch’s day job since she decided to quit Parliament last summer after just over two years as a Conservative MP. 
The Governator might have been impressed by Mensch’s no-nonsense decision to terminate her political career, but elsewhere it drew a mixed reaction of shock, sadness and anger. Anger that she was deserting her Parliamentary duties half way through a five year term, and shock (or sadness, depending on party allegiances), that a high-profile product of David Cameron’s celebrated A-list should give up on politics so early in her career.
Through her membership of the Culture, Media and Sport select committee, which saw Mensch take on Rupert Murdoch – just as the News Corp boss was about to be attacked by a foam pie – and later break off from questioning James Murdoch after announcing that she was leaving the committee early to pick up her children, her profile soared. A string of interviews – including a run-in with The Guardian’s Decca Aitkenhead, who focused on Mensch’s appearance and whether or not the 41-year old had gone under the knife – followed, and a promotion in the forthcoming reshuffle was expected. Instead Mensch announced her departure, no longer able to juggle a life which took in a day job at Westminster, children in her Northamptonshire constituency, and a husband – Metallica manager Peter Mensch – in America. 
But while she may only have been an MP for a short time, Mensch knows all about the challenges of being a woman, and a mother, in Westminster – and one whose appearance seemed to create as much newspaper coverage as her actions. 
Speaking down a trans-Atlantic phoneline, she admits that her new life as a commentator is “certainly more relaxed”, but insists that her work-life balance as an MP was never a problem.
“As I said in my resignation letter, which nobody paid attention to, I had a perfectly good work-life balance,” Mensch argues, explaining that the Prime Minister had gone “quietly over the heads of the whips” to allow her to spend Thursdays and Fridays in her Corby constituency.  
“The problem for me was that I was separated on a permanent basis from my husband and it would have been impossible to move my children in 2015,” she continues. “We took advice on it, and we were told it would have been too late to uproot them in 2015. We had a choice: do it now or don’t do it all and make that marital separation permanent. So it really wasn’t about spending time with the kids – I spent half the week with my children.”
Being in Parliament, she says, was “fantastic – it’s not a job, it’s a vocation”, but she admits that at times she found being an MP “highly stressful, perhaps in my case particularly so because for one reason or another I got more attention than most backbench MPs.”
That attention was partly based on her appearance, with Mensch recently appearing on Newsnight to argue that such a focus was “trivialising women politicians”. So are journalists, particularly those in Westminster, to blame?
“I don’t really mind being taken the mickey out of, but I think you could doubtless find personality traits that you could have a go at more than traits of appearance,” Mensch argues. “That was the whole reason why I refused to answer that Guardian journalist when she asked about surgery because I knew – and as a matter of fact in that case I had said several times, indeed before I got elected, that I had had surgery – that if you start being specific [then] that’s a story, and it’s a story for any woman politician who talks about, sort of, beauty issues or looks issues, and that is a bit annoying. That doesn’t come from Parliament, that comes from the press.”
However, having made the leap to the other side, Mensch is quick to defend the fourth estate. “In fairness to the press, the press only serve up what the public are interested in. There’s this endless fascination with cosmetic surgery – it’s worth a good six page spread in the Daily Mail any time. They report what people want to know about. We should look at ourselves before we blame the press as an amorphous body. They give the public what they want and the public are interested in looks. And not men’s looks, they’re only interested in women’s looks.”
Some people argue that another challenge for women in Westminster is the raw aggression of the Commons chamber. “I hate that,” Mensch interrupts when the theory is put to her, insisting that “it’s quite wrong to say that only the boys enjoy it.”
And while Mensch describes herself as a “big fan of the Speaker” in most regards, she has one criticism: John Bercow’s “idea that ‘let’s treat the House of Commons chamber like a school room where the children must be quiet and sit at their desks’” is “nonsense...the reason that Prime Minister’s Questions is one of the only political programmes that anyone watches or cares about or gets engaged with is the bear pit nature of it.”
And female MPs, she argues, are happy to be there.
“Women are some of the loudest barrackers. Look at any of the footage of me and [Ealing Central MP] Angie Bray during the various budget speeches – we were shouting our heads off. It’s entirely wrong to say that this is a boys’ club thing because that diminishes women and says we’re shrinking little violets and want to sit around and have tea and cake. We give as good as we get. You don’t go into British politics if you’re not prepared to put in a bit of stick and take it. It’s quite wrong to say that only the boys enjoy it. That’s rubbish. If I don’t like Ed Balls’ flatlining gesture I can yell at him. And that’s good.”
With the chamber ruled out as a place that poses problems for women, Mensch also dismisses the notion of Parliament as an outdated building full of randy male politicians with wandering hands. “I can honestly say, without lying or spinning, that never once in my time as a Conservative MP was I sexually harassed at any point by anybody. I had a couple of sexist remarks made to me but that had nothing do with being sexually harassed,” Mensch makes clear. 
So the type of allegations aimed at Lib Dem peer Lord Rennard aren’t widespread?
“Only the Lib Dems have major problems with women,” Mensch replies. “They position themselves to be a party of equality but they have not selected women in winnable seats, they don’t have a single ethnic minority MP, their record of equality is absolutely dire. They profess to be more liberal than thou, but it’s shocking.”
On the subject of selections, and how to bring more women into Parliament, Mensch is also typically forthright. All women-shortlists are a bad plan, the Conservative A-list is a winner. 
“We needed a level playing field and I thought the A-list was an elegant solution,” says Mensch, pointing to a party where 91% of MPs were white men before the last election. “No constituency was ever compelled to select either an ethnic minority MP or a female MP but they were compelled to consider them. That’s the difference.” 
And all-women shortlists, she argues, “should only be used if the selectors are so sexist that you can’t get anywhere…”, such as when a run of pre-2010 safe seat selections repeatedly saw white men put forward and David Cameron threatened to intervene.
“As soon as that happened, all of a sudden… oh look, a few women were selected for those safe seats. [But] you need it only as an absolute last resort.” 
Since her departure, Mensch has remained ultra-loyal to Cameron and his Government, but that loyalty comes with the freedom to offer advice – and Mensch has a number of plans to help the PM demonstrate his commitment to the female cause.
The first is to bring in a job-share for the post of Parliamentary Private Secretaries, the lowest rung on the ministerial ladder. 
“I was told that I could never advance in the party because I was always in my constituency on Thursdays and Fridays and it was pointed out to me on a practical level that if you’re a minister of any kind you need to be in London five days a week. I can’t be in London five days a week. I have children in Northamptonshire. It’s as simple as that,” Mensch explains, adding that “even as a PPS, they told me, you need to be here to shadow your minister and your minister needs to be in London five days a week.” 
With Mensch insisting that “my ambition was only to ever be a PPS,” she then “suggested a job share.” And intriguingly, she thinks “there seems to be an idea that it might happen.”
If a shared-PPS post would make life easier for women in Westminster, Mensch’s second suggestion could help raise the profile of women across the country.
“I would encourage the Prime Minister and the party that one change they really ought to make is to make the Women and Equalities Ministry a separate ministry and not have it folded into anything else,” says Mensch. In the age of civil service savings and departmental cutbacks, that might be a hard sell, but Mensch is convinced that the post “has been poorly treated and should be taken seriously” – and sooner rather than later. 
“It shouldn’t be an afterthought – it doesn’t say a lot that that ministry is an afterthought,” she argues of a post which had previously been a part-time responsibility of Home Secretary Theresa May and is now competing for Maria Miller’s diary space along with the Culture Secretary’s other demands. It’s not just a Conservative problem, she says: after all, Tony Blair famously appointed Meg Munn to the role of women’s minister and then “incredibly” made it the only unpaid post in Government. “The Women and Equalities portfolio was done previously by the Home Secretary but of course she was the Home Secretary. There should be a separate minister for women and equalities,” says Mensch. “By the way, it doesn’t have to be a woman, but it probably should be someone from some group that has experienced discrimination, whether that be lesbian, gay and transsexual, ethnic minorities, or a woman. I think that would make more sense, but that portfolio ought to be separate and that minister ought to be separate.”
Mensch herself might have made a good candidate for that position. Instead, she names her chosen candidate. “Goodness knows we’ve got so many talented people on the Tory backbenches who need roles. How about Therese Coffey? She’d be brilliant.”
Coffey gets an endorsement, but there is one woman MP who is unlikely to be getting a positive write up from Mensch: Nadine Dorries. Her one-time Conservative colleague has kept up a permanent barrage of criticism following Mensch’s decision to leave Parliament, recently accusing her of being guilty of trying to “diminish her role as an MP.” Mensch, who in turn has attacked Dorries’ decision to take part in I’m a Celebrity – Get Me Out of Here, no longer seems unduly bothered: “Who? Oh well, who cares?” she replies when asked about Dorries’ latest criticism. “She likes column inches and she thinks she can get them that way. I don’t care.”
Mensch, who says that “sometimes I totally and absolutely miss Parliament very much”, insists she would have stayed if circumstances had allowed, at least until 2015. 
So would she come back one day, when the children are older and her husband’s career – Peter Mensch is 60 – has wound down?
“I don’t know…” she replies after a short pause, adding, perhaps a little wistfully: “I think in life you have to move on.”
 That’s not exactly a no, but don’t expect an about-turn anytime soon.
“I’m married, I’m in America, I’m here for the long haul, I’m enjoying myself over here,” is the unequivocal statement.
However, she’s keeping her eye in. “I hope to get involved in the Conservatives Abroad and serve the party that way. I clearly remain a Conservative commentator. I’m a vociferous supporter of the Conservative Party and the Prime Minister and the Chancellor and I always was and I always will be,” Mensch make clear, before adding: “But my husband still needs to live in America and I still need to be with my husband.”
And with that, Louise heads off to meet Arnie. Will she be back? Don’t rule it out. She may have left Parliament early, but Louise Mensch had no problems with being a woman in Westminster. 

Steady Speed Cheryl

As the longest serving woman on the Conservative benches, Cheryl Gillan knows all about the highs and lows of party politics and the c...

WORDS: TONY GREW

“I am not really very high-profile,” Cheryl Gillan protests when she greets The House in her penthouse office in Portcullis House. 
The Government’s plans for a new high-speed railway through her Buckinghamshire constituency may change that for good. 
After her forensic denunciation of HS2 in the Commons this week, no one can be in any doubt about the strength of her feelings. 
“It is a boy’s toy,” she says dismissively.  
“It is a boy’s train – it is about speed and about going faster and there are some very basic juvenile instincts attached to it.”
HS2 posed a constant challenge for Gillan during her two years as Welsh secretary.  
“Everybody knew where my cards lay. I almost used to think the transport secretaries moved in the opposite direction if they saw me coming down the corridor! 
“I had many, many meetings with my colleagues – we are on our third transport secretary, of course.” 
Was it a factor in David Cameron’s decision to ask her to leave the Government?
“You will have to ask the Prime Minister,” she replies. 
Gillan adds: “I don’t think anybody leaving office would be happy about it, I don’t know a single politician who has left office who jumped for joy. 
“I am really fortunate; I am only the fifth elected woman in the Conservative Party to serve at Cabinet level. 
“The first was Florence Horsbrugh, then Margaret Thatcher, then Gillian Shepherd and Virginia Bottomley, and then me. Caroline (Spelman) and Theresa (May) came to the House after me. Janet Young wasn’t elected. 
“That is pretty amazing and I am really proud I was able to do that for my constituency and they were able to have a Cabinet minister. They took a big risk 21 years ago choosing a woman.” 
Gillan is the longest-serving woman on the Tory benches, elected to the safe seat of Chesham and Amersham in 1992. She has fond memories of serving as a junior minister under John Major, a man she clearly admires. 
I remind her that there were 60 women MPs in 1992.
“As many as that?” she replies. “It seemed less.” 
Born in Llandaff in Cardiff in 1952, she is the daughter of a British Army officer and a director of a steel company. 
Her mother was a Wren who attended the Central School of Speech and Drama and once advised her daughter that she was not talented enough to become an actress. 
Gillan took another career path, via Cheltenham Ladies’ College and the College of Law.
Before Parliament she worked in marketing for IMG and Ernst and Young.
“It was very different coming in here because instead of working with a team you suddenly find yourself on your own,” she recalls.
“I am still, 21 years on, naïve enough to think it is a team game but unfortunately I think that I am increasingly in a minority. It looks to be an individual pursuit these days.”
During the last Conservative Government, she was PPS to Viscount Cranborne, the Leader of the Lords. 
“I was described as ‘the Prime Minister’s little ray of sunshine’ in my early days,” she recalls. 
“I still am an enthusiastic Conservative and I always was. I had that training with Robert Cranborne – he is a consummate politician and he had been an MP himself. I think he recommended to John that I was good ministerial material.”
Gillan describes Major as “tremendous in the last two years of a dying government” in which she was a junior education minister from 1995 to 1997. 
“Quite the contrary to the picture that was painted of him and how he was lampooned, he was decisive and supportive and, far from being grey, was very animated at the time.”
Gillan is wary of drawing a comparison between Major and Cameron. 
“It is hard to compare the two in many ways because one was a Conservative Government and this is a Coalition. 
“How that has manifested itself is in the decision-making process, the Quad, which has now become public. People are aware of it now, the four men that run it. 
“The size of the Cabinet predicates against collective decisions. It is difficult. No company would have a board of what is it now? 32?”
She adds: “There is collective responsibility – or at least there was in my case, not for other colleagues in the Coalition – and I always observed that.”
Gillan says the Coalition has worked, but it is “fractious”.
“Even to outsiders that fractious nature will become more apparent as we move towards the General Election.”
Gillan’s frustration at the behaviour of some Lib Dem Cabinet ministers may stem from the fact that collective responsibility over HS2 stoked controversy in her constituency. “Ministers can really only talk about their subject matter. Well, with one or two exceptions for Coalition colleagues. The Liberal Democrats manage to speak out on other matters.
“People who aren’t Westminster anoraks don’t really understand how it works, that if you are not out there banging a drum you can’t possibly be doing your job properly – actually it is quite the reverse.”
She adds: “But the Prime Minister always knew I would not compromise on HS2 and I still won’t compromise. To be fair to the Prime Minister I think he always wanted a Welsh MP [for Welsh Secretary]. I fully appreciate that is what he thought. He has got eight men to choose from.”
Eight months on from leaving the Government, Gillan admits there are good sides to being a backbencher again. 
And she is loyal to Cameron, despite HS2 and losing her job in the reshuffle, describing leadership plots “plain stupid”.
“I think that with matters pertaining to the leadership it would be helpful if people discussed those in private within the ’22 or other places.
“The trouble is that you go into a ‘private’ meeting, I used to find myself even in Cabinet sometimes, and I would come out and find it was all over the press.
“This is my party and my Prime Minister and if ever I choose not to back him he will be the first to know, and nobody else will know until I have told him. 
“Of course I back him, I am a good Conservative.”
That said, Gillan admits to “an old-fashioned view, which is ministers take responsibly”. 
“You don’t blame civil servants, you don’t choose your civil servants, you don’t appoint your permanent secretaries. These people should be intellectual giants, possibly better than the ministers themselves. 
“You don’t have to be the most brilliant person and have a double first from Oxbridge to get the best out of your civil servants. You give them protection and in that way they usually watch your back, and will tell you not what you want to hear but what you need to hear, what you should hear, and what the alternatives are.
“I don’t know whether anybody has actually had the courage to turn round and say to the Prime Minister or to the Secretary of State for Transport ‘actually HS2 is not the right project, you really are barking up the wrong tree’.”
In Government she secured extra tunnelling through two thirds of her constituency. “I am now trying to argue for tunnelling for the rest,” she says. 
“The problem is the more I have looked at this project the more I have realised that there are alternatives. 
“For me this ‘big bang’ project is going to be a money guzzling monster, it is not going to do what it says on the tin. 
“It should not be started as London to Birmingham. If you are going to connect the cities and stop that drag effect down to London, then why not start in the north?
“HS2 is going to saddle future governments with huge debt – it is a £40bn plus project.” 
She adds: “With the downsizing of the civil service, for officials and for HS2 Ltd, they see this as their job for the next 25 years. And of course all the commercial interests are going to be getting Government paying their cheques for the next 25 years.”
Gillan says she has “always fought Lib Dems in Chesham and Amersham” and any talk of a pre-election pact is dismissed out of hand. “I want a Conservative government, a proper Conservative government that continues to bear down on expenditure and that cancels HS2 – that is really the number one local priority.
“I want a referendum on Europe. I want a strong team renegotiating our relationship with Europe and then putting it to the country in an in/out referendum. I would prefer that was before the General Election, but the Lib Dems will not allow the Coalition to legislate for that.”
Gillan says with hindsight the Coalition could have been shorter.
“Maybe if we had broken off after that first year, we would have won an outright majority. But of course the trouble is that when you are dealing with the sort of mess we found, it was not really the time to think.
“That is the thing about government, there is very little time to really think, you get on and you are ‘doing’. None of the frontbench team had had ministerial experience before. It was a very steep learning curve.”
When Gillan left the Cabinet, the press had some unusual questions for her. 
“I kept on getting phone calls saying ‘did you cry?’ or ‘Was he drinking wine?’
“It was an appalling way to treat me – ring the men and ask them if they cried. Why would I want to talk about a private meeting between me and the Prime Minister? 
“They wanted me to badmouth him and slag off the Government and that is not actually the way I feel.”
Gillan has a hinterland – she and her husband keep chickens, ducks and two sheep as pets. She reports that her famous rooster is no more. 
“Boris got eaten by a fox. He died an honourable death defending his chickens.” 
After 21 years as an MP, the media’s preoccupation with gender still “rankles”, Gillan admits. 
“The trouble is that you have got to be the best person for the job, it is not a question of your sex, quite frankly. 
“For Caroline and Theresa and myself, we fought those battles years ago and we are still to an extent fighting those battles for other women, trying to encourage them and bring them on.
“I am delighted to see a capable woman colleague promoted, but God forbid promoting anybody just to get a good media presence. You need to have a bit more than that.”
Gillan is frustrated by “this preoccupation with the women and whether they were treated differently”. 
“Caroline and I were the only women to leave the Cabinet. I expect nothing and then you will not be disappointed.” 

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