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Monday, September 15, 2003
A night with Widders
IT IS DIFFICULT to see any lasting achievement that can be attributed to Tony Benn's career in parliament. He nearly destroyed his own party, and in turn that legacy has been destroyed by another Tony. One thing for which he can, however, be given credit is beginning a series of political public stage shows, which have thus far been very good. Last year, Benn himself began his tour across the country, discussing politics with theatre audiences. Roy Hattersley followed, and Ann Widdecombe is next, joined by Politicos Bookshop's Iain Dale. I have so far been to them all, and been pleased to have done so.
Widdecombe's, which I saw a week before yesterday, was a bit staged and probably aimed at an older audience - about fifty years older in my case. But besides that one really did learn some interesting facts about politics. I thought I would here just touch on some of the points she made which I had not heard before.
The first half involved her talking to Iain Dale and answering his various questions, the second taking questions from the audience, which in general were good and varied. Her answers to a number really deserve a wider audience.
When asked about the need for more women candidates, she first made the usual (and right) points about basic equality of talent and process for entering parliament - a point she expressed in terms of every woman MP having the right to look the Prime Minister in the eye and know that she got there in the same basic way he did: by convincing her local party that she was the most qualified of all candidates and then winning election by the public, something some female Labour members can no longer do.
What she also noted was a point I haven't heard made before, which is that 'positive' discrimination is not only bad for the candidate and the party, but also for democracy. If a local candidate does well in his chosen career and becomes very well known in the area, perhaps as a successful small businessman or councillor, and proves himself able and popular, then he would likely have great support within a constituency if he decided he wanted to enter public life and serve his town as its Member of Parliament. Were he then to be barred from standing because his party had saved the seat for a woman candidate, it would be very bad for democracy. If he fails to get through because the party genuinely feels someone else is better, that is one thing. If he is barred from standing for his chosen party because of his sex, it shows a basic contempt for the democratic process.
She also dispelled a very common myth about herself. This was that she had as Home Office minister made it legal and standard practice to handcuff women prisoners either while they were giving birth or while they were in labour. She introduced this refutation by saying that many in the audience probably still believed it was true. In my case, I did think it was true in the latter case, with the handcuffs removed after the prisoner began to give birth. In fact, she went on, what happened was that while she was still a minister in another department, it was shown that a disproportionate number of women prisoners were escaping while they travelled between prison and hospital. It was obvious why this occurred: although men were handcuffed while this journey took place until the point at which they were actually given medical treatment at a hospital, women were not. So when Ann Widdecombe arrived at the Home Office, she applied the same standards to women prisoners - handcuffings between prison and hospital, with handcuffs removed while medical treatment was applied. There were no handcuffings of women in labour or giving birth, and it was never the policy of her government that this should take place.
It certainly demonstrated how myths can get out and become the common currency of political debate simply because they are repeated so much more often than the truth. She said that she took her treatment by the press in good humour at first, answering the phone with "Karloff speaking!" - a reference to the Doris Karloff nickname she was given by the tabloids. But eventually it got to the point where now every national newspaper has a letter from her solicitor warning that if it claims she had women criminals in labour or giving birth handcuffed, they will face legal action. Quite right, too. That likely explains why the myth is still sometimes repeated on television shows by panel guests, but one does not see it in the newspapers (though BBC presenters are presumably bound by the same legal restrictions).
Touching on the approach the Conservatives should take to opposition, she noted the value of honesty and sticking up for our principles. When she was Shadow Health Secretary, wary colleagues would tell her that it was madness to admit, as she did, that the state could never meet all the demands the public put on it, that inevitably something would have to give and that rationing does and must exist, either by queues or pricing. People wouldn't buy it or accept it, she was told. But instead, the reaction she received was a realistic one: many people knew she was right, and that a health system designed for the difficulties of the 1940s wasn't working, and couldn't work, for the problems of the 21st century.
I think this is an important conflict that is not often contemplated any more - the line to be crossed between what one believes to be true and what one believes to be popular. Although the literal meaning of 'populism' is simply an appeal directly to the people over the heads of various intermediaries, usually the word is used in this country to refer to politicians who (i) make statements outside the BBC's perception of the political mainstream and (ii) get a positive response. But in fact, if 'populism' suggests a willingness to be disingenuous for the sake of avoiding controversy or worrying people, as is usually implied when the word is used negatively, it is far more common in those who stick to the statist story long after everyone but the far-left privately accepts the need for massive changes to our public services. The difficulty of playing to popular public fantasies is that an awfully large minority of people can often see through them even when it appears most politicians cannot. If we pretend that one day the National Health Service will be able to treat everyone swiftly and satisfactorily without any measures to allow private sector involvement in extending patient choice, we earn the contempt of and lose the trust of the ever-growing numbers who know better.
Andrew Roberts' recent book examining the leadership styles of Hitler and Churchill makes a similar point. Obviously the two leaders were very different in all sorts of important ways. But one thing they did have in common was that before they came to power they spent a lot of years in the wilderness in their respective countries, preaching a message people did not then want to hear. This brought them ridicule and irrelevance for many of these years. But when it came to a point where that message had a special resonance because it matched the difficulties of the time, the voters remembered these men, who had spotted early the problems they now faced and had done what they could to highlight them. People then felt able to trust them to deal with the problems, as they had shown themselves to be so insightful in diagnosing them. There are lessons to be learned from this for any politicians who look to the long term.
She also touched when asked on young people and politics. First, she countered a claim one hears very regularly - and usually with a stomach-churning degree of spite - that within a few years almost all the existing membership of the party will be gone. She said that as a 19 year-old Young Conservative she had this very point put to her by an elderly Tory - "What are you going to do when our lot dies off?". Her reply was that another lot of old people would come up to fill their place. She was right then, and I suspect she is right now. This demographic may be highlighted most often in relation to the Conservatives, because it now suits media portraits of a dying party of fogies, but it was also very visible at the last Liberal Democrat conference. This is simply because older people have the time and inclination to become involved in politics that people with career plans at work and young children at home lack. So naturally the elderly make up the majority of the people who join political parties, attend political conferences and help out canvassing and leafletting. But none of these factors are particular to the existing generation of pensioners. In fifty years the bulk of party members will likely be of a similar age to the age most members are now. Only they will then be made up of people born in the 1970s and 1980s. I would myself add that given all the warnings we hear about this country having an aging population, the support of pensioners is nothing to be scoffed at, not least because the elderly are the most likely of all the age groups to turn out and vote.
She also made a point I agree with very strongly, which is that the general view of the political class that younger voters make up a special sectional interest with little connection to the rest of society is very wrong. I may have exaggerated somewhat, but this is the general impression many people seem to have of young people: that they need to be appealed to as an isolated group with their own concerns and interests, often in issues of little concern to older voters, such as cannabis laws, environmentalism and the voting age. In my experience, this is not true at all. Ann Widdecombe said the same, noting that in the four times she has been elected to parliament, she has been able to tour various local schools and take part in their mock elections in all but the 2001 Election, when as Shadow Home Secretary she was obviously deeply involved in the election campaign. In 1987, she said, she would easily win three votes to every one against. It was the peak of the Lawson boom, consumer confidence was high and the ERM was still some way in the future. By 1992, this had changed dramatically, with recession, repossessions and unemployment ensuring she could barely break even. And by 1997, with the sleaze and divisions and the public will for change, this phenomenon ensured she could not win anywhere. These successive polls did not to her suggest that young people were uninterested in the same general political picture as other voters. Quite the contrary. Like most people, they seemed to look to their families, the public services they used and their general feeling about the government and country and make their choices on that basis. I can say for myself that almost everything I have seen in the political views of people my age suggests the same.
All in all, an event well worth attending. If Widders comes to your local theatre, I'd certainly recommend it.

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