Thursday, 18 October 2012

Australia's PM: neither powerful nor a lady

Lady Thatcher: can you imagine this woman ever complaining she was offended by anything?
Margaret Thatcher once likened being powerful to being a lady. If you had to tell people you were, she quipped, then you most definitely weren't.

I was reminded of this pearl of wisdom this morning during the unfortunate combination of breakfast and a video of Australian prime minister Julia Gillard on the news.

The highly unpopular and severely weakened Labor premier was screeching like a hysterical baboon at Liberal leader of the opposition Tony Abbott that she had been offindid by what she saw as his sexist behaviour toward women.

Examples of this 'sexism' included Mr Abbott once having stood next to a sign reading 'ditch the witch' and of 'cat-calling' across the dispatch box 'if the prime minister, politically speaking, wants to make an honest woman of herself...'

This was, she felt, sufficient to charge him with being 'sexist' and 'misogynist' on the grounds neither of those terms could have been used against a male prime minister. But it gets worse. She also presumed to be offindid on behalf of every woman in Australia that Mr Abbott once described abortion as 'the easy way out'.

I understand Australians have something of a reputation for being 'uncouth' but, as my libertarian friends never tire of pointing out, offence may be taken but it cannot be given. With that in mind, let's review the accusations Miss Gillard is levelling against Mr Abbott.

In the first instance, she is claiming Mr Abbott is being sexist and misogynist because he is using gender-exclusive terms in attacking her, such as 'witch'.

This is an important point because it is not that Mr Abbott is being deliberately rude to her that the prime minister finds so offinsive but that he is doing so in a way which identifies her as a woman.

But, while it is true no male prime minister is likely to be called a witch, Miss Gillard is discounting the fact she is herself unlikely to be attacked with the armoury of generally male-exclusive expletives so favoured by the antipodean lexicon such as 'dickhead', 'wanker' or 'bastard'. All these words are designed to be offinsive in context but not because they are gender-specific - it is merely incidental that most expletives happen to be so.

In this light, it is difficult to see how these comments could convincingly be described as sexist, if we take this to mean discrimination against women. Nor, for that matter, under the Australian Macquarie Dictionary's revised definition of misogyny as 'an entrenched prejudice against women'.

Mr Abbott's opinion that abortion is 'the easy way out', too, is just that - an opinion. Certainly, with the coldness many advocates of abortion refer to it as 'destroying a parasite', one would be forgiven for holding such a view. But that is not the point. Attitudes on both sides of the fence are neither objectively nor universally offinsive to anyone, least of all the entire female population of a country.

So why do it? The real trouble here is Miss Gillard, like so many socialist politicians, is attempting to disguise her weakness and failings as prime minister beneath the cloak of victimisation. Unfortunately for her it serves only to accentuate them.

Take Margaret Thatcher. She could easily be described as one of the most hated politicians in modern history and was, in office, subjected to some of the most grotesque insults from Labourites, trade unionists and members of her own party. 'That bloody woman' and 'the grocer's daughter' were among the tamest and she is universally identified as a 'bitch' by almost everyone on the left even at the age of 87.

But did she ever complain? Did she ever winge about things being offinsive or even acknowledge the abuse hurled at her? No. Not a bit of it. She just got on with the job. As for being treated differently because she was a woman, rather than cry about it, she mercilessly exploited it. As Douglas Hurd once said, 'Some people find it difficult to argue with a woman prime minister, and shrivel up.'

As someone who is neither powerful nor, arguably, much of a lady - Miss Gillard could learn a lot from Lady Thatcher. She might even find her someone she can do business with. 'When I'm out of politics I'm going to run a business,' the great lady once said. 'It'll be called rent-a-spine.' Quite.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Why did I become a Conservative?

This is one of the strongest reasons I became a Conservative.
It is now some five and a half years since I took that great leap from ill-informed, unaligned socialist to committed, born-again Conservative. After returning from my second, and by all objective measures best, Conference to date my mind turned to what had caused me to join in the first place.

I am now only three years from 30 which, apart from being something of a last port-of-call for adulthood, will also see the end of my Conservative Future membership. I needed to know exactly why I was in this and what I wanted to do with my continued Conservative party membership.

It was certainly not to swan around in white tie and 'pretend to be posh' - as a certain Sunday newspaper might have it. But the manner in which this purely private and, let's face it, rather superficial social activity was blown out of all proportion by the press encouraged me further to really get down why I call myself a Conservative.

My belief in free markets, personal responsibility and the small state factored greatly in my decision to join the party in February 2007. But these convictions do not significantly set me apart from a large number of Liberal Democrats or, indeed, the wider European liberal movement. I could quite easily have remained nonpartisan and joined a group like the Freedom Association or Adam Smith Institute.

No, it was a far more emotional - and therefore much more powerful - reason, based on personal experience, which prompted me to join. I regularly kept a journal in those days which charts, in rather intimate detail, a radical personal and intellectual journey.

One snippet in particular stands out from the myriad of economic quotes from Friedman and Hayek. It was my reaction to David Cameron's 2006 Conference speech. That year he laid down in plain but forceful English the emotional benefits of marriage. Specifically, on how it provides the necessary foundation for the citizen to really make something of their lives and, in doing so, contribute to the national economy.

The tone of the speech is so far from the rhetoric of a prime minister understandably preoccupied with the continued economic woes of our island nation that I felt it necessary to reproduce said snippet in full. Speaking in Bournemouth, Mr Cameron said;

"I'm not naive in thinking that somehow the state can engineer happy families with this policy or that tax break. All I can tell you is what I think. And what I think is this. There's something special about marriage. 
"It's not about religion. It's not about morality. It's about commitment. When you stand up there, in front of your friends and your family, in front of the world, whether it's in a church or anywhere else, what you're doing really means something. 
"Pledging yourself to another means doing something brave and important. You are making a commitment. You are publicly saying: it's not just about 'me, me, me' anymore. It is about we: together, the two of us, through thick and thin. That really matters."

The speech had a profound effect on the mind of that 21-year-old art student watching Conservative Party Conference at home on television. It was probably the first time in my life I began to think of marriage as a good idea.

But this was not purely based on Cameron's words. His message had touched upon something I was already beginning to experience. Because, as he went on to say, this commitment does not simply apply to the traditional definition of family.

This was, of course, a reference to his support for civil marriages (which has now grown to a planned parity between heterosexual and homosexual marriage) but to me it sounded as though he was describing my very own little 'family'.

We may have been only five close friends sharing a house but there were things about the arrangement which had already had a profound effect on my mental state. It sounds ridiculous now but the commitment we made in putting down deposits on the house, together with the 12-month tenancy contract, provided me with a much-needed sense of stability.

Putting an equal share in the kitty for the weekly shop reinforced this and the practice of one member of the household cooking dinner for everyone else each day of the week kept us close.

I was going through a difficult patch at university at the time, having realised I may have made a grave mistake in even going, but every day I felt strengthened by the fact that, whatever I went though, my 'family' was always there for me at the end of the day while we sat around the dinner (or rather, coffee) table.

Being able to relate that experience to Cameron's moving description of marriage fundamentally changed my view of that institution and, in the coming months, what Conservative party membership could offer me.

So it struck a chord with me reading, exactly six years later, Jill Kirby's words in the ConservativeHome Daily newspaper on Tuesday in which she asked of Cameron 'What had happened to that passion?' It was her opinion the prime minister only spoke passionately on the subject these days in reference to gay marriage.

Now, I fully support the Government's plans to include homosexuals in the definition of marriage. It does, after all, only apply to civil marriage as religious marriage is not recognised in law. But this must not come at the expense of making clear, at every opportunity, the emotional benefits of the institution as a whole.

Because, however much we may dislike it, people vote with their emotions. Furthermore, even men like Friedman and Hayek knew that a liberal democracy and free market economy can only work if people have strong familial and community networks of support. If you destroy those foundations, or allow them to wither, statism is inevitable.

John Redwood, a man I greatly admire, said 'The Conservative party is a tax cutting party or it is nothing'. But I say it would be poor shadow of its former self if it ever ceased to be the party of family and of family values - however unconventional the model.