Craven, not tokenistic: Britain’s conservative establishment takes a step towards gender equity

If Margaret Thatcher’s greatest achievement was New Labour, New Labour’s greatest accomplishment might just be Nicky Morgan and Liz Truss.

Yesterday, it was announced that the General Synod of the Church of England voted to allow female bishops and that the Government was reshuffling two major ministries to prominent female politicians. The simultaneous announcements might seem like a shift by forces of the “lower-case c” conservative establishment towards a more inclusive and progressive policy on gender equity at the highest levels of British society. If either announcement is a step towards gender equality, they are both small ones.

The 2011 census found that only 33.2 million people in the UK describe themselves as Christian, of any denomination, which is the lowest number since the 1960s. The response by the Church has been haphazard. This announcement can be seen as one attempt to moderate the perceived social conservatism of the Church, but it is easily overshadowed by the Church’s continued opposition to equal marriage. The Government is partially complicit in this waffling over moderating on social issues. Anoosh Chakelian points out in The New Statesman that although new Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has also been assigned the Women and Equalities portfolio, she voted against the legalisation of equal marriage. As a result, the law’s implementation will be overseen by Nick Boles, a gay Tory MP, and Minister of State for Business and Education. The hypocrisy of attempting to expand the appeal of the Tory party with a Minister for Equalities that doesn’t believe in equality seems rather characteristic of the party’s outreach strategy one year out from the General Election. It also seems in line with the half-hearted attempt to moderate out conservatism more broadly in British society, as the General Synod’s decision this week demonstrates.

The number of women in a Prime Minister’s Cabinet is a poor measure of how pro-women a Government is. Harriet Harman last week said that she often felt sidelined and subject to sexist treatment in Gordon Brown’s Government, for instance, as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, once being told that her role at a G20 summit would be to “have dinner with the leaders’ wives.” A more accurate assessment of how pro-women a particular government is would rest in a holistic policy assessment, but the presence of women in senior ministries can be revealing about a government’s enthusiasm for presenting a pro-woman image. Cameron’s tactic of reaching out to women voters through promotions to senior ministries is merely bringing this Government in line with Labour Party norms of the Blair/Brown years. When Tony Blair entered office, he had five Cabinet-level female ministers, and by the time he left he had six. When Gordon Brown entered office, he had a full ten female Cabinet-level ministers, and by the time he left, he had seven. When David Cameron entered office, the Coalition Government had four female Cabinet-level ministers and now he will have six.

This does indeed represent a shift for the Tories. When John Major formed his Government in 1990, there was not a single Cabinet-level female minister, just after the end of the tenure of Britain’s first female Prime Minister. By the time Major left office, the Tories had two female Cabinet-level Ministers. The Cameron Government isn’t close to gender parity, but it has taken a step away from all-male ministries of Tories past. We may very well be able to credit the relative boom in cabinet-level ministers during the New Labour years for that.

The promotion of more women to the Cabinet isn’t tokenistic as many commentators argue – it can be seen as a broader trend within British politics. It is, however, a craven move by a Prime Minister worried about re-election. Despite the apparentness of these self-serving appointments, Cameron seems to be winning the media war. Instead of discussing Cameron’s failed austerity politics and the disproportionate effect that they have had on women, this media cycle was dominated by the Party’s blatant overture towards women. The Tories will now have a front bench with more female faces, and more female junior ministers to put on television ahead of the election.

While the current Cabinet might be more telegenic for Prime Minister’s Questions, it will only exist for another year, anyway, as the Coalition will either lose, or there will be another reshuffle for a second Cameron ministry. The Conservative Party and the Church of England are easily the two most prominent traditionalist institutions in Britain. That they have identified increasing the number of women in members of the elite is not a sign of changing beliefs or priorities, but instead, a harsh acknowledgment of a lost argument about attitudes towards women.

In 2014, British conservative society took a step towards gender equity. In 2015, my bet is that British women won’t be rushing to the pew or to the ballot box to vote Conservative.

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