David Cameron’s Difficulties with Girls

The Prime Minister is a true gentleman, but he has no idea how to turn his code of conduct into policies that will appeal to women

Features Gender UK Politics

In his new book, The Gentry: Stories of the English (Harper Press, £25), Adam Nicolson concludes that, after a long period during which the very idea of “the gentleman” appeared to be dying out, the Conservative-Liberal coalition that took power in 2010 is led by men from precisely the kind of families that governed Britain at the local, and latterly the national, level from the Anglo-Saxons of the tenth century to the Anglosphere of the twentieth. It was, Nicolson contends, not the nobility, but the squirearchy, the services, the clergy, the professions and the merchants who actually ran the counties and hence the country. David Cameron epitomises this largely rural ruling class, his slogan of the Big Society merely a sentimentalised, ideological version of the traditional ideals of the gentry.

It is an unexpected twist, this resurrection of a moribund class — so unexpected, indeed, as to occasion a torrent of satire and ridicule, much of it consisting in variations on that most British theme of class consciousness, the public schoolboy. Cameron the Old Etonian and his expensively educated cronies have been lampooned by every comedian and cartoonist in the land, often in cruel and unusual ways. But this Cabinet of all the toffs has emerged unscathed from its baptism of ordure: we may be amused but have remained resolutely unperturbed by the reiteration of Tory privilege. This may in part be attributed to the residual memory of conspicuous consumption among the higher echelons of New Labour, not least Tony Blair, who is himself a product of the same upper-middle class as Cameron & Co. Just as the most upwardly mobile Blairite of them all, Lord Mandelson of Foy and Hartlepool, professed to be “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” (though he isn’t at all relaxed about his own fortunes), so the great British public is intensely relaxed about Tories being hideously white, smugly married and frightfully pukka. To most of us, it matters less who wields the power than what they do with it. The main drawback of a politician having a privileged upbringing as far as the public is concerned is the risk that he or she will not be tough enough.

To David Cameron, however, it matters a great deal that he be a gentleman and that he be seen as one. He is right that the ideal is so deeply rooted in English culture that the nation would recoil at any suggestion that the Prime Minister might be capable of conduct unbecoming of a gentleman. The one unforgivable crime is still lying to one’s peers in the House of Commons. Lies to the press are also serious, but not necessarily resigning matters, because they do not always break the gentlemanly code of conduct. Sex and money, the cause of many a political downfall, are generally fatal only if dishonesty is involved. Peculation, for example, is still viewed comparatively leniently: the only MPs who have gone to prison over the expenses scandal are those who had deliberately committed fraud. All the same, rich politicians are expected to “give something back”. Cameron is no plutocrat, but he is well aware that the public has certain expectations of a man of his background.Perhaps the most important of these concerns the treatment of women.

We know that he worries about this because he has said so. A couple of remarks directed at women in the Commons that were seen as patronising or, in the case of his fellow Conservative Nadine Dorries, even humiliating, occasioned an extraordinary public attempt to reassure the world at large that the Prime Minister is not a misogynist. “That’s not what I’m like, that’s not who I am,” he pleaded before the bar of female opinion. His poll ratings among female voters are indeed low, and would be lower still if the leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, were not even more despised by women. Miliband’s failure to register his name on his first child’s birth certificate may have been forgiven by the mother whom he only afterwards married in haste; but it has not been forgotten by the female half of the electorate, who are inclined to regard such an omission as indicative of an unreliable character. Men don’t change: before the couple had a second son, Sam, this year, Miliband did not turn up for his National Childbirth Trust classes. As important as marriage and fatherhood, he told the Labour Party conference, was “starting to tell Daniel, my older son, the stories my Dad used to tell me”. The father in question is Ralph Miliband, the Marxist firebrand, who seems more of a looming presence for Red Ed than for his brother David. Unlike Cameron, Miliband seems awkward in the role of New Man. But the Prime Minister has some way to go before he can hope to match the appeal of Tony Blair, everywoman’s ideal father, son or brother. No contemporary politician compares with the natural charm of the former Labour leader. (How frank it was of Ed Miliband to blurt out to his activists: “I am not Tony Blair.” How frank  — and how fatal!) 

Cameron’s slight insecurity about his moral identity has had important consequences, however. His speech at last month’s Manchester party conference was driven by a perceived need to reassure women that he is emphatically not a macho type: “I’m not a sort of ‘all right luv, I’m down at the pub tonight’. That’s not me. But obviously I’ve come across in this way.” Has Cameron such a boorish reputation, despite the best efforts of his eminence grise Steve Hilton to present him as the suave moderniser, caring father and uxorious husband? His membership of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford, a notoriously drunken undergraduate drinking society, and more recently of White’s, the most socially exclusive club in London, lends it credence. Whether this suspicion lurks behind the polling figures, which suggest that his support among women has slipped over the past year much faster than among men, is hard to measure. Negative stereotypes only acquire significance when voters are already dissatisfied. Women had practical grounds for complaint before they saw the unedifying image of Cameron, flanked by a leering Nick Clegg and grinning William Hague, guffawing at his own innuendo while Nadine Dorries (already the victim of smear tactics at the hands of Gordon Brown’s thuggish aide Damian McBride) salvaged some dignity by walking out of the chamber. How, though, did the Prime Minister go about convincing women that he was not one of the lads?

Almost immediately after his Maoist-style public self-criticism, Cameron was faced with a challenge to his closest female Cabinet colleague, the Home Secretary Theresa May, from the Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke. Though May outranked Clarke, his seniority as the only septuagenarian in a largely inexperienced Cabinet gave him the confidence to put her firmly in her place. The issue at stake was not a trivial one: should the human right to family life override the law of the land? A Bolivian, who was granted permission to study in Britain but had overstayed his leave to remain by several years, was due to be deported after a shoplifting offence brought him to the attention of the authorities. His lawyer claimed that his client’s boyfriend, who had a sick father, required his presence and offered the court as evidence the fact that they kept a pet cat, known as Maya. The Home Secretary expressed scepticism to her audience in Manchester about the relevance of Maya to the rights and wrongs of deporting illegal immigrants. Cue Kenneth Clarke, who insisted that it was “laughable and child-like” for Theresa May to claim that the court had allowed the Bolivian to remain in Britain merely because he had a cat. The row continued for another 48 hours before both ministers emerged from 10 Downing Street wearing forced grins, Clarke having expressed “regret” for his “colourful language” but refusing to concede the point. Actually, his language  was not colourful so much as illiterate: despite having held ministerial office for longer than anybody else in modern times, Clarke clearly meant “childish” rather than “child-like”. But the real upshot of the “cat flap” was that Clarke kept his job. This was not the first time he had embarrassed the government. The central plank of his liberal policy on criminal justice, the reduction of the prison population, was abandoned earlier this year. His comments on rape last April infuriated many women, as he appeared to be justifying “date rape” and suggesting that only some rapes were “serious”. However, Clarke’s latest escapade suggests that he is seen by Cameron’s coalition partners as an ally, even as a fifth Liberal Democrat in the Cabinet. On Europe and other key issues, Clarke can be relied on to vote with the Lib Dems. Hence Cameron left him in place, even though letting him have his breezy way with May has damaged her personal and political prestige. 

This suggests that the Prime Minister cares less about the good opinion of female colleagues and voters than he pretends. In other words, he cares more about holding his coalition together than he does about enforcing party unity. If necessary he will sacrifice anyone, male or female, to hold on to power. 

By Newman’s definition of a gentleman — “one who never inflicts pain” — David Cameron is no gentleman. By Evelyn Waugh’s, on the other hand — “everyone thinks he is a gentleman” and  “draws the line of demarcation immediately below his own heels” — Cameron most certainly is one. Whether or not he privately draws the line at state-educated colleagues, such as Kenneth Clarke, Theresa May, William Hague, and Philip Hammond, they are all (like Cameron’s own patron Michael Howard, not to mention Margaret Thatcher herself) paragons of the post-war meritocracy. These grammar school boys and girls, once sneered at by Waugh as “l’école de Butler, the primal men and women of the classless society”, have dominated Conservative politics for two generations and their leading role is only now being usurped by Cameron and his generation because the Tories acquiesced in Labour’s abolition of the grammar schools. Noblesse oblige is back, and with it a Whiggish aversion to confrontation and other “toxic” aspects of Thatcherism, which were by no means toxic to upwardly mobile families. But Cameron knows he still needs to win back their votes: hence his oxymoronic synthesis of ideologies, “liberal conservatism”.

David Cameron’s determination to woo women voters was again trumpeted after last month’s resignation of Liam Fox as Defence Secretary. The Press dutifully reported that the promotion of two rising stars, Justine Greening and Chloe Smith, over the heads of their male contemporaries proved that, with a quarter of his Cabinet now female, Cameron really does take women seriously. The strange case of Dr Fox and Mr Werritty, however, will have reinforced the impression, perhaps especially among women, that this government is no more principled than that of Gordon Brown. Modernisation apparently means that, instead of Old Boy networks, we now have Best Man networks. For this impression, the Prime Minister bears full responsibility. He should have carpeted his Defence Secretary long before the Werritty affair became public knowledge. The only sympathetic character to emerge was Fox’s long-suffering wife, Dr Jesme Baird, who preserved a dignified silence throughout.

David Cameron’s pitch to women used to be all about marriage. His government was elected on a promise to recognise marriage in the tax system. Though the mantra was repeated at Manchester, so far he has done nothing about it. Instead, it turns out that the matrimonial reform he had in mind was quite different: the legalisation of gay marriage. It is true that changes in attitudes among women are one of the main reasons why such a    pledge is now possible for a Conservative leader. Homosexual men and heterosexual women often used to regard one another with mutual suspicion, which was only exacerbated by the prevalence of single-sex institutions. Not any more. The phenomenon of the “gay best friend”, which every woman is now supposed to have, is matched by the emergence of popular gay celebrities who at any rate appear to prefer the company of women. Polls reflect the rapprochement between the two groups. It is hardly surprising that most women would feel more relaxed with, say, the gay fashion guru Gok Wan, who tells them how they can look good naked, than an “alpha male” like Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who might tell them how good he looks naked. 

Gay best friends are one thing, however; gay marriage is another. While the legal distinction between civil partnership and gay marriage may be subtle, the implications of the latter are incomparably greater. Marriage is not only a secular but a religious institution, which Christians, Jews and most other faiths define as a bond between a man and a woman. The main exception, Islam, prohibits homosexuality much more strictly than the rest, while permitting a man to marry up to four wives (and occasionally more). If legalising gay marriage renders a conflict between church and state likely — at any rate if churches are forced to solemnise such weddings — it renders a confrontation between state and mosque well-nigh inevitable. We know that polygamy is happening on a large scale because multiple “wives” already claim benefits and are entitled to do so, even though bigamy is still a criminal offence. Once gay marriage is legal, Muslims will demand parity. 

Women may be ambivalent about gay marriage, but the vast majority does not regard polygamy, let alone the other aspects of sharia that relate to women, as acceptable. The institution of marriage matters more to women than to men, because it is designed to protect them and their children during their most vulnerable years. Successive governments and social changes have undermined marriage in countless ways, but it remains the indispensable source of security for women who wish to raise a family. Women are protective of their hard-won rights and do not take kindly to any threat to their equality before the law. Gay marriage does not directly threaten that equality — indeed it is depicted as rectifying an inequality — but it may also be seen as a Trojan horse. Once the secular definition of marriage as monogamous is extended to include same-sex couples, what is to prevent the criminalisation of core principles of Judaeo-Christian morality? If monogamy is up for grabs, how can we be confident that the law will continue to exclude from marriageability not only polygamous relationships but others hitherto prohibited, such as those with children? Women are unlikely to welcome yet more confusion and moral relativism in a domain for which they have traditionally taken primary responsibility. They may feel that the government would do better to leave well alone.

In Manchester, the Prime Minister offered one overriding justification for gay marriage: commitment. “Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us, that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other. So I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.” This is indeed a persuasive argument to the 21st-century mind, especially when allied to Mill’s principle that “liberty consists in doing what one desires”. But Mill also wrote: “The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people.”  There is nothing to stop gay people making vows to and supporting each other as things stand; indeed, civil partnership, an institution less than a decade old, was created exclusively for that purpose. (I say exclusively, because it deliberately excluded other, less organised groups who, like homosexuals, live together but cannot marry — an enduring grievance.) What makes marriage unique is not commitment, but procreation. Cameron made no mention of this, but of course it has for some time now been illegal for adoption agencies to exclude same-sex couples; the Catholic Church was thereby forced out of the adoption business. It is no longer rare for gay couples to have their own children, too: Sir Elton John became a father last year at the age of 63 with the help of a surrogate mother. Lesbians, in particular, have proved themselves to be able to create loving families in which children can thrive. Marriage might seem to be the best way of protecting such families; indeed, Cameron clearly believes this.

However, the biological fact that procreation normally requires a man and a woman surely indicates that society has a unique interest in preserving this particular form of commitment. And in fact all civilised societies have always recognised this fact in the ceremonies and legal institutions that together constitute marriage. The code of conduct on which Cameron relies, the code of the gentleman, is ultimately based on the medieval code of chivalry, which was primarily directed towards the “gentle” treatment of women by warriors. Without that give and take between masculine and feminine interests, without the gradual emergence of romantic love between equals, alongside children and property, as the sine qua non of marriage, the institution would never have become what it is, with its place at the very heart of humanity. Marriage, during a history almost as long as that of humanity itself, has flourished only when society came to recognise the unique contribution that a woman makes to each generation when she is cared for by a man during the vulnerable childbearing years. To abolish that uniqueness was the great injustice of the welfare state, which legitimised illegitimacy by making single parenthood the norm in many communities. Once marriage was no longer the prerequisite for procreation, men became redundant and women became dependent on the state. Now, when marriage is no longer the destiny (though it remains the hope) of a majority of society, a Conservative politician proposes not only to make men inessential for marriage but women too. “Marriage is not just a piece of paper,” Cameron told the Tories in Manchester. No, indeed it is not; but by the time the Prime Minister has finished with it, marriage will be just that: a piece of paper signifying legal status and not much more. It will have lost its organic connection with posterity.

Cameron’s difficulties with girls tell us something about the state of the nation. We have become more relaxed about moral questions in general: one only has to consider what public figures get away with in private life. I recently heard a leading Tory politician compare Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, to Lord Palmerston, the Victorian Prime Minister of whom Disraeli supposedly said: “He is now 70. If he could prove evidence of his potency in his electoral address he’d sweep the country.” Though polls suggest that Labour is 20 points ahead in London, Boris is quite likely to sweep the capital next year. He has become a fixture in British comedy, replacing his bitter rival Ken Livingstone, who has lost his “cheeky chappy” persona. Yet it is a mistake to assume that anything goes, or that people are less inclined to make harsh judgments about perceived moral failings in public life. David Laws and Liam Fox resigned for such reasons. As I write, the fate of one Cabinet minister (Chris Huhne) hangs in the balance. What determines their fates is, in part, the question of whether they can be trusted to behave as gentlemen, in the eyes of their peers and the public. 

How, though, do we judge whether politicians have fallen below acceptable standards of conduct when we no longer agree on what is reasonable to expect? Can reason provide objective criteria by which to judge political, or indeed any human conduct? Back in 1948, two great philosophers, Michael Oakeshott and Karl Popper, exchanged letters on this subject; they may be read in the online archives of the Hoover Institution. Oakeshott’s big idea was the pernicious impact of rationalism in politics: “You see, I don’t believe that reason is the only bond which unites men, not because men are unreasonable sometimes, but because there is something else much stronger that unites them, e.g. a common civilisation (where it exists), common habits of behaviours (where they exist) — neither of which are rational, dependent upon argument or common to all men. There is nothing, I think, common to all men.” Popper agreed with Oakeshott’s critique, as far as it went: “You have criticised ‘rationalism’. But have you tried to see the needs, desires, hopes, etc. to which it answers, in proper perspective?” Oakeshott is an industry in the US, but I doubt that many of the Cabinet have read him.

Britain today is a country in whose politics rationalism has run riot for generations, resulting in the atrophy of that “common civilisation” or “common habits of behaviours”. The rule of law has been emptied of meaning because laws are mere instruments for the execution of policy. Morality has been emptied of meaning too, because objective rules deriving from tradition or religion have lost their force. And so we are left with rationalism and not much else. David Cameron is obliged to construct his own code of conduct, which has very little to do with common habits or civilisation, but everything to do with rationalist imperatives: saving the planet, building the Big Society, eliminating inequality and injustice. This is a conception of politics that sees it as a series of problems to be solved. Yet that is not the way conservatives have tended to approach politics. “I should say that no problem in politics is ever solved permanently,” Oakeshott writes to Popper, “and that no problem in politics should ever be allowed to get out of proportion & to exclude the real business of politics — which is to keep the society as a whole, in all its arrangements, coherent and stable as well as progressive.” The Prime Minister is an optimist; he offers leadership: very well. But let him not be tempted by the spirit of Utopia. Let him not be deaf to what Oakeshott called “the voice of poetry in the conversation of mankind”, the accumulated wisdom embodied in ancient institutions: parliament, monarchy, matrimony. Let him listen to the real hopes of the British people: past, present and future. Above all, let David Cameron behave like the gentleman he ought to be, defending the civilisation that has made him who and what he is. “England expects that every man will do his duty,” signalled Nelson at Trafalgar. David Cameron’s task is to tell us what that duty should now be, and to set an example by doing it.