The Spectator's Notes

Conservatives gave women the vote – but you won’t be reminded of this

3 February 2018

9:00 AM

3 February 2018

9:00 AM

A hundred years ago on Tuesday, King George V assented to the Representation of the People Act. Women got the vote for the first time. In all the commentary on this centenary, little has been said about who gave it to them, presumably because the answer — Lloyd George’s Conservative-dominated wartime coalition — does not fit the heroic narrative of liberation struggle. The Bill was passed by 385 votes to 55, with Lloyd George himself, Winston Churchill, Ramsay MacDonald and Asquith among those in favour, and Mrs May’s hero Joe Chamberlain the best known of those against. There were several reasons for the change of mind in favour of women’s suffrage, but the political motive was, as always, important. The act enfranchised non-property-owning men because many of them had fought in the Great War. It also enfranchised property-owning women (and women married to property owners) over 30. The former measure would increase the Labour vote, people thought. The latter would favour the Conservatives. Since the men must be rewarded for their sacrifice, many Tories saw votes for middle-class women as a necessary electoral compensation. Until the 1918 Act, Asquith, the last prime minister of a solely Liberal government, had always opposed votes for women. His daughter Violet Bonham Carter once told my father that he did so partly because he disliked the ‘shrieking harridans’ among the suffragettes and partly because he worried that women would tend to vote Tory. His fear was proved right. Funny that the emancipation of women hastened the ‘strange death of Liberal England’.

After I wrote here that I would not be going to see Darkest Hour, so many people told me I should that I did. The Kino cinema in the village of Hawkhurst was packed for the afternoon showing and the youngish man in the seat next to me wept copiously. The scene in which Churchill travels by Tube is as absurd as I had heard. But one can understand the purpose of the device: here is a man who has become prime minister without a popular mandate yet has a stronger intuition of the general will than most of the high-ups who surround him. So he moves among the people — rather as Shakespeare presents ‘a little touch of Harry in the night’ on the eve of Agincourt: ‘That every wretch, pining and pale before,/ Beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks’. He also hopes to find support to buttress his own instincts. But the more interesting historical reality is that Churchill did not ask the people before acting: he asked their elected representatives. It was a parliamentary moment, not a populist, nor even an electoral one. It is on this note, in the House of Commons, that the film rightly ends.


Anyway, regardless of the film’s historical accuracy, its great current merit is that it is — possibly by accident — superb Brexit propaganda. The message is that it is sometimes both possible and necessary, if continental Europe is going one way, for Britain to go the other. One sub-message is that most of the important people in the country will tell you otherwise, but that they are mistaken. Another is that a leader who knows his mind and can wield the right words can win our parliamentary democracy to his cause. You would think this last lesson is blindingly obvious, but just now in our politics it is neglected, especially by the Prime Minister.

So we have to make do with a little touch of Gavin in the night. The new Defence Secretary has an unusual but rather successful technique. A likeable version of Uriah Heep (if that is imaginable), Mr Williamson is ever so ’umble about his intellectual attainments and deferential to those of others, yet ruthless in stealing a march on colleagues and swift in enlisting the media. Having been a loyal Chief Whip (no other sort is the slightest use), he is now an almost insurrectionist minister. His burst of activity has exposed the oddity that, since the 20th century, the Tories have chosen not to make the running on defence. They have taken pro-defence voters for granted and tried, for reasons both of cost and image, to play the subject down. The arrival of Mr Williamson has had the comical effect of forcing generals to stop obsessing about the orderly management of decline and start voicing his big thoughts. Much too early to say whether any real change will take place as a result, but live political rounds are at last being fired.

Small youthquake in Britain; not many dead. The British Election Survey suggests that it was not, after all, the under-25s who nearly swept Jeremy Corbyn to power last year, so all this anxious Tory courting of them may be misplaced. The thing to remember nowadays is that the de-skilled young literally do not know how to vote and enormous numbers of the electorate are extremely old, which is why the three main party leaders are 74 (Cable), 68 (Corbyn) and 61 (May) respectively.

Five animal rights organisations are opposing the culling of grey squirrels, which is intended to save trees and red squirrels. They say the greys, which were originally North American imports, are ‘being scapegoated because they are not native’. This is another example of the trend to import the discourse of racism into animal affairs. Soon it will be ‘hate speech’ to stigmatise animals of foreign descent and oppose their free movement. One would, of course, be making the same anthropomorphic mistake if one were to criticise the motives of greys, but it is a simple fact that they are by far the main enemy of native red squirrels. Greys drive out reds partly because they carry a parapoxvirus which they can survive but reds cannot. Shooting greys does work, but it cannot do all that is needed. The learned Matt Ridley tells me that a possible answer is putting contraceptive vaccine in pollens. No doubt Peta and suchlike would call this ‘ethnic cleansing’.

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