The Wolf Bites Twice
When Red Riding Hood lets the dark wolf take her, he takes her twice, whether blood be warm or cold.
In mid-May the UK political scene looked bleak, to say the least. The Tory’s snap election and shaky confidence in Corbyn after Brexit gave many of us the chills.
Was this the dawn of a new era of Iron Lady party political dictatorship with an opposition already spit out by its own hunger games? Had all that hope in intelligent, direct and active socialism fallen askew, like Corbyn’s frown, because in the end we’d voted for his personality when party politics dies harder?
Was May right in seizing this moment to crush the dissenting voice, when the news of the election had us feeling already pulverised? Was she about to shove it to us all and be sealed in as leader on her own cold-blooded personality campaign?
Three weeks on and the Corbyn campaign machine had, once again, done something remarkable. It had galvanised the voice of the young and the hopeful, and raised the red flag. It had achieved numbers and on the ground spokespeople. It had delivered a manifesto meeting the concerns of the bookends of the UK’s demographic, and it had shown its face to the cameras, and always on the hoof.
In contrast, May’s rigidity was showing as clearly as her stiff but lurid lipstick. The quake in the bones of Labour MPs on announcement of the election had been transferred, though tentatively. If there’s anything that’s been learned in the last two years, it’s that the UK’s electorate is anything but predictable at the polls. And the exit polls reflected as much: some hailing an imminent Tory landslide, others a much reduced seat-hold.
Interesting, as all of the bumbling and fizzling unfolded over the weeks, how those “safe and secure, strong and stable” reassurances in the run up to yesterday’s election harked back to the Thatcher that May was simultaneously cutting and thrusting away from, albeit with usual Tory obfuscation and immediate backtrack. In order to launch her Tory manifesto she decided she must set a rocket off under the “caricature” of conservatism and “the cult of selfish individualism” (which I can’t help hope was a jab for outgoing Thatcher poster boy, George Osborne).
But was this an overestimation of her (in)distinguishable identity, or an overestimation of the populace (myself included) to move beyond the image of Thatcher when a woman appears in politics?
The feminist press and women in general rolled our eyes and sighed through nostrils at the jibes and comparison of May to Thatcher by the Tory old boys, and by the world press who couldn’t quite decide if she was more like Merkel because of their matching mint dresses. But being a woman in British politics in 2017 is still an aberrational equation passing through the fused wires of our collective imagination.
And I wonder, as May no doubt reels from her losses last night, if the nation is secretly pleased that the woman has been dismembered. Where the pundits gingerly pondered and pontificated beforehand, now they judge damningly with the results in hand. She was wrong to believe she could win big. She was wrong to base a campaign on the strength of her own character. She was wrong to assume control as a woman where only Thatcher (who in the end was not a woman but an iron demiurge) has trod before. Indeed, she was wrong to emerge to retake her post “heavily made up as if she’s been crying” (BBC Election News, 9th June 2017).
Not that May should not be judged for her mistakes and handling. Just weeks ago she wrote, “The cold hard fact is that if I lose just six seats I will lose this election and Jeremy Corbyn will be sitting down to negotiate [Brexit]”, in an attempt to run fear into the souls of wavering voters by suggesting they would be the ones responsible for making Corbyn smug. A “cold hard fact” that on the morning of 9th June just simply isn’t true.
Of course, such is the nature of this political system that all the holes in these strategic comments are plain to see in the postmortem: she has indeed lost more than six seats but maintains the podium with the back-up of a staunchly Christian party set on holding back the tide of women’s liberation and gay rights in Northern Ireland. Ironic, isn’t it. Especially when the leader of the DUP is herself a woman, too. Especially when the DUP stands with the Tories purely because of its opposition to Corbyn, the man who entertained discussions with Sinn Féin and the IRA. So, terrorism and personality politics, by twists of fate and history, do in fact win it for May in the end.
But how long will she stay? That is the question currently making the lips of news pundits moist with anticipation. There’s nothing like bait on a line for catching, especially when it’s female. As a feminist, I shouldn’t like this undercurrent, but at the same time I’d be lying if I didn’t say it suits my preference for the Tories to be undermined. As a woman, at this point I feel no loyalty to our female Prime Minister because of her political views and the party ethics she stands for, and I’d be lying if there weren’t an inherited and ingrained societal misogyny boosting my wishes for Tory unravelling in the wake of the election.
And I’d be lying if I said I was not twisted against myself in this. I’d be lying if this didn’t make for a confusing way to think and live. What I mean is, I notice it; I feel it operating behind my own scenes just as, now, top Tory MPs remain silent and calculating against their weakened leader.
And I wonder if anyone else notices, too? Not just the suspicion of politicians, but the deep suspicion and mistrust of female politicians in particular (see the recent treatment of Diane Abbot). Gladly for the pundits, today May is not just untrustworthy — that’s in the job description for any Tory politician — but she’s unforgivably and unforgettably untrustworthy in her judgement. Because, for shame, she tried to play a man’s game and lost. I’m not the only one hearing the common vindictive voice saying, “well, she’s a woman, what did we expect”, right?
Certainly, as one born in the first year of Thatcher’s scything reign, I have trouble believing that a madam of the Tory party could be anything other than a Baroness copy type. I see May, I see Thatcher, only potentially worse; that’s how it is. But also as I cast my eyes more widely across the Parliamentary benches, in any direction, I get the same creeping sensation. Caroline Lucas of the Greens and Mhairi Black of the SNP are female figures that stand out to break the rule, and the rule is definitely breaking, but the stern resilience and girls doing old boys talk still tends to be the proviso of women in politics, and it makes me shudder.
I want to move forwards in celebration of women in politics, I want to bring a new story to those misogynistic voices in my head, and at the same time I have an edge on my faith as long as “in politics” is the definition of the women in question.
Indeed, it seems somehow easier to like Corbyn and to back him for all his flaws and faultiness, because he’s a man and a man is simply in a stronger position in politics (see Trump vs Clinton), plus more forgivable for having flaws (ask any woman who can only see her own flaws). It is how our collective imagination is still hijacked, though fighting yet for freedom, by the widespread atrophy of belief in anything but the white, capitalist, patriarchal status quo, where strength is equated to invulnerability, and so to men (sorry, Theresa).
Corbyn may be the better candidate than his female counterparts — May and his party members included — and may be, perhaps, less psychically branded by the lance of misogyny in his motivation to seek a Tory downfall than I am as a woman who bears its weapon at both ends. Indeed, irony is lacquered onto irony in the perpetual circular race to global-level power (and its manifestation in our conditioned mind-states); lacquered until the heaving juggernaut of party politics almost petrifies in its own advance and forgets to eat its tail.
In this election we have a record number of female MPs, 207 in all, which is a leap of potential political grace for the future. And yet, at the same time, we have a blanched female Prime Minister who has been bitten off by the wolf of politics precisely for letting him eat her.
Leaving the questions that nobody wants to ask, because they’re hardly ever asked and the rolling news does just that: roll.
What does female leadership look like if the woman in question isn’t required to first be amputated of her breasts and later castrated of the phantom phallus she laid herself down for in the first place? What does it look like when she doesn’t let herself be eaten and refuses to wear the same old wolfskin of advantage and gain?
These are dangerous questions, subversive questions, that every woman in the country can ask as she takes leadership in her own life. And that every man might want to ask, if he dares to reach for a future that doesn’t assume the security of his past.
And the answers, well, they’ll be riskier yet.
Good luck to Theresa May.
Good luck to us all.