Exactly 100 years after (some) women won the right to vote, Ruth Davidson has joined calls for a posthumous pardon for jailed suffragettes – the militants who violently fought for that right. ‘Voting was a value judgement, not an intrinsic right,’ says Davidson. And that historic inequality is why she supports the pardon, no questions asked. Jeremy Corbyn agrees, vowing that his government would pardon the suffragettes.
It’s a nice idea on the surface – it has #MeToo written all over it, doesn't it? – but there are a few reasons it should be resisted. For a start, even supporters of the suffragettes would have to concede that they deliberately broke the law to further their cause – and by (rather patronisingly) pardoning them a century later you are denying them their agency.
But most of all, a pardon would glorify unnecessary political violence. There is a ‘Mary Poppins’ view of the suffragettes that airbrushes over what they really got up to (even if Mrs Banks was right to sing: ‘Our daughters' daughters will adore us’).
Take a small but typically nasty example from 1909, when Winston Churchill – then a Liberal MP who had voted for women’s suffrage – was assaulted at Bristol railway station by Theresa Garnett, a suffragette armed with a whip. Without warning, she struck him over the head, a second blow slashing his face. According to Michael Shelden’s biography of Churchill’s early years:
A detective sergeant who witnessed the attack testified that if the whip had hit Churchill in the eye ‘it might have blinded him’. More alarming at this time was his position on the platform. The woman drove him so far back that he nearly fell under a train waiting to depart.
It didn’t seem to matter to his attacker – as she shouted, ‘Take that you brute, you brute!’ – that Churchill had been in favour of votes for women. But never mind. As Emmeline Pankhurst later admitted, the suffragettes targeted him not due to ‘any animus’ but simply because he was an ‘important candidate’ and they could get to him. Their favourite trick was to ring a bell loudly during his speeches.
Other attacks, now mostly forgotten, were worse. The Times reported on 20 February 1913:
‘An attempt was made yesterday morning to blow up a house which is being built for Mr Lloyd George near Walton Heath Golf Links.’
There is no doubt who was responsible for the bombs (two were hidden at the house, one of them successfully going off). Emmeline Pankhurst stated at a public meeting that evening:
‘We have blown up the Chancellor of Exchequer’s house.’
‘For all that has been done in the past I accept responsibility. I have advised, I have incited, I have conspired.’
Supporters of the suffragettes have always claimed that the bomb was not designed to harm anyone, only private property. But the historian Elizabeth Crawford has argued:
More recent experience of domestic terrorism suggests the bombing of Lloyd George’s house should be reconsidered. The WSPU [Women’s Social and Political Union] always insisted that their actions would never harm individuals and, like the many other buildings they attacked, this house was uninhabited; but a slight miscalculation might have led to a different outcome. Workmen had been due to arrive at the house around 6am, and the primitive fuses used could easily have resulted in the bombs exploding after their arrival.
Once again, by the way, Lloyd George was a politician who had supported women’s suffrage.
Then there was the setting fire to post boxes in 1911; the smashing of windows, in the same year, at ‘the Home Office, Local Government Board, Treasury, Scottish Educational Office, Somerset House, National Liberal Federation, Guards' Club, two hotels, the Daily Mail and Daily News, Swan and Edgar's, Lyon's, and Dunn's Hat Shop, as well as at a chemist's, a tailor's, a bakery, and other small businesses’; the cutting of Telegraph wires between London and Glasgow in 1913; the burning of an orchid house at Kew Gardens; the physical attacks on newspaper journalists; the vandalism on works of art and historical artefacts; the disrupting of trials and so on.
In short, the suffragettes – as opposed to the non-violent, moderate suffragists, who are rightly celebrated and will be honoured with a statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament square – were extremists. When Christabel Pankhurst was asked the question, ‘Aren’t you afraid of being called Anarchists?’, she responded tellingly: ‘We do not mind at all…we are fighting a revolution.’ No wonder some historians believe the suffragettes set back their cause rather than helped it along.
All of which prompts the question: why would a Conservative politician, one who is possibly a future PM, support the pardon? Amber Rudd has sounded more cautious this morning, which is welcome. Of course, it would be wrong to overlook any mistreatment of the suffragettes – the force-feeding in prison, for example, or the violent treatment at the hands of the police (notably outside Parliament in November 1910).
But if we are to pardon such a violent group now, what message would it send to the extremist activists of today – the sort egged on with a nudge and a wink by John McDonnell – other than: the law may be against you in 2018, but don’t worry – your daughters’ daughters’ will adore you.