The strongest female voice in politics is gone. Will there ever be another?


As someone who was born after Margaret Thatcher stepped down from office, the Iron Lady has been a remarkably present figure throughout my life. Perhaps it was because she was the local MP for my area before taking up residence at Downing Street, or the fact she was admired by one parent whilst despised by the other. But more than that, more than any policy she ever triumphed or failed with, the inimitable Mrs T did something that had never happened before or since: she proved that politics could be a woman’s game.

Thatcher’s politics might leave me cold, but her conviction does anything but. As I sat in the newsroom at lunchtime today, watching interview after interview with Tory peers, and the ex-PM’s former colleagues, that achievement was yet again hammered home. I watched as a conveyor belt of wrinkled old Etonians were asked to comment on Thatcher, on her policies, and her life, and her input, and couldn’t help but wonder where her female contemporaries might be. Surely it was for them, and not her male counterparts, that a woman at the forefront of British politics truly meant something.

I talk about the lack of women in male dominated areas of life somewhat frequently – in fact, I often think I should write about something else. But then I notice an all-male panel show, or a political conference entirely devoid of female journalists, and can’t help but put pen back to paper. In a government with woefully few female politicians, most of whom are forgettable faces drawn in to keep up the appearance of addressing the gender gap, Thatcher’s rise to the top of her game and ability to stay there for over a decade is all the more meaningful.

While I found many of her policies to be rather deplorable, Thatcher’s belief in politics, and belief in herself, do offer a glimmer of retribution.  A politician who can be respected is something I’m yet to see. I have never heard the current state of politics more accurately summed up than by comedian Zoe Lyons, who two years ago proffered: “We now have the blandest politicians in Europe. Cameron, Clegg, Miliband – if there was a General Election tomorrow, I wouldn’t know which middle class, middle aged, bland suited, wet lipped, big foreheaded Oxford graduate to punch in the face first.”

British politics has become an increasingly sorry state of affairs, where so-called ‘leaders’ are little more than media monkeys spouting watered down policies that have no real meaning. It is bitterly ironic that in their desperation to show themselves as characters, as men of the people, that Camereggiband has become little more than political white noise. Thatcher didn’t need to tweet, or draft in house pets in a desperate bid for attention. She cared about her country, and though the way she showed this was wildly divisive, no one can doubt her genuine desire to make a difference.

When Roger Ebert passed away last week, tributes poured out in memory of the great writer who spent much of his career destroying that of others with an acerbic flick of his pen. But praise and adulation were heaped upon him because, whether what he said was good or bad, he had an innate understanding of his craft. You may have disagreed with a review or two, but nobody could say the man couldn’t write.

And similarly, while Thatcher’s policies directly impacted some in a most terrible fashion, she understood the game she was playing. It is easy to look back retrospectively and insist that there were better ways to bring coal mining to an end, but the reality was that there was a job that needed doing, and she was the only one with the guts to pull the plug. A politician can never make everyone happy – that goes against the very nature of democracy, where there will always be a majority and minority – but one whose legacy remains as prominent as Thatcher’s has and will speaks volumes for what she achieved. The vast majority of politics revolves around papering over the cracks left by the last government, and while she had inherited an economically damaged country in a perpetual state of rule by an overpaid boys club, adversity seemed to propel her forward.

What worries me most about Thatcher’s death is not the Bieber generation tweeting their desperate confusion about why someone’s name they don’t recognise is trending. What is far more concerning than that is how Britain’s only ever female leader being gone will impact the future of women in politics. I struggle to believe that the likes of Baroness Warsi or Nadine Dorries will positively influence young girls contemplating a career in politics – there are simply no role models, no female tour-de-force frontbenchers who show girls that they can be a party minority and win.

I find it almost impossible to get my head around the fact that out of 75 Prime Ministers, in a country where 51 per cent of the population is female, we have been outnumbered by male leaders in 98.7 per cent of British history. And now, in a society that is supposedly gender equal, we cannot produce one female politician prepared to run for the top spot – which makes Thatcher’s victory at a time where women’s place was in the kitchen all the more significant.

Prison is for hardened criminals, not idiots

Over the past two weeks, news has broken of two undergraduates who are facing custodial sentences for relatively minor crimes. Liam Stacey, who drunkenly posted racist tweets after the collapse of Fabrice Muamba, is looking at a 56 day jail term, while Laura Johnson has been told a stay at her majesty’s pleasure is on the cards for her role in the August riots.

There is no doubt that both of these students have behaved disgustingly and that their actions are utterly deplorable. But what is perhaps even worse is that the courts have seen fit to essentially ruin the lives of these young people for their imbecilic actions. Of course, racism and theft are not to be tolerated under any circumstances, but I cannot understand why prison sentences seem to be so wantonly handed out to people who do not deserve them. Prison is, to me, a place to discipline criminals who pose a danger to the rest of society, not to lock up those who have made errors that have realistically caused little detriment to anyone at all.

One of the most fascinatingly hypocritical parts of the entire Stacey case is the fact ex footballer Stan Collymore was one of the people to forward the racist tweets to the police. After kicking then partner Ulrika Jonsson in the head three times, an assault for which he has never received any formal punishment, I find it shocking that he would so quickly alert the authorities to crimes which are, in my opinion, far less damaging than what he did. The amount of bile that spills out over the internet daily is nothing short of disgusting, but you simply cannot punish one and not punish the  millions of others who engage in equally offensive activities. There shouldn’t be one rule for those who abuse people because of the colour of their skin and another for those who are equally, if not more offensive towards others on the grounds of their looks, for example. Abuse is abuse, and yet had Stacey not made comments pertaining to race, I struggle to believe he would be in as deep trouble as he is now.

Similarly, Laura Johnson has made headlines for the past week following a conviction for chauffeuring looters around during the riots in August. Incessantly branded as ‘the millionaire’s daughter from suburbia’, she is yet another example of someone who is to receive a harsh punishment for a crime that does not fit such retribution. Court proceedings have been adjourned until May 3rd, but Johnson has already been told that a prison sentence is ‘highly likely’ for her actions.

What I really fail to comprehend is why jail terms are deemed more appropriate punishments than the likes of community service for these types of criminals. Putting such people in prison not only exacerbates costs to the taxpayer and leads to overcrowding, but essentially ruins the lives of those who are disciplined in this way. Both Stacey and Johnson will not only be locked up with hardened criminals but also face expulsion from university. This expulsion evidently results in a criminal record, and hugely diminished future job prospects as they will not only have no qualifications, but a custodial sentence on their CV. Essentially, by using these excessively harsh punishments, the judicial system is just boosting future unemployment rates by making these people completely unemployable.

This apparent judicial distaste towards community service seems particularly misjudged in Johnson’s case. One of the most destructive effects of the riots was the way it damaged communities, and thus to punish her by ordering her to serve something she actually had a part in harming would be a far more fitting sentence than the one she is about to receive. Community service actually benefits the community – hence the name – and is probably much harder work than sitting around in prison staring at four walls each day. When people need to be punished, I can’t believe that something helpful for communities that doesn’t cost the taxpayer an arm and a leg seems to just be overlooked.

I expect that the judge was trying to make an example out of the likes of Stacey by bestowing such a harsh punishment upon him, but at a time when internet trolling is at its absolute worst, the entire debacle seems farcical. If we imprisoned every person who was drunkenly verbally abusive, as he was, there would be no end to people lining up to do time. Comments far worse than Stacey’s can be seen on social media sites every day, and whilst that does not excuse what he has done, it makes the entire system seem hypocritical. In a country where convictions for the likes of rape are a pitifully low percentage, the fact drunk 20 year olds are being imprisoned for comparatively minor crimes feels like a failure of justice.

Maude shouldn’t have to resign over public stupidity

The news this week has been dominated by a story that has shown the fallibility of the people elected to run this country. As if it could have escaped anyone’s notice, on Wednesday, MP Francis Maude advised that people should fill jerry cans with petrol and top up their tanks ahead of the fuel tanker drivers’ strike. A strike that had been proposed, and yet had no set date.

The panic buying of petrol this led to all over Britain was nothing short of ludicrous, and Maude does deserve a slap on the wrists for delivering such over the top advice. But perhaps worse than his almighty gaffe was the reaction of the British public to the news. It’s one thing to follow advice we are given, but to do so blindly without any use of common sense whatsoever is unforgivable. Why people deemed it necessary to buy, in some cases, around 80 or more litres of petrol in one go for a strike that hadn’t even been scheduled is just sheer stupidity.

When my car was returned to me on Thursday following its MOT with the petrol tank light flashing empty, I hoped that the sensible residents of my area hadn’t fallen victim to this unnecessary panic and I could fill up without a hitch. How very misguided of me this was. That empty light continued to flash as I drove to one station, and then another, desperately searching for an area where people hadn’t behaved so utterly stupidly and I could stop worrying that my car was about to break down. After forty minutes of driving, the third station had petrol, but it required a further 30 minute wait and people incessantly queue jumping and acting like imbeciles before I could actually get any fuel.

This whole debacle has, to me, highlighted not only the stupidity of Maude, but of the public in general. I don’t usually compare current affairs to films, but this entire saga reminds me of a scene in Anchorman where Ron Burgundy will literally read anything put on his autocue, no matter how ridiculous it might be. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Brits have seen fit to go one further this week, not only reading but acting upon the foolish advice they have been given. It seriously worries me that nobody is using common sense anymore. Do people not realise that by driving miles and miles out of their way to get petrol it will run out far quicker? And that panic buying early in the week would probably lead to an empty tank when they actually need it? There is no way I would have gone to the Jeremy Kyle-esque forecourts on Thursday night had my tank not genuinely been empty, and I find it deeply worrying that others don’t share the same opinion.

And one step worse than this is the fact that Maude has been called upon to resign since the petrol panic began. Yes, he has made a colossal error, but it seems as though the public are looking for a scapegoat upon which to blame their own naivety. Politicians say stupid things all the time – of course, in an ideal world they wouldn’t, but it kind of goes with the territory. People could have looked at his advice with a critical eye, realised that it was bad, and ignored it. But instead, they didn’t; they succumbed to the panic, spent far more money than they should have done and called for the resignation of an MP to ease the pain of their own ridiculous behaviour.

The news of Diane Hill suffering 40% burns to her body after decanting fuel into a jerry can has further stoked this media fire and Maude’s proposed exit from office. Yes, what has happened to her is terrible and yes, Maude has, to a large degree, caused excessive behaviour nationwide, but to blame him because a woman decided to transfer fuel in her kitchen is simply unfair. We have free will and the ability to make our own choices, and thus to blame him for a tragic accident that he was at best indirectly involved with is wrong. The public seem to either ignore or ridicule ministers and their advice on a near daily basis, so the fact people have not only listened but irrationally acted upon what was said earlier in the week is just moronic. When I queued up to pay for petrol on Thursday night, I overheard a woman asking the station’s owner when the strike actually was. He told her there was no set date before chuckling to himself – clearly he was enjoying this farcical situation and the unprecedented rise in income it was bringing him. And he was right to be amused: if people are going to act like fools, then they deserve to be laughed at.

Politics gone awry at the University of Birmingham

For those who have been on Facebook since the semester began at the University of Birmingham earlier this week, the vast majority of people’s news feeds have been clogged with various scandals concerning the Sabbatical Officer team. I would like to make clear at this point that I am not friends with either Mark Harrop, the Guild President, or Edd Bauer, the Vice President of Education, and thus feel able to give an unbiased account of sentiments I believe apply to many of us who have no strong political allegiance on campus. I should also add that everything I report below is true to the best of my knowledge.

News broke recently that a student here is facing disciplinary action after being named by Harrop in a witness statement giving details about the occupation of a university building in November. The sit-in, which was orchestrated by members of NCAFC (National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts), took place between 23rd and 25th November, and was attended, in part at least, by over fifty students. The university took heavy handed action in trying to stop the process, hiring a team of security guards to man the premises and stop people entering or leaving North Gate House, and have subsequently have taken out an injunction against those involved.

There is far more to this story than I will discuss here, but what I want to focus on is the way in which the Sabbatical team has dealt with what has happened. It is certainly no secret that people are often voted into power on campus based on the sheer volume of voters from their political societies, and this, as far as I am aware, has not caused rifts within those in charge in the past. But the 2011-2012 team have been riddled with debacle upon debacle since freshers week, and whilst they have also achieved many commendable things thus far, this has been greatly overshadowed by various controversies.

After Edd Bauer was suspended last semester after being charged with causing danger to road users outside the Liberal Democrat conference in September, the apparent lack of support from his team signalled that all was not well within the presidential camp. And this view, which, I might add, does nothing to reassure those of us who voted for these people in the first place, has been made overwhelmingly evident by the various slanging matches that have occurred over social media networks over the past few months.

With Bauer now reinstated, it would have been naïve to think that the team could work together like one happy family, but the image they project to the impartial observer is one of great disharmony. The amount of ‘sharing’ of links detailing the events that have taken place until now has undoubtedly perpetuated the inordinate levels of campus gossip surrounding these issues, and certain things have come to my attention this week that I have found highly unprofessional.

In a sense, I agree that Harrop’s witness statement should have been made public, as the pressure put upon him to address and explain many of the points in it would not have happened otherwise. He is certainly at fault for a number of reasons, but his latest note, in which he explains the questions levelled at him in detail, has slightly improved this situation. His statement is no longer being used in the disciplinary against the student protester here, and that is, to my mind, an example of the kind of positive outcome students working together for the sake of something they believe in can achieve.

What I do not agree with is the incessant posting on Facebook from multiple members of the Sabbatical team, publicly discussing issues that should be resolved in private between them.  All it does is reaffirm the opinion of many of us on campus that they are spending too much time criticising one another via social media sites and not doing the jobs that they are actually paid to do. In addition to this, two blogs written by Bauer this week have noted that Harrop is a conservative – something I deem an unnecessary addition and clearly cheap shot to try and demean his credibility amongst liberal students. I personally am not a conservative, but have no objection to the political leanings of anyone on the Sabbatical officer team. What I do take issue with, however, is people publicly criticising someone for these leanings, and this adds to the mob mentality I believe that certain people associated with the broad left are perpetuating. The situation has become such that people who disagree with their actions are accused of being conservative, and I do not think this is either fair or accurate.

Further to this, a blog was posted by Bauer criticising the trustee board’s decision to hold a meeting at an expensive restaurant in Birmingham. Whilst it is admirable that he continues to show his activism for students’ interests, posting this letter on Facebook is something I again find to be a cheap shot and attempt at undermining both the Guild of Students and the university. To post it on his officer blog, where people actually interested in Guild politics would take the time to check, is fine, but doing so in an arena which is used as a social medium is quite obviously going to stir trouble from many who would never normally pay attention. As has been shown by various events in the news over the past few weeks, the public love nothing more than to be outraged by something they had little or no interest in in the first place, and this, coupled with the further Facebook slanging that ensued afterwards, was in my opinion not worth it for something that would have cost each student just over one pence apiece. Yes, if you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything, but equally, you have to know when to pick your battles in life, and sometimes the backlash is simply not worth it. Issues I, and I know my peers deem to be important, are things like why we pay £3k per year for a degree that affords us four weekly contact hours and yet we still have to pay additional costs for the lecturer’s photocopies. This kind of problem, which affects a huge number of us and is costing thousands of pounds, is more important to me than if a trustee board has one nice meal in the space of a year.

It is a sad state of affairs when people feel so let down by their elected President that they feel compelled to make a vote of no confidence against him, and the upcoming Guild Council meeting will show exactly where allegiances lie. Sadly, it seems as though there a few impartial voices now left in Guild politics, and ultimately the decision will reflect whether there are more people who are Team Bauer or Team Harrop at the meeting. But what is most important, regardless of the outcome of that meeting, is that the team stop using their official Facebook accounts as a place for personal comments about contentious situations and focus on working together, for the sake of not only themselves, but the students they are supposed to be representing.

A strange kind of justice

For the past two days, news of Stephen Lawrence’s killers being sentenced has dominated the media. After the 18 year old was killed in a racially motivated attack in 1993, five suspects have been tried over the course of nearly two decades, which today culminated in David Norris and Gary Dobson being sentenced to 14 and 15 years in prison respectively. The case remains open, but after 18 years of various police failings, further progress seems doubtable.

The catalogue of police inadequacies that followed Lawrence’s death is almost astonishing, beginning with the officers called to the scene where he had been stabbed being unable, or unwilling, to administer first aid to the dying teenager. Lawrence and friend Duwayne Brooks were waiting for a bus in Eltham, south-east London, when a gang of white teenagers began hurling racist abuse at them. Lawrence was then stabbed twice, and managed to run 130 yards away in spite of two of his major arteries being severed. He then collapsed, and had died by the time paramedics arrived.

From then on, the case has been opened and closed, reopened with a public enquiry (which then Home Secretary Jack Straw describes as one of the his greatest triumphs while in office), been accused of cross contamination of evidence, and the Metropolitan Police has been described as being institutionally racist. This case is one that has truly highlighted a desperation for retribution, largely through the tireless campaigning of Lawrence’s mother, Doreen, OBE. Over the past 18 years, she has not been shy to condemn the force for the disorganised way in which it dealt with the case from the beginning, and opened the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, which offers opportunities to aspiring architects – the same career path her son was hoping to follow.

Of the two criminals convicted yesterday, Dobson was already in prison serving a drugs sentence and Norris had been convicted some years earlier of assaulting a plain clothes black policeman. In addition to this, a secret video camera planted by police in Dobson’s flat 20 months after Lawrence’s death showed both convicts as well as other members of their gang spouting foul racial abuse and messing around with knives. In spite of this, and the numerous tip offs given to police about the dangers of the Eltham mob which came to nothing for over 18 years, two people have been imprisoned after being free for longer than Lawrence ever got to live. And, perhaps worst of all, the sentence they received is proportionate to the fact that they were minors at the time, and had to be sentenced according to laws in place in 1993. As such, Dobson and Norris, who have remained utterly remorseless throughout and have been proven as racists on more than one occasion, will leave prison when they are 51 and 49 respectively. To think that they will have so much of their lives to lead when they took just that away from an innocent young man cannot, in my opinion, be called justice.

I certainly understand the laws which meant those sentences were the maximum they possibly could be, and making exceptions to legal rules is dangerous territory, but perhaps not as dangerous as letting racist thugs loose on the streets. Jamie and Neil Acourt and Luke Knight, the other members of the gang, have thus far literally got away with murder. The more one reads about the case, the more disgusting and deplorable it becomes, and last night’s Panorama documentary, which focussed on Doreen Lawrence’s plight, reinforced this once more. While the jury’s verdict obviously comes as a huge relief to the Lawrence family, it can never be a cause for celebration – they have lost a son, had their lives torn apart by police failings and over 18 years of court appearances, and will never get back what was taken away from them. All of the British national newspapers have run with headlines along the lines of ‘justice at last for the Lawrence family,’ but nothing about the situation ever has been, or ever will be, just. I was acutely aware of the case as a child, and as time has gone on and I have learned the true horrors of what happened, I am filled with sadness that people can behave in such a vile manner that destroys the lives of so many. Justice will never be truly served, but one positive that can be taken from this bleak situation is that it has heightened the public’s awareness of racially motivated crime and the desperate need we have to stop it.

My Tram Experience – should we name and shame?

Two days ago, the video My Tram Experience stormed newspaper and social media sites, going viral in a matter of hours. The two minute clip shows Emma West hurling racial abuse at her fellow travellers, and has racked up almost six million YouTube hits since being uploaded. The 34 year old has been arrested and prevented bail due to the risk she is now at as a result of public vitriol against her, but is it right for us to take the law into our own hands and victimise someone when she is being reprimanded for doing just that to others?

I, like the rest of the population, was disgusted that someone could be so openly discriminatory and racially abusive towards those around her. There can be absolutely no excuse for such behaviour, and it is imperative that she is reprimanded appropriately. But perhaps the worst outcome of this entire debacle is the kind of vigilante mentality it has instilled in the rest of the public, who are now openly threatening this woman. The courts most certainly do not always get things right with regard to sentencing and retribution, but it is not our place to offer West a verdict.

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A gruesome end to a bloody tyranny

Ten months ago, a Tunisian vegetable vendor set himself ablaze after being treated disrespectfully by a member of the police force. No one could have predicted that Mohammed Bouazizi’s single act of martyrdom would spark perhaps the most cataclysmic ten months that the Middle East has ever seen, with dictators forcefully deposed and endless bloody uprisings shattering cities.

In the cases of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, despots were removed from government in ways as undignified as the lives they subjected their people to. But clearly the most indecorous of the three was Gaddafi’s ousting – his bloodied corpse being paraded through the streets of Sirte after being killed in crossfire yesterday. It is not as though he was deserving of a humane unseating, but the jollity with which the news of his death has been received and the decision of all major television networks to broadcast these gruesome images may have gone too far in the other direction. Continue reading