During the first prime minister’s questions of Liz Truss’s premiership, former prime minister Theresa May congratulated her on becoming the third woman to be elevated to the office. “Why does [Truss] think it is that all three female prime ministers have been Conservative?” May asked, to raucous applause from Tory benches.
It has become a frequent and effective attack line. For all of Labour’s claims to be the true party of equality, what proof do they actually have of their intentions? There has never been a Labour leader who is not a white man. In fact, the past three Labour leaders have all come from leafy and affluent North London boroughs.
It is a strange line for May to take. For a long time this kind of shallow identity politics was considered a preserve of the liberal left — an artefact imported from the American culture wars. But now the conservatives — who are supposed to abhor the very idea — are just as much in the throes of identity politics as their left-wing counterparts.
It is a mode of politics that says who you are and where you come from is an essential determinant of your politics, a defining aspect of your ideology. It says that those who belong to certain groups should form alliances on those lines, eschewing the broad church of party politics.
It perhaps even suggests there are compulsory beliefs allocated to us by some facet of our birth. And it is responsible for erroneous ideas that have been forged and spread in the mainstream: that certain identities imply a better ability to lead, and in some cases, a superior moral fibre. Women, we are told time and time again, exhibit leadership qualities that are sorely lacking in a world dominated by machismo.
Softness, humility, listening skills and collaboration are often cast as uniquely female traits. The nasty aspects of leadership — bullishness, impulsiveness, arrogance — are, meanwhile, dismissed as particular to men. This line of reasoning was tediously rehashed throughout the pandemic: women leaders navigated the uncharted terrain of immense crisis better than their male counterparts, all hail Jacinda Ardern.
It is a blatantly foolish proposition. Several years after the outbreak of coronavirus — whatever metric we might use to measure a “successful pandemic” — it is not clear that these women politicians come out on top. And, after the events of the past week, I do not think anyone could say that Liz Truss is not impulsive. Nor can we deny the reality, that after two years of extreme lockdown policies, that Ardern simply masks her authoritarian tendencies with sheep’s clothing.
But this idea that something inherent to womanhood generates higher quality leaders has been around for a long time — perhaps even finding its provenance in Catholic scripture and intense devotion to Mary. The problem is not that we end up miscasting the likes of Truss or Ardern. But that we are harming those we are attempting to exalt.
Forbes columnist Elisabeth Eaves argues that attributing greater virtue to women “is as much burden as privilege, saddling the bearer with a higher standard to uphold and be judged by”. We already know that more is demanded of women to garner respect handed out to men. This attitude makes that problem all the more acute. And what we are saying — in essence — is that women are not just better because they are women, but that they should be better too.
But the higher the standard, the more precipitous the fall. If membership of a group mandates political ideology, there is an unavoidable downstream harm: that we make the same demands of people of colour, members of the LGBT community and disadvantaged minorities.
Britain’s former home secretary Priti Patel — a woman of Ugandan-Indian origin — was about as hawkish as they come on immigration, and one of the main proponents of the scheme to deport refugees to Rwanda. The policy was met with rightful disgust. But it was all the more potent because of Patel’s background. “How could the daughter of immigrants take such a hostile position?” chimed the chorus.
It is a loathsome question. There is no reason — other than basic prejudice — to expect a non-white person to favour open immigration more than anyone else. But the logic of identity politics forces us to that conclusion.
So we should resist the political project at all costs, and rid ourselves of the narcissistic idea that our identity should beget our beliefs.
Instead, we can learn something from the Conservative track record of electing women prime ministers, or the stable European nations with women leaders. Countries and organisations that elect and elevate diverse arrays of people do so because they are open to and tolerant of competing world views and different identities.
Theresa May is right to celebrate her party’s track record of women leaders, but not because they necessarily make better prime ministers (they, of course, do not make worse ones). It should be celebrated because diversity is a symptom of a healthy organisation. Having women in power is a sign that things are working, not the other way round.