Off hand, it is not easy to think of any –‘ism’ that is attractive. Feminism, at least in its strident or radical form, is plainly not. There is a war to be fought. Any parent of daughters knows that. But wars are not won by bullshit – or by bureaucrats, or by regulations, or by quotas. We should remember that mordant remark of George Bernard Shaw – those who can do; those who can’t teach. (This is an uncomfortable truism for think tanks and other parasites and their fellow-travellers in the gospel press to reflect on.)
One fighter and winner like Simone Young is worth more than a battalion of drab but devout acolytes. She is now joined by Michelle Payne – a woman who fought and won, and then celebrated with a cool radiance that has gone round the world.
I congratulate this morning’s AFR for its editorial which under the heading ‘Tell ‘em to get stuffed’ concluded:
We agree with Ms Payne that anyone who doesn’t cheer this overdue piercing of the grass ceiling can go and get stuffed.
It is just as well that snooty prudes have not got in the way. Michelle Payne has a grace that does not come from a flash finishing school. It comes from within – just as it did for Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire.
So, I offer my compliments to Michelle Payne with a note that I wrote on the war ahead of women. It comes from a book called The English Difference? The Tablets of their Laws. And if you don’t like it, you know what you can go and do.
WOMEN (1905 – 2011)
Patriotism is not enough. (Edith Cavell)
In a war-time speech that you do not hear so much now, Churchill spoke of the need to deal with class and snobbery in England. You would think that he was giving an election speech before the election just after the war, but he was speaking in the middle of the war. It was as if the politician could sniff the political writing on the electoral wall. But Churchill also had to face the dilemna of all friends of equality – you do not want to condemn ability and wind up with mediocrity, an appalling result that threatens democracy all over the world.
Well, when it came time for the English to choose after the war, they chose, as was their most perfect right, the Labour Party as the best to rebuild their nation. There is just no point in talking about gratitude – but the English people do seem to have shown uncommon maturity in quietly dropping the leader who had just brought them through the most dangerous war that they or the world had ever faced – and for whom they would erect a statue outside their parliament. This shows a hardness at the edge of English politics that you do not see often elsewhere.
There is a famous photo of Lloyd George and Winston Churchill on their way to delivering the People’s Budget on 29 April 1909. Lloyd George is obviously the older (by about twelve years). Both men are in pinstriped trousers, frock-coat, waistcoat and watch-chain, wing collar, a bow tie or necktie, and top hat. Lloyd George is carrying a furled brolly and the red despatch box. Churchill is carrying a cane and folded gloves. To our left, Margaret Lloyd George looks wary. (What woman married to Lloyd George would not look wary?) To our right, a tall and desperately humble functionary is wearing gloves and carrying a brolly and another despatch box. Behind them is a double-decker bus carrying a sign for Tatcho and Dewars, and a man with a boater and a moustache.
Lloyd George is looking at the camera, unflinchingly; Churchill is looking both determinedly and devoutly at his leader, as if seeking some sort of assurance. It is of course a still photo, but you can still sense the rhythm and purpose of their stride. Here are two men on a mission, two men who do not mind a fight – on the contrary, their opponents, both in Britain and in Germany, would from time to time lament that they would rather have had a fight than a feed.
These two, very much an odd couple of the sorcerer and his apprentice, were on their way to take from the rich to give to the poor. They were intent on developing ‘real change’ in a way and to an extent that the President of the United States and the American nation itself could never even dream of. And for that purpose they were giving battle – you might as well say that they had gone to war – with the British ruling class in a way that Karl Marx and his disciples could never have dreamed of. These two fighting men – these two British samurai – were largely responsible for winning that battle or war, and in so doing they led the reshaping of British society and its constitution. We may not see such peace-time leadership again.
Lloyd George was a Welshman, the protégé of a cobbler, a defender of the Welsh church, and a great admirer of Abraham Lincoln. Churchill was the son of a lord and an American heiress (a popular conjunction for a fading aristocracy). These two men of very different backgrounds joined together to forge what was in truth a social revolution. The opposition from entrenched wealth and class was ferocious – they had to use all their political skill, and that of Asquith, their PM, to get by. They also had to deal with two kings.
The opposition was so visceral because that vicious little Welshman appeared to be committed to something more than equality – he looked like he wanted to make the Sermon on the Mount one of the tablets of the law in England. Lloyd George had told the Commons: ‘These problems of the sick, the infirm, of the men who cannot find a means of earning a livelihood, are problems with which it is the business of the state to deal.’ Was he quite mad? Was he really saying that ‘it is the business of the state’ to deal with the sick and the unemployed? Had this little Welsh lunatic forgotten what happened to the first man who said the meek shall inherit the earth? Would that the old Duke of Wellington were here – his grace would certainly have known how to clear the stables of this sort of rabble.
Both Lloyd George and Churchill were moved by compassion – nothing more, nothing less; what Sir Lewis Namier in another context referred to as ‘plain human kindness’. Each of them was also a consummate politician, and each was alert to the politics of what they were about. Churchill had publicly warned that the Liberal Party had to begin to address social issues or die. The Labour Party was coming around the bend and might soon gobble them all up.
Competition with Germany offered a plus and a minus – the need to maintain naval supremacy was a heavy financial strain; but Bismarck had introduced a prosperous scheme for old age, for infirmity, for sickness and unemployment – and it would not do to let the Germans be seen as longer on compassion than their English descendants. The Germans were, after all, supposed to be the war-mongers, not the peace-makers.
Churchill said that the Conservatives wanted a class war. Lloyd George said there might be revolution. He loved ridiculing the Dukes, and he gave cheek to the king. In the end they got home, but it was a close-run affair.
When Lloyd George died near the end of the Second World War an exhausted war leader, Winston Churchill, stayed up until 4am to write a eulogy that he gave later that day in parliament. In it, he said:
Most people are unconscious of how much their lives have been shaped by the laws for which Lloyd George was responsible. Health insurance and old age pensions were the first large-scale state-conscious effort to set a balustrade along the crowded causeway of the people’s life …. I was his lieutenant and disciple in those bygone days, and shared in a minor way in the work. I have lived to see long strides taken, and being taken, and going to be taken, on this path of insurance by which the vultures of utter ruin are driven from the dwellings of the nation. The stamps we lick, the roads we travel, the system of progressive taxation, the principal remedies that have yet been used against unemployment – all these to a very great extent were part not only of the mission but of the actual achievement of Lloyd George ….
Each of these men was Prime Minister of England during a world war, but each is entitled to be remembered for this social revolution alone. It led directly to the change of the constitution which took from the Lords the right to stop supply. The Parliament Act 1911 caused the same kind pain as the budget as the Reform Act, 1832, but again the aristocracy did just enough to avoid death – and it was finally euthanased.
These were stirring and progressive times for Asquith, Lloyd George, and Churchill. There was another hot issue on which they were stirred but not so progressive – the rights of women, especially the right to vote. Their attitude to women reminds us of Jefferson’s attitude to slaves. Independence was a wonderful universal good; but it was not for slaves – slaves were not in the same universe. A universal franchise was a wonderful universal good: but it was not for women; women were not in the same universe. Some poor men were coming to terms with the view that they had descended from the apes – now a lunatic fringe was saying that men were no different to women. Where will it all end? In the trenches, perhaps.
The agitators came to be called suffragettes. One group started with John Stuart Mill. Of them, the French historian Elie Halevy said: ‘…its members abandoned themselves to the pleasure which English people enjoy so keenly of founding groups, gathering recruits – they began to come in large numbers – drawing up rules, electing presidents, secretaries, and treasurers, and organizing public meetings in the customary style.’ The other group was more militant. Its leader was Mrs Emily Pankhurst. They would use the word ‘militant’ in the titles of their memoirs. They were long on what cricketers call sledging to sabotage public meetings. Two of them wrecked a meeting addressed by Sir Edward Grey. They went to jail rather than pay the fine. The movement had martyrs. There is a photo of two others in a carriage on their release – they had garlands in their hair. They marched in great concourses, mixing with the unemployed. They especially targeted Grey and Lloyd George. When jailed, they went on hunger strike, and by violence made force feeding impossible. They were evicted from the Commons, but then men took their place. On Derby Day 1913, Miss Davidson committed suicide by throwing herself on the track. They put bombs in letter-boxes, and they burned down churches.
How did Monsieur Halevy relate to all his when writing in 1952? ‘The suffragettes exploited the weakness of their sex, its proneness to hysteria.’ It was not all violence. There was a political movement. One group broke with the Liberals to support the Labour Party. The leaders of that party were not wild with enthusiasm about the idea, but the women had real money, and money talks. Then Mrs Pankhurst got nine years’ jail, but what good would that do in the face of fanatics intent on martyrdom and bombing? Should the Establishment follow the example of Napoleon and the Tsars and answer fire with fire?
Then a much, much more earthy but powerful force intervened that made all this internal conflict and excitement look both irrelevant and tawdry. We recall from our discussion of the Anglo-Saxon levee of arms, of the law not simply allowing arms to be borne but requiring their men to carry arms, that such a law promotes a kind of equality. If the state depends on you to protect and sustain it, then your standing in the state is so much surer. Even the feudal relation went both ways – the vassal gave service, but the lord had to protect the vassal; if the lord did not discharge his obligation, the vassal was freed from his obedience. If you fight for someone, you expect them to look after you.
At 6 am at Brussels on 12 October 1915, a German firing party assembled for that purpose executed by firing squad an English nurse named Edith Cavell. Edith was forty-nine, the daughter of a vicar at a village near Norwich. She had been practising her profession in Belgium before the war broke out. Then she was engaged in saving the lives of both British and German soldiers. She had also spied, but she was tried before a German military court for helping about 200 British soldiers to escape. She had therefore been aiding the enemy. She freely admitted what she had done. The verdict and sentence were open to the German military court, but the latter was a frightful military mistake.
The night before she died, Edith Cavell took Holy Communion with an Anglican priest. She told him that ‘patriotism is not enough.’ Those four words should be enrolled on every military school, mess, and court in the land; they are on her memorial at Trafalgar Square, and for them alone Edith Cavell should be remembered. The next morning she told a German Lutheran chaplain that ‘I am glad to die for my country.’ The German laws under which she was executed did not discriminate between men and women; neither did the English laws; laws against treason or military laws rarely do. It is not recorded that the condemned prisoner showed any of the suggested weakness of her sex, ‘its proneness to hysteria,’ in the time leading up to her being shot for what she had done for her country.
Now, here you had a hero, a real hero, the kind of hero that a nation can sustain its faith on. It was open to the Germans to say to Edith Cavell that if it was good enough for you to aid our enemy then it is good enough for you to be executed under the laws of war. So could the women of England say to their government that if it is good enough for us to die to see that the country is run properly, it is good enough for us to vote to see that the country is run properly. That argument is unanswerable; it was unanswerable even by those inbred fops out of Eton who had been sheltered from girls by mummy and daddy, but to whom exclusion came naturally, and who believed that old fairy tale about the battle of Waterloo being won on the playing fields of Eton.
When they voted against these reforms, had Asquith, Lloyd George and Churchill forgotten that their longest serving monarch, before whom all mere Prime Ministers had kow-towed, was a woman; that the monarch who defeated the Spanish Armada, and who had put on a uniform before addressing her troops at Tilbury, was a woman; and that the mother of God was, of necessity, a woman?
These World Wars fell to be won or lost in the great armaments factories at home, and in the great arsenal of the United States. And those fields of war were mainly staffed by women. By the end of the First World War, there were nearly five million women in the workforce, and many of them were engaged in armaments and munitions. You cannot deny the vote to those you depend on to win your wars.
There is another point. This was not the time for the ruling classes of Europe to be saying ‘Leave well enough alone. Leave it to us.’ The rulers of Europe behaved appallingly to get Europe into war, and then they behaved even worse in allowing inept officer classes to lead millions upon millions of poor workers to useless death in the mud of the Western Front. The Kaiser and the Tsar – both deriving from Caesar – were deposed forever, but many of the men at the front thought that in an orderly world the entire officer corps – or at least the entire general staff – should have had to face the penalty faced by Edith Cavell for a war crime constituted by sending men to their death when there was no reasonable prospect of their being able to obtain a tactical or strategic objective. It is very hard to believe that people like Haig behaved as they did while believing that the men that they were killing were as valuable as those men at the top.
The move to equality therefore was bottom up and top down. The men and women at the bottom believed that they were worth more, and that those at the top were worse than useless. Women had to get the vote. They did in 1918, although then only those who had made it to thirty were trusted. The battle was in substance over. But some would not be able to break free of caste. When the first woman MP took her place in the House, Winston Churchill could not bring himself to acknowledge the presence of this infidel in his temple – although he had broken bread with her in her own house.
[There is an interlude about the rule of law in war.]
The other great constitutional issues for England in the twentieth century were the granting of sovereignty to the colonies and the ceding of sovereignty to Europe. Neither is part of this book, and we may close the history by referring to two other matters, each, as it happens, involving a woman.
England had to wait more than half a century to see the vote for women being translated into a woman as Prime Minister. Her name was Margaret Thatcher, and she aroused strong feelings back then. She arouses even stronger feelings now – and not just in England, but in the colonies. We will therefore completely ignore her politics. Why are we looking at her at all in a book about the constitution? Because the fact that Margaret Thatcher became PM about sixty years after Winston Churchill could not acknowledge a lady friend in the House of Commons says something about the tolerance and capacity of the English to adapt to change and to accept diversity.
Three things about the Iron Lady. First, to get where she did, she had to get past those who were still the prisoners of their shibboleths about sex, many of the ilk of Monsieur Halevy. But more than that, she had to confront and overcome the most appalling snobbery. ‘In the name of Heaven, my dear boy, her father was an alderman – an alderman! – at Grantham – at Grantham! – and she – yes, SHE – stood behind the counter at a shop! Not even trade, Old Boy! Retail. Bloody retail, Old Boy. Not at this club! If she gets in, she will prove Napoleon right – a nation of bloody shopkeepers.’
Secondly, before she was elected, Mrs Thatcher said what she would do. She had a policy and it was different to that of anyone else. She was not afraid to adopt a position and then stick to it. We do not see politicians like that now. They cower behind minders and opinion polls and the dregs of the press.
Finally, when she became PM, Mrs Thatcher was not going to take any nonsense from any of those boys in either party who had not supported her, or who had let England down – and there were not many boys that were in neither category. They were lined up on shelves like laced up poodles so that she could from time to time wipe the floor with them. If the world knew a stronger political leader at that time, it was a very well-kept secret. Perhaps that is why she still makes so many people generally, and men in particular, anxious. The only PM since to try to take a position has been sullied by Napoleonic ambitions in the Middle East evidenced by decisions to go to war based on false premises and not even referred to Cabinet –and a Napoleonic refusal to apologize to the nation.
Well, it took time to produce a Mrs Thatcher, but she certainly gave them something to talk about. The Latin countries have not made it yet. They are the ones bringing Europe down because they cannot balance their books. Might there be a causal connection between the inability of France, Italy, Spain and Greece to elect a woman leader, and their inability to run their own economies? How strong is the economy of the nation being run by Frau Merkel?
Finally, for more than 1000 years, the great stain on England’s record was Ireland. The history is too long and too painful to recount. In 2011, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II visited Ireland, the first English monarch to visit the Irish Republic. A descendant of a people that had come over the water from Saxon forests, this singular queen is descended from another German line from around Hanover. She was visiting a land of Celtic people with their own royal line. The visit was an unqualified success. The Irish President, also a woman, palpably gasped when the queen began a major speech in Irish in one of those parts of the program broadcast live on TV to a breathless Irish diaspora around the world. There is good reason to believe that the peace will now hold, and that both nations can move on. This was an affecting instance of the way that the English crown still holds an essential working place in the English constitution whose story we have tried to trace.