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The Spectator's Notes

Women’s suffrage was just part of a huge shift in the idea of who should vote

Also in The Spectator’s Notes: My suffragette great-aunt Kathleen Brown, and Julius Caesar

10 February 2018

9:00 AM

10 February 2018

9:00 AM

A reader writes: ‘In my last letter, I called you a numbskull. However I should have qualified this with “sometimes you are a numbskull”.’ I must apologise for an example of my sometimes-numbskullery in this column last week when I asserted that Joe Chamberlain had opposed votes for women in Parliament in 1917. This would have been impossible, as he had been dead three years. I saw the ‘Rt Hon. J.A. Chamberlain’ in Hansard’s division lists and lazily failed to check. J.A. was, in fact, Joe’s son, Austen.

In the course of looking into my error, I learn that all Chamberlains (including Neville) inherited Joe’s hostility to women’s suffrage; but his daughter Beatrice, who campaigned for the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League (of which Gertrude Bell was hon. secretary), changed her mind because of the first world war. She became zealous for Unionist (i.e. Conservative) women’s organisations, fearing that ‘lively’ women would otherwise be dragged into movements ‘ostensibly outside politics, but in reality under Radical direction’. One feels she was on to something as one follows this week’s coverage of the centenary of votes for women. If the version of history being promoted were the whole truth, one would have to believe that it was only radical women activists who won the day. This ignores at least two vital agencies. First, the all-male Parliament which, in the end, voted overwhelmingly for the change. Second, the fact that women’s suffrage was not an isolated event, but part of a massive alteration in the idea of who should vote, which took a century to work through to all adult men and women. In the 19th century, the word ‘reform’, unqualified by any adjective, meant reform of the franchise, because the issue was so dominant. The extension of suffrage moved in stages from 1832 (under a Whig government) to 1867 (Conservative) — when John Stuart Mill tried to amend it to include votes for women — to 1884 (Liberal) to 1918 (Unionist/National Liberal) to 1928 (Conservative). The long story is a better advertisement for our parliamentary system than for throwing yourself under the King’s horse at the Derby.


Nevertheless, I am proud of my great-aunt Kathleen Brown, who once hijacked a horse-drawn fire-engine in the suffragette cause and charged it down Tottenham Court Road clanging its bell. She did time in Holloway. She was also sent to prison in Newcastle for breaking a window in Pink Lane Post Office, and went on hunger strike. She was tiny and brave and I remember her for having hair so long she could sit on it. Would she have wanted to be pardoned by Jeremy Corbyn, as he now proposes? Surely the point of a pardon is to correct an individual injustice — because the person concerned did not commit the crime, for instance. It is not to apply a retrospective political view to what happened. When, in a free society, one breaks the law in order to change it, one is not absolved from punishment just because one acts out of conscience. Indeed, one accepts the state’s right to punish (‘I am ready to go to jail’). Why should suffragettes who broke ordinary law — criminal damage, assault etc — now have it formally and legally declared that they didn’t? It is a form of victor’s justice which reduces the law to a mere matter of power.

Don’t let the craze for triumphalist feminism put you off going to see Nick Hytner’s Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre. It is pointless that women act Cassius, Casca and one or two other parts, and that the text is altered to make these characters ‘she’. It is annoying that this fashion is welcomed almost without challenge because no one dares. But it does not spoil the production’s wonderful understanding of the power of the crowd. The mob is composed of many members of the audience, who have no seats, and are subtly choreographed by actors moving in their midst. This is not a gimmick: it is, one realises, the true context. If, as we did, you sit in the gallery, you can see Caesar, Brutus and Antony acting on the stage of politics just as dramatically as the actors are acting them. In that sense, it is a play within a play.

One of the pleasures of being a Catholic convert from Anglicanism is that I feel much warmer towards the Church of England than when I was in it. Last week, I went to a truly endearing Anglican ceremony in Westminster Abbey. After evensong, there was a short service to unveil a plaque in memory of the Chadwick brothers, Owen and Henry. Both were clergymen, both were Regius professors (Owen at Cambridge, Henry at Cambridge and Oxford). Both were tipped to be Archbishops, but preferred the life of the mind. They are the first brothers to be thus linked in an Abbey monument since John and Charles Wesley. Professor Eamon Duffy — who is, as his name hints, Catholic — gave a brilliant tribute to the two. He told how Henry, the mastermind of ARCIC — the Anglican/Roman Catholic conversations which did so much to break down theological barriers — collapsed at a conference in Venice. He woke up in hospital to find himself surrounded by ARCIC colleagues. ‘I see I am not in Heaven,’ he murmured. The inscription on the plaque describes the brothers simply as ‘Priests and Scholars’. The Chadwicks were almost the last embodiment of that combination, in its distinctively Anglican form of sweetness and light.

I am overwhelmed by correspondence about the usage ‘I am sat’ (see Notes, 27 January). It is very learned, and comes down firmly on the side of strict grammar. Strict but, like most strict things, never wholly successful among the people: one anonymous correspondent kindly reminds me of the Tudor ballad, ‘There were three ravens sat on a tree./ They were as black as black could be, / And one of them said to his mate/ Oh where shall we our breakfast take?’


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