Role of Women in Public Life - Motion to Take Note (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:36 pm on 5th February 2018.

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Photo of Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury Conservative 7:36 pm, 5th February 2018

First, can I say how proud I am to be part of the 25% of speakers—in other words, men—who are speaking this afternoon and this evening? I hope that next year we can get closer to parity—so I shall be enlisting the help and support of my noble friend Lady Jenkin in this cause.

This debate is about the long fight for women to play their full part in the public life of our country. It is about the long battle against the deeply entrenched prejudice that there are jobs that women cannot do, should not do, or cannot do as well as men. The battle has gone on for a century—and it still goes on. Many noble Lords have of course mentioned the Act passed in 1918, which gave women—although only some—the vote and which allowed them to stand for the House of Commons. But a long road still lay ahead. It took another 40 years before women could become Peers and Members of the House of Lords.

Fast forward to 1957, when Harold Macmillan’s Conservative Government brought in the Life Peerages Bill. The Bill was broadly welcomed, but there was opposition to one provision: the admission of female Peers. I will give your Lordships an indication of the kind of prejudice that the campaigners were up against, even as recently as the 1950s. I will read to your Lordships what one Peer said in that debate:

“Frankly, I find women in politics highly distasteful … I believe that there are certain duties and certain responsibilities which nature and custom have decreed men are more fitted to take on … It is generally accepted … that a man’s judgment is generally more logical and less tempestuous than that of a woman. Why then should we encourage women to eat their way, like acid into metal, into positions of trust and responsibility which previously men have held? … If we allow women into this House, where will this emancipation end?”.

He ended his speech by saying that,

“we like women: we admire them; sometimes we even grow fond of them; but we do not like them here”.—[Official Report, 3/12/1957; cols. 710-11.]

Fortunately, the House of Lords overruled him. To give that Peer credit, 25 years later he happily and loyally served in the Government of Margaret Thatcher and disowned his remarks.

However, progress elsewhere was still slow. I was amazed to realise that it was not until the 1960s that we had the first female judge, and we had to wait until the 1970s before women were admitted as members of the London Stock Exchange. Then there was a big breakthrough in 1975 with the election of a woman to lead the Conservative Party. At the time, many people thought that a woman leader, whom they caricatured as shrill and shallow, would be an electoral disaster for the Conservatives. I am told that on the evening that Mrs Thatcher was elected leader, Denis Healey went round the House of Commons poking Conservative MPs in the ribs and saying, “Out for a generation. Out for a generation”. Of course, Mrs Thatcher became the longest-serving Prime Minister of the century.

Whatever one thinks of her politics, she showed the world and a new generation of women that a woman can do a man’s job. Indeed, so much so that when in 1990 John Major became Prime Minister, my 11 year-old niece was shocked to find a man doing the job. She thought that, with the Queen as sovereign and Mrs Thatcher as Prime Minister, women running the country in a kind of matriarchy was the norm and that a male Prime Minister was rather strange.

But still the battle had to go on—and it carries on today, well into the 21st century. I refer of course to the BBC. The BBC apparently committed to transparency—but in name only, because for years it hid the gender pay gap, which at last has been exposed. I saw Carrie Gracie give evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee last week. I heard her say, as people will have read, how the BBC had tried to justify her unequal pay by telling her that for the first three years as the BBC’s China editor she had been “in development”. Those in the BBC responsible for that should be ashamed of themselves. Christina Lamb, the highly distinguished journalist who has worked for the Financial Times and the Sunday Times, was on “Desert Island Discs” a couple of weeks ago. She said that in 30 years she had never had a female foreign or news editor.

So prejudice persists and, sadly, it still does in some areas of politics. Seven years ago, in 2010, John McDonnell MP said that he wished he could go back in time and assassinate Margaret Thatcher. Then in 2014 he repeated remarks which had been made by somebody else about lynching Esther McVey. I played it back last night. Far from condemning the remarks, he quoted them approvingly—and they were followed by laughter from the audience. I know that he has now tried to disown those remarks—and rightly so, because surely, following the murder of Jo Cox, people should realise how inflammatory and dangerous such casual language can be. Therefore, I welcome the prospect of legislation from this Government to protect parliamentary candidates from abuse and intimidation.

This is a hugely important debate and I have only one regret—I wish that more men were taking part in it.