If Ruth Davidson isn’t given the flexibility and resources needed to perform her public duties, what hope is there for, say, the hospital cleaner with three children who had to go back to work after two months to a minimum wage, freelance writer Nell Frizzell asks.
Not since that person on Twitter handed in their notice with a signed So Very Sorry For Your Loss condolence card have I taken such an interest in the wording of a resignation letter. I may be about as likely to vote for the Scottish Conservatives as I am to perform bowel surgery on myself in a M&S Foodhall with a plastic fork, but the reasons for Ruth Davidson’s resignation are just as interesting as the timing (which is very interesting).
“Where the idea of getting on the road to fight two elections in 20 months would once have fired me up, the threat of spending hundreds of hours away from my home and family now fills me with dread,” wrote Davidson, in a letter to Robert Foreman, the chairman of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party, which she then posted to her personal Twitter account yesterday afternoon. “That is no way to lead.”
That a politician and party leader, in Britain, in 2019, cannot be supported by the systems and institutions which they, in part, designed and organised, in order to work as both a parent and a public servant, is depressing as hell. That someone with the power, influence, income and public profile of Davidson is not given the flexibility and resources needed to continue to perform a role the public voted her into speaks very badly of our political establishment.
When even those at the top of the food chain - the very people who can change our country through debate, parliamentary bills and new laws - cannot cope, what hope is there for, say, the hospital cleaner with three children who had to go back to work after two months to a minimum wage, short term contract?
What hope is there for the small business owner whose monthly income is £250 per month less than the cost of full time nursery? What hope is there for the rest of us? The truth is, we need parents in government. Just as we need people who have worked as nurses, teachers, train drivers, scientists, farmers, family support workers, builders, lawyers and greengrocers.
We need to be governed by those who have lived in our world. People who have experienced the boring, logistical stress of a paid job, restrictive childcare, commuted for an hour every day because you can’t afford to live where you work, eaten a packed lunch sitting on a wall by a car park because your office windows don’t open, used a breast pump in a disabled toilet during a morning break because your workplace doesn’t have a creche, been denied an afternoon off because your team are short-staffed, paid your own travel expenses, spent three hours organising a childminder so you can attend a 45-minute meeting and been trained in the skills that may make the difference between life and death.
The pale, male and stale conveyor belt of privately-educated, career politicians has – I think we can all agree – treated this country the way my friend’s pet Staffordshire bull terrier treats a bin bag. It’s not really working. And so we need government to nurture a new kind of politics; and that means a different kind of politician.
When I say we need more parents in government I do not mean a father of six who happily admits to never having once changed a nappy (looking at you, Jacob-Rees Mogg).
I mean people who have been pregnant, who have been forced to sit their baby in the corner of a work conference with a chewable blanket, an old remote control, three Playmobil animals and box of raisins because there was nobody else to mind them, someone who has given birth in an NHS hospital, someone who has had to fire juggle their way through the 24-hour care of a helpless infant and the grinding pressure of a high responsibility paid job.
In her book, A Woman’s Work, Harriet Harman describes how, back in the late 80s her colleague Robin Cook greeted her failure to give a press statement in response to an ambulance strike with “conspiratorial glee”, only because he thought she was having an affair at the time. The truth – that she had kept a promise to take her son to the cinema and had therefore turned her phone off – would simply have been unacceptable.
Just as having a problem with your car seems a more acceptable reason to be late for work than, say, a vomiting child. Or a cancelled train will garner more sympathy than a cancelled childminder. As Harman told Carole Cadwalladr in the Guardian: “I was so on the defensive all the time, because I thought that people were thinking, ‘Pregnant, baby, pregnant, baby, pregnant, baby, she’s not going to be doing her job properly.’ I had to prove myself all the time.”
That may have been 30 years ago, but parliament and our political parties are still patriarchal enough to forgive a bit of nudge-nudge-wink-wink-boys-will-be-boys misdemeanour (see the current Prime Minister) than they will adapt their working practices to accommodate a new mother.
The other thing that struck me in Davidson’s letter is how the chronic imbalance of political life seems only to have really hit her once she had a family of her own. “Additionally, I fear that having tried to be a good leader over the years, I have proved a poor daughter, sister, partner and friend,” writes Davidson. “The party and my work had always come first, often at the expense of commitments to loved ones. The arrival of my son means I now make a different choice.”
Can you imagine a male contemporary publicly admitting to being a bad son and bad friend in their resignation letter? Sure, a disgraced politician may quit to spend ‘more time with the family’ after a particularly ill-advised bout of shagging, lying or insider dealing, but quitting your position to make amends for missing your mother’s birthday or cancelling dinner with your partner? Not that I can recall.
One of the wonders of parenthood is precisely this; it shifts your commitments, its daily demands eclipse the details of your ambition, it makes you think about a future beyond your lifetime, it teaches you empathy, it forces you into a broader community of parents, it makes you consider health and happiness alongside material security and status, it sorts the trivial from the vital, it makes you realise who matters and why. The irony, of course, is that all those things would make you a better politician. It would make for a better politics. And yet, as Davidson’s resignation this week has shown, even among the most privileged we still haven’t cracked the nut of employment and parenting.
Which makes me So Very Sorry For Our Loss.