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BRIT Review

Women's Suffrage: 100 years on is “toxic politics” the new frontier?

Monday, February 05, 2018


One hundred years ago UK women first got the vote through the Representation of People Act 1918. It was a start but there were conditions, like age, and it did not put them on the same terms as men. 

Lorraine Hill-ScottThe Bill went through with a massive majority. Some MPs genuinely thought women should be ‘rewarded’ for their war effort but some were weary of the Suffragettes and others frightened by the Russian Revolution. I would also bet some MPs just thought women would get a minor win and go away. Well they didn’t, and in my view, the real centenary celebration should be saved for 2028 when more pressure and a further Act meant women in 1928 could vote, like men, at age 21, with no conditions attached.

Fast-forward 100 years and what are the big electoral issues? Mistrust and loathing of politicians (OK, that was probably around in 1918), hostility, trolling intimidation and death threats from people because you voted differently to them, an electorate told not to trust any expert or counter-expert; spin over substance and voter apathy. How sad. 

There are some deeper electoral debates such as devolution, the voting system, votes for 16 and 17 year olds and lifting the ban on votes for prisoners but I do wonder what the trailblazers of the early 20th Century would think if they could see the way politics is done in 2018’s Britain? 

Equally, I wonder what they would think of UK female Members of Parliament in 2018, as it is also 100 years since the Parliament (Qualifications of Women) Act. This Act allowed women to become an MP with Sir Winston Churchill’s nemesis, Lady Nancy Astor being the first to take her seat in 1919.

We have a female Prime Minister and Home Secretary but the 2017 General Election saw a ‘record high’ of 32% of all MPs being women - 32%! Again, although I do not sign up to all positive discrimination efforts, it’s nothing to be celebrated. 

In 2018 the fight is not about becoming allowed to become an MP but how more and more women (and men) are treated when they become one. This fight was not fought so that 100 years later you could be told to ‘calm down dear’, get death threats, have more media interest in your shoes than your speech and be harassed either for not being attractive or being attractive and therefore stupid and over-promoted. Forget what you actually think or say, your family, your children, your friends, your clothes, your past jobs; past haircuts; past flings; how you eat a bacon sandwich, everything is up for an inquisition from an unforgiving electorate.

Theresa May is due to give a speech to mark the centenary and she will use it to address the ‘toxic politics of intimidation’

The Prime Minister will say: "In public life, and increasingly in private conversations too, it is becoming harder and harder to conduct any political discussion, on any issue, without it descending into tribalism and rancour… It is time we asked ourselves seriously whether we really want it to be like this. Whether we are prepared to accept a permanent coarsening and toxifying of our public debate or whether, together, we will take a stand for decency, tolerance and respect." 

I have been dismayed with Mrs. May on many levels since she became leader but on this subject, she is right. I hope it does not fall victim to another bad trait of UK politics 'all talk and no action' and that she fights for another important cause that puts a stain on our democracy today.

Elizabeth Hill-Scott


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