Theresa May, the new leader of the United Kingdom, terrifies me for a few reasons. As Home Secretary since 2010, she has overseen a vast array of reforms that have made myself, and my fellow international passport-holders, feel ever less welcome. Early in her time in that role she unashamedly described her aspiration to create a ‘hostile environment’ for any and all foreign nationals. She has succeeded.
To her list of accomplishments, we can add a rejection of refugee quotas, new restrictions on families joining their loved ones, and we also can’t disassociate May from the situation in Calais. In fairness, she has also achieved more progressive things in her nearly 20 years as an MP, including supporting same-sex marriage.
On Monday, I heard the news break over Radio 4 that David Cameron had announced that by Wednesday – not September or October as originally thought- we would have a new Prime Minister and that she would be Theresa May. The announcers happily pronounced that her appointment meant that three of the four national leaders in the UK would be women. Hurray! Equality has been reached, we’re all good now!
It took seconds for the Thatcher comparisons to begin. Minutes for the new leader’s appearance to be remarked upon. In fact, the comparisons had already begun, most notably with Ken Clarke’s face-palm-inducing statement:
Theresa is a bloody difficult woman, but you and I worked with Margaret Thatcher!
To give credit where it’s due, however, May’s response was pretty good:
Ken Clarke says I am a bloody difficult woman. The next man to find that out will be Jean-Claude Juncker.
Margaret Thatcher is of course, the only other woman to hold the post of UK Prime Minister, and perhaps the most maligned leader in British history. My feeling on Thatcher is similar to that of the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon:
It is a shame that she did not do more to support other women during her period in office, but that does not take away from her own achievement in succeeding in what was very much a man’s world.
Like Sturgeon, I owe a certain debt of gratitude to Thatcher, for somehow managing to break through and become a visible sign that a woman can reach the very top of her field, whilst at the same time acknowledging that virtually none of what she actually did in office sits comfortably with me. I live in the UK now but growing up in New Zealand my far more significant debt is to Helen Clark, the inspirational Prime Minister during my adolescence, and hopefully soon-to-be Secretary General of the United Nations.
But May is not Helen Clark, nor is she Thatcher, and it is a mark of how very far the UK and international media needs to come that they seem collectively incapable of separating the only two women to hold the position. In fact, it’s hard to demonstrate many links between the two, apart from their belonging to the same political party. They’ve never held a similar office and most, including myself, have to plead ignorance of anything to do with May outside of immigration. Common knowledge of Thatcher on the other hand revolves around economic policy. In what’s known about either, the Venn diagram overlap is negligible.
One way in which I fervently hope May will not have anything in common with Baroness Thatcher, is in her cabinet. As I write, May’s cabinet is unknown, but it can only be an improvement on Thatcher’s infamous decision to only appoint one woman to her Cabinet over her entire time in power. Despite the temptation so many clearly feel to decree that if there’s a female PM we don’t have to fight for women’s place in power any more, the numbers clearly demonstrate something else entirely.
‘Barack Obama, interestingly, said in his statement that she [Thatcher] had “broken the glass ceiling for other women”. Only in the sense that all the women beneath her were blinded by falling shards. She is an icon of individualism, not of feminism’ – Russell Brand.
Here in Scotland, feelings against Thatcher are particularly bitter. While there may be good reason to feel that Thatcher, more than other UK leaders of the twentieth-century, viewed Scotland as an alien land, unworthy of her protection, I can’t help but feel that the anti-Maggie sentiment from some quarters might not be quite so aggressive had she been a man. As I have said, I am no supporter of Theresa May, but I am still frustrated at some of the commentary against her from 21st-century writers who really should know better. For example, I was thoroughly enjoying Glaswegian comedian Frankie Boyle’s piece in The Guardian, right up until the final line:
For now, we will just have to hold tight and watch Theresa May do her considerable worst, praying for Dorothy’s house to fall on her.
This is a very thinly veiled reference to the use, particularly in Scotland, I’m ashamed to say, of the song “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” from The Wizard of Oz in 2013 following the death of Baroness Thatcher. The song reached number 2 in the UK music charts in the week of her death, revealing a misogynistic and unfeeling undercurrent among the British public. While I have complete sympathy with opponents of Thatcher, that kind of triumphalism on a human being’s death is abhorrent.
Less veiled was the headline from The Express, “Who is Theresa May’s husband? Phillip May becomes the next Denis Thatcher.” Oh come now. Would we expect this to be the very earliest coverage of a new male Prime Minister, even before they took office? If you type in the name of the Prime Minister into Google, the first suggestion is ‘Theresa May husband.’
The Economic Times went with “In Margaret Thatcher’s footsteps“, the International Business Times quotes Geraldine Stanford who calls her a “Margaret Thatcher clone” and, The Daily Mail showed images of May’s first election in 1997 under the banner, “When Theresa May was mini-Maggie: Photos from the night she was elected as an MP in 1997 show her in a suit just like the one Thatcher wore when she first entered Downing Street in 1979”. PRI went with “Theresa May is the Thatcher 2.0 that some think the UK needs” above an image of – inexplicably – May drinking water. This is but a small selection of what I’m sure will be a burgeoning collection of Thatcher comparisons, as the media unbelievably struggles with the idea of a female leader, and comes to the conclusion that all female PMs of the UK must be the same woman.
Then there’s this front page:
In addition to calling her ‘Maggie May’, this headline is a clear example of the other major reference point for talking about May – her appearance. It’s wearying to be addressing this yet again, but here we are. Every female politician must be assessed by their physical appearance, it’s the unwritten rule of political correspondence. A male friend told me today he felt naive for thinking this wasn’t the case anymore, and unfortunately I had to agree with him. Headlines like the above make it painfully obvious, but more significant are the regularity of comments on female politicians’ appearance which just don’t occur when discussing their male counterparts. It’s the sentences like, “Angela Eagle, sporting a flattering pink jacket” where you don’t see “Jeremy Corbyn, sporting a flattering orange tie”. In Channel Four News’ coverage of her appointment for instance, the introduction to our new PM had to include reference to her footwear alongside a close up of May’s feet at a conference several years ago.
When Susanna Reid tried to raise this issue on Good Morning Britain by asking a female MP whether this frustrates her, she was immediately talked over and responded to by her male co-host. This says it all.
So, no, I’m not excited about our new Prime Minister from a feminist perspective. It demonstrates that we are barely moved after forty years in how we feel comfortable talking about female politicians. Theresa May’s appointment, far from showing how far the UK has come in respecting female leaders, has so far very clearly shown the reverse.